Salicylic Acid vs Azelaic Acid

Salicylic Acid has always been my go-to for all kinds of acne. Blackheads. Whiteheads. Pimples. You name it. It gets rid of them all.

But now there’s a new kid on the skincare block. Azelaic Acid is said to treat acne just as well – and fade away your dark spots too. Should you make the switch?

Mmm…. Here’s all you need to know about Azelaic Acid vs Salicylic Acid and how to tell which one is right for YOU:

Azelaic Acid

Azelaic Acid is made by the healthy bacteria that live on your skin.

This multitasker helps treat acne, hyperpigmentation, and even rosacea. Here are just a few of its benefits:

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Related: The Complete Guide To Azelaic Acid In Skincare

Salicylic Acid

Salicylic Acid (a.k.a. BHA) is an exfoliant on steroids: it exfoliates the surface of your skin AND the inside of your pores. This makes it a fantastic option to remove whiteheads, blackheads, and anything that’s stuck in your pores.

Here are the benefits of using Salicylic Acid in your skincare routine:

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Related: Why Salicylic Acid Is Key To Spot-Free Skin

Azelaic Acid VS Salicylic Acid: What’s The Difference?

Both Azelaic Acid and Salicylic Acid can treat acne – and cause purging in the process. They’re both exfoliants that help your skin shed the superficial layers of dead skin cells faster.

As those superficial layers are removed, the pimples that were hiding underneath come to the surface sooner.

In other words, exfoliants do NOT cause acne. Those pimples would have appeared anyway. Purging made them appear faster, so you can clear up your skin faster.

So, what’s the difference? Azelaic Acid is the gentler of the two. It’s usually well-tolerated even by people with sensitive skin who can’t use any other type of exfoliant.

Related: Purging VS Breaking Out: How To Tell The Difference (And What To Do About It)


Want an effective skincare routine that tackles BOTH acne and premature aging? Download your FREE “Best Acne + Anti-Aging Skincare Routine” cheatsheet to get started (it includes both product recommendations + right application order):


Who Should Use Salicylic Acid?

Because Salicylic Acid regulates the production of sebum, it’s more suitable for oily skin.

Related: The Best Skincare Routine For Oily Skin

Who Should Use Azelaic Acid?

Azelaic Acid is the better option for you IF:

  • You’re also dealing with dark spots – Azelaic Acid can clear them much faster than Salicylic Acid
  • Your skin is so sensitive, it can’t tolerate Salicylic Acid

Related: The Battle Of The Skin-Lighteners: Which Is The Best Alternative To Hydroquinone?

Paula's Choice Clear Anti-Redness Exfoliating Solution 2% BHA

Can You Use Azelaic Acid and Salicylic Acid Together?

Can’t decide if you should use Azelaic Acid or Salicylic Acid? You can use them both.

A 2019 study shows that using both Azelaic Acid and Salicylic Acid together is effective at treating inflammatory acne.

But, is it a good idea to do so? As a skincare rule, the stronger the treatment, the higher the potential for irritation. Using Azelaic Acid and Salicylic Acid together may give you faster results, but it may also increase the risk of dryness and irritation.

If your skin is sensitive, my recommendation is to stick to Azelaic Acid only. Anyone else, I recommend you opt for Salicylic Acid and, if after a few months of use, you don’t see satisfying results, add Azelaic Acid to the mix.

paula's choice azelaic acid booster vs the ordinary azelaic acid suspension

How To Use Azelaic Acid and Salicylic Acid Together

I’m not a fan of using two separate products, one with Azelaic Acid and one with Salicylic Acid. These products are formulated to provide maximum effectiveness on their own. When you layer them, the risk of irritation is higher.

If you decide to go down this route and use two separate products, use them on alternate days. One day Salicylic Acid and one day Azelaic Acid. This gives you the best of both worlds while minimising the risk of irritation.

I also recommend you introduce them into your routine one at a time, at least a month apart. That way, if one of them gives you a negative reaction, you’ll know what the culprit is and can toss it immediately.

A safer bet is to use a product that has both Azelaic Acid and Salicylic Acid, like Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster. They’re formulated to work synergistically together for faster results and lower risk of irritation.

The Bottom Line

Both Azelaic Acid and Salicylic Acid are excellent options for treating acne. Azelaic Acid is better for sensitive skin or anyone dealing with dark spots too. Salicylic Acid, on the other hand, works better for oily skin. If your skin is very resistant, you may also be able to use them together.