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Azelaic acid: An expert shares the skin benefits and how it works

Meet your new favorite multipurpose ingredient.
Illustration of a Woman looking at an Azelaic Acid product and three Azelaic Acid products
TODAY Illustration / Camerique/ClassicStock / Contributor / Getty Images / Amazon / Ulta

Putting acid on your skin seems like the kind of thing your high school chemistry teacher would strongly disapprove of. But when used in beauty products, we know that certain acids can actually help brighten and even out your complexion. You're likely familiar with some of the most common ones: salicylic, glycolic and lactic acids. But there's another, more under-the-radar acid that you should consider adding to your beauty cabinet.

Azelaic acid is an "under-recognized" and "under-appreciated" ingredient, Dr. Marisa Garshick, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City told Shop TODAY. It has a ton of benefits for the skin, including helping with hyperpigmentation and reducing inflammation.

So what exactly is the ingredient and how does it work? We asked Garshick to walk us through all the details.

What is azelaic acid?

Azelaic acid, also known as dicarboxylic acid, is naturally derived from yeast but can also be found in grains like rye, wheat and barley, Garshick said.

It's anti-inflammatory, so it can be helpful in treating acne and rosacea. It also inhibits tyrosinase, an enzyme involved in the production of pigment cells and melanin, meaning it can prevent buildup of pigmentation that leads to dark spots. "It can also help to brighten the skin because it is acting as a gentle exfoliant," Garshick said.

"Because it has so many different mechanisms and benefits associated with it, it's often considered a jack of all trades, master of none, in the sense that it can do a lot and it really is a great ingredient, but it's not necessarily the most powerful ingredient that we have out there," she added.

Because of that, it won't necessarily be as quick of a fix for your skin issues as other powerhouses — but that doesn't mean it's not an effective one. Dermatologists will commonly recommend it in its prescription form, at a concentration of about 15 to 20 percent, Garshick said. But for those who don't want to go the prescription route, you can also find it in over-the-counter products at a 10 percent concentration. When using these, it may take around three to four months before you notice any improvement. "You'll usually start to see some degree of benefit earlier than that," Garshick said, "It's important to note that with this ingredient, it's worthwhile to stick with it and wait to see the benefits because sometimes it can take some time to see them, but they will come."

Who should use azelaic acid?

While it can be used by all skin types and can be easily incorporated into any routine, Garshick said that it's not unusual to see some redness or irritation when you're first starting out. "It's always best, even with this ingredient, to start off a few times per week and slowly work your way up to increasing the frequency, just to ensure the best tolerability," she said.

It's a good option for anyone with sensitive skin who might not react well to harsher ingredients, particularly those used for treating acne. "It's a nice option for somebody who's dealing with breakouts who can't tolerate, say, benzoyl peroxide, retinol or salicylic acid," Garshick said. It's also commonly recommended for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding as an alternative to the above ingredients since they're generally considered no-gos for moms to be.

Here, Garshick shared some of her recommendations for products that feature the ingredient, plus we include a top-rated pick we found.

The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%

This cream from The Ordinary is affordable, so it's an easy way to introduce the ingredient into your routine, Garshick said. It's free from fragrances, parabens and other unwanted additives.

Glytone Enhance Brightening Complex

This brightening cream combines azelaic acid and glycolic acid. "It works well for hyperpigmentation and discoloration," Garshick said. "It's a great option for somebody who is pregnant because both of those ingredients, at this strength, are safe in a setting of pregnancy." It's also a good pick for individuals with melasma, another type of hyperpigmentation, she said.

Paula's Choice BOOST 10% Azelaic Acid Booster Cream Gel

This booster gel is another pick from Garshick. It can be used on its own or added to your favorite moisturizer. Along with azelaic acid, it features licorice root and salicylic acid to further help reduce redness and improve skin texture.

Azelaic Acid 10% Facial Serum with Niacinamide

Garshick said that azelaic acid is commonly paired with niacinamide, another helpful ingredient for treating inflammation and hyperpigmentation. This serum, which features the two ingredients, has more than 2,200 raving five-star reviews, with people saying that it has helped with a range of issues, from acne to rosacea.

Tula Skin Care Clear It Up Acne Clearing + Tone Correcting Gel

Packed with probiotics, skin superfoods and salicylic and azelaic acids, this gel promises to help clear up acne and prevent future breakouts.

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