Is Azelaic Acid the Secret to Clearer, Brighter Skin? We Investigate

Belying the laws of the universe, or at least my sixth-grade sex ed class, my skin was better as a Miley Cyrus-loving tween than as a college graduate ready to take on the world. Why my skin decided 22 years around the sun was the perfect time to invite pimples to stake their ground on my face will forever be a mystery to me.

So here I am, a grown adult with the finicky, rebellious skin of an adolescent…which is how I found myself on the Reddit board SkincareAddiction. After falling into an internet black hole, I noticed the same term popping up: azelaic acid. Redditers were calling it the cure to their own acne woes. I needed to know more.

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It turns out, azelaic acid is nothing new. It’s a naturally-occurring ingredient found in barley, rye and wheat that also happens to be a skin-care powerhouse. According to Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, it’s an anti-inflammatory and antibacterial agent and can be used to gently exfoliate dead skin cells. That makes it suitable for both inflammatory acne (pimples) and comedones (blackheads). (I'm clearly in deep on this Reddit stuff.)

But acne-fighting is just the tip of the iceberg. According to the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, azelaic acid can also improve hyperpigmentation, and it’s an antioxidant. But was it for me?

For about four weeks, I tested the so-called super ingredient in various forms. I swapped my toner with REN’s Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic, a gentle exfoliating toner with both azelaic and lactic acids. I liked its tangerine scent and all-natural formula but didn’t find it mind-blowing. Once or twice a week, I would use the Allies of Skin Promise Keeper Overnight Facial as an overnight mask—but I found it a bit harsh for my skin.

I didn’t believe the hype until I tried a more gentle approach: the Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster. It’s an oil-free gel-cream that’s meant to either totally replace your moisturizer or give it extra oomph—I went with the former. It’s meant to reduce the look of blemishes, smooth bumpiness, calm redness and fade post-breakout marks. The silky formula felt soothing on my face, and after daily use, I noticed a more even-toned complexion, with less redness and fewer bumps. (And FYI, The Ordinary makes a similar, cheaper version.)

The final verdict? Reddit was right.


Senior Food Editor

Katherine Gillen is PureWow’s senior food editor. She’s a writer, recipe developer and food stylist with a degree in culinary arts and professional experience in New York City...