Retinol and Azelaic Acid are two skincare superheroes with the same job descriptions: they help you fight acne and fade away hyperpigmentation.
If your face is covered in pimples and/or dark spots, should you use retinol or Azelaic acid? Or is it safe to use them both together?
Let’s find out what the science says:
What Is Retinol?
Retinol is a form of Vitamin A that converts into Retinoid acid (Tretinoin) into the skin. It’s the only treatment that’s been proven to work to reduce wrinkles. Here’s what it does:
- It accelerates cellular turnover: It speeds up your skin’s natural exfoliating process by prompting skin cells to turn over and die quickly, so that new, healthy ones can take their place.
- It boost collagen: Collagen is the protein that makes skin thicker and firmer. Retinol prevents its breakdown and loss.
- It has antioxidant properties: It fight free radicals, the rascals that cause premature wrinkles and dark spots.
- Treats acne: By speeding up cellular turnover, it helps get rid of whiteheads and clogged pores.
Or, said more simply, retinol:
- Reduces wrinkles (not just their appearance)
- Fades away dark spots and hyperpigmentation
- Brightens the complexion
- Makes large pores look smaller
- Firms and thickens skin
- Helps treat acne
Related: The Complete Guide To Retinol: What It Is, What It Does, And How To Use It
Don’t know which skincare products you can mix and match together and which ones deactivate each other? Download your FREE “How To Layer Actives Like A Pro” cheat sheet to get the most out of your skincare products:
What Is Azelaic Acid?
Did you know Azelaic acid is made by the healthy bacteria that live on your skin? How cool is that?
This multitasker helps treat acne, hyperpigmentation, and even rosacea. Here are just a few of its benefits:
- It has anti-bacterial properties that reduces P.Acne (the bacteria responsible for acne).
- It reduces inflammation, helping to heal both acne and rosacea.
- It improves the texture of your skin.
- It reduces dark spots and hyperpigmentation by inhibiting the synthesis of melanin (the pigment that gives skin its natural colour).
- It also has a gentle exfoliating effect.
Related: The Complete Guide To Azelaic Acid In Skincare
Retinol VS Azelaic Acid: What’s The Difference?
Both retinol and azelaic acid can treat acne and dark spots, but there are two key differences between the two:
- MO: Azelaic acid exfoliates skin and pores, getting rid of dead skin cells. It just… doesn’t do it very well. It’s weaker than other acids, like Glycolic and Salicylic. Retinol speeds up cellular turnover, i.e. the skin’s natural exfoliating process. It doesn’t remove dead cells, but encourages skin to shed them faster.
- Irritation: Retinol is very irritating. When you first start using it, it can cause dryness, irritation, redness, and peeling. Azelaic acid, on the other hand, is gentler and, usually, well tolerated even by people with sensitive skin.
Who Should Use Retinol?
Retinol is the best wrinkle fighter available OTC. If you want to tackle wrinkles as well as acne and/or hyperpigmentation AND your skin isn’t sensitive, retinol is the way to go.
- Dr Dennis Gross Ferulic Acid + Retinol Brightening Solution ($88.00): available at Dermstore, Nordstrom, Sephora and SpaceNK
- The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion (£8.00): available at Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty and Feel Unique
- Paula’s Choice Resist 1% Retinol Booster ($52.00): available at Feel Unique and Paula’s Choice
- Paula’s Choice Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum With Retinol ($34.00): available at Paula’s Choice
Who Should Use Azelaic Acid?
If you’re dealing with acne or dark spots AND you have sensitive skin that can’t tolerate retinol, then Azelaic acid is the best option for you. It does the job without irritating your skin.
- Facetheory Azeclear Azelaic Acid Serum A15 (£24.99): Available at Facetheory
- Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster ($36.00): Available at Dermstore, Net-A-Porter and Paula’s Choice
- The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10% (£5.50): Available at Asos, Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty and Feel Unique
Can You Use Retinol And Azelaic Acid Together?
Still undecided? If your skin isn’t sensitive and can take the extra load, you can use retinol and Azelaic acid together.
This works especially well for hyperpigmentation, like dark spots, melasma, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (the dark spots left behind by pimples).
Azelaic acid inhibits the activity of the tyrosinase enzyme, which is essential for the production of melanin (the pigment that gives skin its natural colour). Stop it from overacting and you stop the overproduction of excessive pigment.
Retinol, on this other hand, fades away dark spots by speeding up cellular turnover, i.e. the skin’s natural exfoliating process. In other words, it helps skin renew itself faster so that the older, darker cells on its surface give way to the newer and brighter cells underneath.
Use retinol and Azelaic acid together and you tackle dark spots on two fronts. Studies show retinol and azelaic acid are both effective when used alone, but work even better when paired together!
There’s also some research that shows that azelaic acid boosts the anti-acne effects of retinol. If you have severe acne, pairing these two actives together can help you heal faster.
Related: All The Stages Of Acne: Causes And Treatments
How To Use Retinol And Azelaic Acid Together
The best way to use retinol and Azelaic acid together is to get a product that has both, like VI Derm Retinol Age-Defying Moisturizer ($104.00).
If that’s out of your budget, the next best option is to layer two products, one with retinol, and one with Azelaic acid. For best results, apply the one with the thinnest consistency first. If both have the same consistency, then the order doesn’t matter.
Still, when you’re starting out, I recommend you introduce them one at a time. Use retinol for one month and then introduce azelaic acid (or vice versa). In case of an adverse reaction, this’ll help you determine who the culprit is. Plus, it gives your skin time to get used to these ingredients.
If using them together is too much for you, you can always alternate them at night. Never use retinol in the morning. It makes your skin more prone to sun damage!
Related: How To Layer Skincare Ingredients Like A Pro
The Bottom Line
You can totally use retinol and Azelaic acid together to tackle acne and hyperpigmentation – IF your skin isn’t sensitive and can take the extra load. If it gets irritated easily, then opt for Azelaic acid. It’s the gentlest of the two.