Skincare FAQ

Does Azelaic Acid Lighten Skin and Reduce Pigmentation?

Azelaic acid has a few benefits for the skin, some of which are unsung. This dicarboxylic acid has anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and anti-redness properties, the reason is widely used for acne.[1] But does azelaic acid lighten skin and fade hyperpigmentation? Before having your questions answered, here’s a bit more about azelaic acid.

What is azelaic acid?

Chemically, azelaic acid is a dicarboxylic acid, an organic compound with two carboxyl groups, mainly used to treat acne and rosacea, working by killing acne-causing bacteria.[2] In skincare, azelaic acid is lab-made to be as stable and effective as possible. Naturally, azelaic acid is derived from yeast, wheat, rye, and barley. Last but not least, azelaic acid is keratolytic, meaning it exfoliates dead cells. And this brings us to the main question.

Does azelaic acid lighten skin?

Azelaic acid is often used as a depigmenting and skin-lightening agent because it targets the root causes of hyperpigmentation.[3]

However, azelaic acid was found to have no depigmenting activity on normal skin, meaning it can’t make the skin lighter than its natural color. Instead, azelaic acid was found to help lighten skin discoloration such as melasma, hyperpigmentation, or post-acne scars, where the skin appears darker than it actually is.[4]

Azelaic acid lightens skin through a few mechanisms. The first benefit of azelaic acid for skin lightening is its ability to shed away dead cells. Since azelaic acid acts as an exfoliant, it helps correct uneven tone, lightening the skin. If you didn’t already know, exfoliation actually brightens the skin by removing pigmented cells, and azelaic acid does just that. 

Secondly, azelaic acid is a well-known tyrosinase inhibitor, an enzyme responsible for melanin production.[5] Melanin is the substance that gives skin and hair color, and its overproduction often leads to melasma, which manifests as dark patches. Since azelaic acid inhibits tyrosinase enzyme activity, it can prevent hyperpigmentation because it interferes with melanin production. This review states that 20% azelaic acid is as effective as 4% hydroquinone (a popular tyrosinase inhibitor) in treating hyperpigmentation and skin discoloration without side effects. 

Last but not least, azelaic acid is a potent antioxidant, helping protect the skin from external aggressors, such as sun damage, that could potentially cause skin discolorations. 

How to use azelaic acid for skin lightening?

Azelaic acid is most effective in skin lightening when used in concentrations of 20%. Most research on the effects of azelaic acid in correcting skin pigmentation has been done using creams containing 15 or 20% azelaic acid. 

For boosted results against hyperpigmentation, use azelaic acid with tretinoin. Tretinoin increases the depigmenting effects of azelaic acid by a faster response and a more pronounced improvement. An article published in the Journal of Dermatological Treatment compared 20% azelaic acid cream and 0.05% tretinoin cream with 20% azelaic acid cream alone for treating melasma in a study on 50 volunteers.[6] The results? Tretinoin appears to enhance the effects of azelaic acid, causing more skin lightening than azelaic acid alone. 

The verdict

Azelaic acid takes anything up a notch. The benefits of azelaic acid to lighten the skin are scientifically proven and have already been confirmed several times. Thus, azelaic acid works to even out skin tone and texture, lighten dark spots and protect against free radical damage, suggesting it is an effective skin lightening agent. 

  1. Sieber MA, Hegel JK. Azelaic acid: Properties and mode of action. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2014;27 Suppl 1:9-17. doi: 10.1159/000354888. Epub 2013 Nov 13. PMID: 24280644.
  2. Fitton A, Goa KL. Azelaic acid. A review of its pharmacological properties and therapeutic efficacy in acne and hyperpigmentary skin disorders. Drugs. 1991 May;41(5):780-98. doi: 10.2165/00003495-199141050-00007. PMID: 1712709.
  3. K Graupe, Vm Verallo-Rowell, V Verallo & R-P Zaumseil (1996) Combined use of 20% azelaic acid cream and 0.05% tretinoin cream in the topical treatment of melasma, Journal of Dermatological Treatment, 7:4, 235-237, DOI: 10.3109/09546639609089556
  5. Davis EC, Callender VD. Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation: a review of the epidemiology, clinical features, and treatment options in skin of color. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2010;3(7):20-31.
  6. Halder RM, Richards GM. Topical agents used in the management of hyperpigmentation. Skin Therapy Lett. 2004 Jun-Jul;9(6):1-3. PMID: 15334278.
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