Have you been struggling with acne and trying to find the best product for your skin type? You’re not alone. Many people who are dealing with acne or other types of skin issues search for products that will help them get better results. You might be considering trying azelaic acid or salicylic acid, but how do these two compare? What’s the difference between azelaic acid vs salicylic acid and which one is right for your skin?
Azelaic acid is a dicarboxylic acid found in grains like wheat and barley. It’s suitable for even the most sensitive, rosacea prone skin and offers a wide-variety of benefits.
- It reduces inflammation
- It improves redness and rosacea
- It removes dirt, bacteria, and oil from pores
- It’s antibacterial
- It can improve the appearance of acne and acne marks (post-inflammatory erythema/hyperpigmentation)
- It prevents melanin synthesis which helps brighten skin and reduce dark marks/hyperpigmentation
- It reduces skin sensitivity
- It improves skin texture
It also provides a gentle exfoliating effect that is well tolerated by sensitive skin but may cause an initial worsening of breakouts (purging).
Salicylic acid is a chemical exfoliant that’s derived from willow bark and breaks down the bonds that hold your dead skin cells together so that they can be shed from the surface of your skin.
One of the main benefits of salicylic acid is its ability to penetrate and exfoliate your pores due to its oil-solubility.
It’s also able to:
- Penetrate your oil glands and control the production of oil
- Reduce inflammation and soothe your skin.
- Offer some protection from UV radiation.
- Prevent the growth of bacteria (due to its acidic pH).
- Increase collagen production to improve fine lines and wrinkles.
As it’s an exfoliant you have to be careful not to use salicylic acid too frequently or it could damage your skin’s protective barrier, cause irritation, and make your acne worse (research suggests that acne is associated with skin barrier damage).
Azelaic Acid vs Salicylic Acid
Now you know what each ingredient does for your skin – which one is right for you?
The main difference between azelaic acid vs salicylic acid is that azelaic acid is gentle and suitable for sensitive skin while salicylic acid is a much stronger exfoliant that can often irritate skin.
Salicylic acid is also very good at reducing oil production which makes it a great option for oily skin but also means it might be too drying for dry skin. In contrast, some research suggests that azelaic acid may actually increase oil production.
There also isn’t much, if any, research to suggest that azelaic acid is an effective treatment for fine lines and wrinkles. However, it can treat some signs of premature aging, particularly hyperpigmentation (age spots, dark marks, etc).
Generally speaking, salicylic acid might be a better option for you if you have oily, acne-prone skin while azelaic acid would be a better option if you have sensitive acne-prone skin. However, it’s important to remember that product formulation plays a large role in how effective and/or irritating a particular ingredient can be.
Sometimes papulopustular rosacea can be misdiagnosed as acne. If you’re not 100% sure whether your spots are from rosacea or from acne, you would be safer using azelaic acid as it can treat both skin conditions while salicylic acid could make rosacea worse.
Can You Use Azelaic Acid and Salicylic Acid Together?
If you can’t decide which ingredient you want to use, the good news is you don’t have to choose! You can use azelaic acid and salicylic acid together! However, it’s not really necessary and may increase the risk of skin irritation.
One clinical study found that the combination of azelaic acid and salicylic acid was effective at treating inflammatory acne but there was no comparison to either ingredient used alone. However, azelaic acid does appear to enhance the effects of other common acne treatments, including benzoyl peroxide and retinoids, which suggests that it may also enhance the effects of salicylic acid.
They’re also effective at similar pH levels, with azelaic acid being most effective at a pH of 4.0-5.0 and salicylic acid originally thought to be most effective at a pH of less than 3.5.
However, research suggests that there isn’t much of an increase in the effectiveness of salicylic acid when used at low pHs, just an increase in irritation and skin barrier damage.
However, Even if they were ideally used at different pH levels, your skin’s natural surface pH is around 5.0 – 6.0 so they would have to adjust to your skin’s natural pH anyway.
How To Use Azelaic Acid and Salicylic Acid Together
There are many different ways that you can combine azelaic acid and salicylic acid together but it depends on the type of product you’re using as to which is best.
Chemical exfoliators, such as salicylic acid, should only be used 1-3x per week in order to reduce the risk of over-exfoliation and skin barrier damage. However, this is typically OK if it’s in a multi-active serum or cleanser.
Multi-active products are usually tested for irritation potential and designed to be used daily while cleansers are rinsed off which acts as short-contact therapy.
Although azelaic acid has a gentle exfoliating effect, it can be used 1-2x daily with most clinical research studies using it twice-daily. However, other research has shown that azelaic acid is equally as effective when used only once a day.
While a multi-active product is probably the best way to combine the two ingredients, you can also combine azelaic acid and salicylic acid together in the following ways:
- Salicylic acid cleanser, azelaic acid serum, moisturizer, (sunscreen if AM)
- Cleanser, salicylic acid serum 1-3x a week and azelaic acid cream on the other days, moisturizer, (sunscreen if AM)
- Cleanser, salicylic acid serum (1-3x a week) AM/ azelaic acid PM, moisturizer, (sunscreen if AM)
If using both azelaic acid and salicylic acid as serums it doesn’t really matter which way round you use them. However, you should only introduce them one at a time. This will help identify if your skin reacts negatively to one of the ingredients as well as help prevent skin barrier damage.
Summary – Azelaic Acid vs Salicylic Acid
If your skin is acne-prone, you might be wondering whether azelaic acid vs salicylic acid is best for your skin. Both ingredients are excellent options, however, if you have sensitive or dry skin, then azelaic acid is the better option while, if you have oily skin, salicylic acid may be a better choice.
If you’re skin isn’t particularly sensitive, you may be able to combine azelaic acid and salicylic acid together although there isn’t much evidence to suggest that the two in combination is more effective than either used alone
Laura is a skincare addict and sunscreen enthusiast with more than 10 years of experience working in healthcare and over 5 years of experience working as a nurse. She has experience in plastic and reconstructive surgery, dermatology, and aesthetics and has received training in laser treatments. Laura is currently working in healthcare education and writes for ScienceBecomesHer in her spare time. Read More.