Azelaic Acid and Retinol: How & Why You Should Use Them Together

If you’re looking for an effective anti-aging treatment, you may want to consider incorporating both azelaic acid and retinol into your skincare routine. These two ingredients work wonders by themselves, but are especially killer when used together. 

They provide a host of benefits, including reducing the appearance of wrinkles and age spots, evening out skin tone, treating acne, fading hyperpigmentation, boosting collagen production, and much more. In this article, we’ll discuss why these ingredients work well together and how you can use them safely to achieve the best results. Let’s get started!

First and foremost, what are azelaic acid and retinol?

Azelaic acid is a dicarboxylic acid that naturally occurs in grain, such as wheat and barley. It’s a powerful ingredient that offers numerous benefits for the skin, which is why it’s commonly used in skincare products. It reduces skin sensitivity, improves skin texture, and is extraordinarily gentle compared to other BHAs and AHAs, but it’s three most important properties are the following:

  • Azelaic acid is a highly effective acne treatment. It works by gently exfoliating, reducing inflammation and killing the bacteria that can cause breakouts, leading to less frequent and less severe acne.
  • Azelaic acid can help both prevent and treat hyperpigmentation. This is because, when applied topically over a long period of time, it reduces the production of tyrosinase, an enzyme necessary for the production of melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color and causes unwanted dark spots after acne and other injuries.
  • Azelaic acid is also effective against rosacea as it has particularly potent anti-inflammatory properties and anti-microbial properties. Many sufferers of rosacea have found huge success with long-term use of azelaic acid – me included!

Retinol, on the other hand, is a whole ‘nother beast.

Retinol is a Vitamin A derivative that is commonly used in skincare products. It is often touted as a miracle ingredient, and both it and its stronger sibling, tretinoin, are the gold standard of anti-aging treatments. 

(Tretinoin is only available via prescription at the moment in the United States. It’s a retinoid, which is basically a very, very strong version of retinol)

Most dermatologists use retinol or retinoids themselves, and almost all celebrities use one or the other – that’s how good they are. They’re the closest we’ve ever come to finding the fountain of youth. You don’t believe me? Watch some of Melissa55’s YouTube videos. She’s currently in her late sixties, and has been using Tretinoin for 30+ years. She doesn’t look a day over 40.

Retinol acts by increasing cell turnover, which improves the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and other signs of aging. It also prevents and treats clogged pores, acne, and hyperpigmentation.

In addition, retinol helps to increase collagen production and reduce inflammation, keeping skin looking and feeling youthful, even in old age.

So, why use azelaic acid and retinol together?

I mean, as you can see, these two ingredients are both powerhouses by themselves, so why not only use one, right? Wrong!

There are two huge benefits that come with using them both together, and I’ll explain what they are now.

1. A bigger bang for your buck, faster.

As I mentioned earlier, retinol works by increasing cell turnover of the skin. What does that really mean, though? It means that the top layer of your skin (and all the other layers below) are renewed much, much faster than they normally would be – you’ve essentially got a perpetually fresh top layer of skin.

And the biggest implication of this is that when you pair other topical ingredients like azelaic acid or niacinamide with retinol, these ingredients work much faster and much more effectively than they would on a normal complexion. 

You’re essentially getting a way bigger bang for your buck, way sooner than you would if you were to only use azelaic acid by itself.

2. A much less severe purge.

The other huge bonus of using them together is that, since azelaic acid has such potent antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, it helps reduce the severity of the dreaded retinol purge.

(Which if you don’t know, is a short term and often severe increase in acne that occurs at the beginning of retinol use. It is caused by underlying clogged pores being brought to the surface at a rapid rate due to increased cell turnover.)

You’ll still get the clogged pores being brought to the surface, but there will be less inflammation and less bacterial growth leading to less occurring acne lesions, and less severe acne lesions.

Okay, so now you know why you should pair azelaic acid and retinol together. How do you do it safely?

Because both of these ingredients are potent actives, they can both cause irritation, so it’s important to use them carefully.

The way I introduced them both into my skincare routine, and the way I recommend most people do it, is to introduce retinol slower than you do azelaic acid.

Retinol can cause severe irritation if introduced to quickly, and azelaic acid is very gentle in comparison. So try using retinol at most twice a week at first, and using azelaic acid every other day, or even every day if you don’t have especially sensitive skin. Slowly increase the frequency of retinol application until you reach your desired frequency, be it every other night or every night.

(And make sure to remember that you only ever apply retinol at night, never during the day. Retinol makes your skin much more sensitive to UV rays.)

Doing this will ensure that your skin acclimates well without excess irritation and dryness, and will result in a slightly more drawn out, but much less severe purge.

And last but not least, be sure to apply (and re-apply) a broad-spectrum sunscreen during the day, as both azelaic acid and retinol can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. If you’re working so hard already to ensure that your complexion stays as youthful and healthy as long as possible, wearing sunscreen is a no brainer. Wear it, people!

If you don’t like reapplying, or are looking for other ways to protect your skin from the sun, I 10/10 recommend UPF sun hats and parasols. I use them all the time, and I love them. I use one or the other pretty much any time I leave my house.

(This is me 90% I’m outdoors ^)

So there you have it!

All the reasons you should pair azelaic acid and retinol together in your skincare routine, and how you can safely do it.

Before you go, I want to emphasize this, just in case any of you guys are about to start using a retinoid and not a retinol. BE CAREFUL. Retinoids are much more effective than retinol because they contain a higher concentration of a slightly different Vitamin A derivative, and because the molecular structure of vitamin A in this form allows it to turn over skin cells at a faster rate than retinol.

They are two very, very different products, and you need to be much more cautious with retinoids than you need to be with retinol. I use a retinoid called Tretinoin, and it took me a very long time to build up to daily application. Like, half a year.

I started out applying only once a week for a month, and then slowly increased application from there. You may not need to be that extreme, as I’ll be the first to admit that I have ridiculously reactive skin, and am prone to both eczema and rosacea.

That being said, do not go straight to applying nightly. All you’re going to do is destroy your skin barrier, cause mass inflammation, and have the worst purge/experience possible. 10/10 would not recommend going this route.


For any of my fellow sensitive skin people out there – one tip that helped me immensely when I first started using tretinoin on my face and retinol on my neck is the sandwich method. I attribute a lot of my lack of irritation and inflammation to this.

All you do is apply a lightweight moisturizer before retinol/retinoid application, and then apply a more occlusive moisturizer after application.


Also, this goes for both retinol and retinoids, make sure you let your face dry before applying it! Like, at least 15 minutes, preferably 20 plus. Retinols penetrate the skin much faster and deeper when applied to wet skin, which might sound like a good thing, but is not. It doesn’t lead to better results, all it does is cause serious irritation.

The same goes for the amount you apply. All you need is a pea size amount, really. Adding any more than that doesn’t lead to fast results, just pain.

That’s it!

Do you use these two ingredients together already? Do you have any other tips to share? Let me know in the comments below. And as always, thanks for reading!

Hi, I’m Ash!

I’m a laid back traveler who loves experiencing new things and spontaneity. My favorite hobbies are hiking, gardening, skincare, and all things tea.

My biggest goal is to spread the word about sustainable travel and show everyone how easy it is to partake in. If you wanna learn more about that or get to know me better, feel free to click here.


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