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It took a century and a half to get your pimples to go away, but now you’ve received their parting gift: red, sometimes indented scars. Unfortunately, these spots like to overstay their welcome too.
First, let’s figure out exactly what kind of spots you’re looking at: “There’s the pitted scarring that can occur when an inflamed blemish resolves with an ice-pick-like divot in the skin, and discoloration that occurs from inflammation, or the darkened spots as blemishes resolve,” says Susan Massick, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. This is actually called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) and is mistaken for “scars.” While pitted scarring tends to be more challenging to treat, “PIH is reversible and will fade with time, a process that can routinely take three to six months or longer,” says Dr. Massick. Hey, better than permanent damage!
So what causes acne scars, exactly?
Post-breakout tissue damage. Those annoying pink spots, for example, are “known as post-inflammatory erythema, which is when your acne goes away and you still have a pink area for a few weeks to a few months, much like with a cut or scratch,” says Jennifer T. Haley, M.D., a dermatologist practicing in Scottsdale, AZ, and Park City, UT.
Then there’s post-inflammatory pigmentation. “It occurs in those with medium-to-dark skin, where the inflammation invites pigment cells to the area and when the acne resolves, a brown spot is left for weeks, months, even years,” says Dr. Haley.
The toughest form of acne scarring is a result of severe inflammation destroying the collagen in the deeper layers of skin. As the body attempts to repair the damage in the skin, “over-production of collagen may result in raised acne scars, also known as hypertrophic scars,” explains Philadelphia-based dermatologist Rina Allawh, M.D. “Under-production may lead to depressed or pitted scars (a.k.a. atrophic), and are referred to as ice-pick scars, rolled scars, or box-car, depending on appearance.”
Choosing the best acne scar treatment for your skin
Prevention is key: Not to be all Captain Obvious, but getting your acne under control is the best first step to not only healing your acne scars, but preventing future scarring. Your skincare regimen should include a gentle or medicated cleanser, moisturizer, sunscreen, and makeup remover at night, all of which should be hypoallergenic (which won’t cause inflammation) and noncomedogenic (won’t clog pores).
Look for key ingredients: “There are numerous products being sold for acne scarring today,” says Manhattan-based board-certified dermatologist Emmanuel Loucas, M.D. “Many of the products are good, but many product’s ingredients haven’t been proven to be effective.” To ensure you have a legit product, look for one that contains retinoids (vitamin A), alpha and beta hydroxy acids, azaleic acid, niacinamide, vitamins C and E, hydroquinone, kojic acid, or resorcinol.
Know your scars: “Best results are often obtained by using many of these ingredients in combination,” says Dr. Loucas, who recommends applying your acne scar treatment after washing your face and before moisturizing.
- If your acne scarring is dark, the best ingredients to look for in your OTC products are retinol, hydroxy acids, azaleic acid, vitamin C, and hydroquinone, says Dr. Loucas.
- If acne scars have caused some deformity in the skin, “retinols and hydroxy acids are often the most effective ingredients to try and remodel the skin,” he says.
- If your acne scars are inflamed and red, you should proceed with caution. Consider dealing with the inflammation first (with ingredients such as niacinamide, ceramides, and licorice extract) before tackling your acne scars.
- If the acne scarring is significant, you may need to combine your topical regimen with dermatological procedures. “This is because these types of scars are often bound down by excessive scar tissue and need to be surgically released or removed to see improvement,” says Dr. Loucas.
Ready to get bright, even skin? Here, the best dermatologist-recommended products to help fade your acne scars, plus your full guide on how to boost their efficacy.
Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment
“Prescription-strength retinoids increase cell turnover, decrease sebum production, and diminish breakouts that can lead to PIH,” says Dr. Massick. Differen Gel is a prescription-strength retinoid (the first available over the counter!) that can prevent new blemishes from forming and strengthen damaged skin by restoring texture and tone.
The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%
Azaleic acid can block pigment production in the skin. This prevents acne scars from getting darker and helps to fade dark and pink spots over time, says Beverly Hills-based board-certified dermatologist Tsippora Shainhouse, M.D., who recommends this lightweight cream-gel from The Ordinary.
Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Peel
These pre-soaked pads contain glycolic, salicylic, malic, lactic, and citric acids to help even out tone, reduce texture, minimize lines, and boost your glow (trust us—you’ll notice a difference). The first pad exfoliates, while the second neutralizes the acids to bring back balance, thanks to soothing green tea and chamomile.
Drunk Elephant C-Firma Vitamin C Day Serum
This super-potent serum contain vitamin C (to help rebuild collagen), vitamin E (to seal cracks in the skin), pumpkin ferment extract, and pomegranate enzyme that all work together to exfoliate and brighten the complexion. “Its ingredients are safe and effective, and gentle for patients with sensitive, dry, and acne-prone skin,” says Dr. Allawh.
The Ordinary Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate 10%
This budget-friendly hydrator contains magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (obvi), a vitamin C derivative that offers up similar skin-brightening perks as straight-up vitamin C. However, it is less potent, making it a perfect acne scar treatment for those with sensitive skin, says Dr. Allawh.
bioCorneum Scar Treatment Plus SPF 30 Silicone Scar Gel
Rarely, acne will cause a keloid scar (a raised scar that can grow larger than the original area), but it can happen. If you know your skin reacts in this way, try using a liquid silicone gel like bioCorneum, says Joyce Imahiyerobo-Ip, M.D., of Vibrant Dermatology in Wellesley, Massachusetts. “The silicone puts pressure on the scar as it’s healing, making it hard for excessive collagen to form,” she says.
Ideal for all skin types, CeraVe’s Resurfacing Retinol Serum is formulated with ceramides to restore the protective skin barrier and heal damage, niacinamide to reduce inflammation and redness, and retinol to speed skin cell turnover for brighter, healthier looking skin. Major bonus: It’s fragrance-free and noncomedogenic.
This noncomedogenic serum by RoC has a unique formula with retinol, magnesium, zinc, and copper to help bring newer skin to the surface. “It helps lighten dark spots, remodel acne scar tissue, and smooth the skin,” says Dr. Loucas.
These ultra-potent pads contain 10% glycolic acid to exfoliate the skin, encouraging newer, healthier cells to the surface. They also pack salicylic acid to keep your pores clear, smooth, and virtually nonexistent. Meanwhile, aloe vera maintains moisture and soothes the skin to keep redness at bay.
Not only does this serum combine vitamin C with hydroquinone (a skin-lightening ingredient) to help fade dark spots, it prevents future pigment formation as it brightens your complexion, earning a recommendation from Dr. Loucas.
Dr. Shainhouse recommends L’Oreal’s Revitalift vitamin C serum, which is tested for stability and efficacy, and visibly boosts skin’s radiance in just one week. The cream formula quickly absorbs to even out hyperpigmentation. It’s also been tested on all skin types, including sensitive complexions, and doesn’t clog pores.
Dr. Shainhouse loves this fast-absorbing retinol serum by Neutrogena because it’s made with retinol SA, which has a rep for being one of the more effective forms of vitamin A. The serum itself also contains hyaluronic acid, a moisture-attracting ingredient that helps plump the skin and reduce some of the irritation often caused by retinol.
This peel has a blend of glycolic acid (to even out tone and texture), lactic acid (to soften the skin) and salicylic acid (to fight acne). It also contains mushroom enzymes, which will gently exfoliate the skin and lighten spots without irritating, says Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip. Each peel is individually packaged, so you can easily throw them into your travel bag.
“This treatment pairs vitamin C with alpha hydroxy acids, which help lighten spots and smooth the skin,” says Dr. Loucas. The 15% concentration of vitamin C does its thing by preventing UV damage and boosting collagen production, while the 10% dose of hydroxy acids gently exfoliates, revealing a brighter complexion.
Biopelle’s KNR Serum contains retinol to help support collagen health and lift off dead layers of skin that contain pigmentation, says Dr. Haley. It also contains niacinamide to nix inflammation and kojic acid to lighten and even out skin tone.
Always wear sunscreen: “When you have inflammation in the skin, the body automatically responds by putting down pigment,” says Dr. Shainhouse. “Because skin with more pigment will tan more readily and hold onto its color for longer, your skin won’t even out with sun exposure—rather, the scars will appear even darker and stay darker for longer.”
Wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30+ and minimizing unnecessary sun exposure will keep your acne scars as light as possible, so they can blend into surrounding skin as they continue to heal. Try EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 sunscreen, which won’t clog pores.
Go easy on your skin: “When people have marks on their face, they tend to be harsh on their skin—trying to scrub them away—but this often makes everything more angry and inflamed,” says Dr. Haley. Ditto for picking at and popping pimples, as it can result in continued melanin production and super-stubborn spots that take even longer to fade.
Have hydrocortisone handy: Sometimes mild irritation can strike from using acne scar products. When this happens, “use OTC hydrocortisone 1% cream for a few days or longer, until your skin calms down,” says Dr. Loucas. This should allow you to continue treating your scars sans having to start and stop your treatment regimens.
“As acne lesions clear, they often leave behind dark spots as a result of inflammation, which promotes increased pigment production, explains Dr. Joshua Zeichner, Director of Cosmetic & Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. “These dark spots can last for several months and are often more bothersome than the acne itself.”
But hope is not lost, especially when there’s a barrage of dermatologist-endorsed cleansers, serums, and treatments that reduce the appearance of scars and brighten your complexion over time. I polled a few skincare experts to figure out what products help to treat and prevent acne scars. And remember, just say no to picking and popping.
Aveeno Clear Complexion Foaming Cleanser
Stubborn marks call for a powerful cleanser. “If you have acne, consider using a cleanser that contains salicylic acid,” says Dr. Zeichner. “Aveeno’s Clear Complexion Foaming Cleanser delivers salicylic acid the skin without causing excessive dryness and helps remove excess oil and exfoliate dead cells from the surface of the skin to keep the pores clear.”
Purifying Cleanser with Glycolic Acid
Dr. Y. Claire Chang, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at NYC’s Union Square Laser Dermatology, recommends SkinCeuticals’ Purifying Cleanser, which “encourages cell turnover without drying out the skin.” Plus, it’s formulated with glycolic acid “to wash away dead skin cells on the top layer of the skin, leaving a very clean feel and improving acne blemishing.”
Peter Thomas Roth Max Complexion Correction Pads
Peter Thomas Rothnordstrom.com
Salicylic acid and glycolic acid are the essential ingredients in these exfoliating pads. ” Salicylic acid works to treat current pimples and existing scars, by increasing skin-cell turnover and declogging pores,” says Dr. Change. ” Glycolic acid chemically exfoliates the skin to even skin tone and decrease blemishes.”
AGE Bright Spot Fader
Dermalogica’s Age Bright Spot Fader is a multi-purpose treatment for acne. “Ideal for adults that are concerned about post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation from breakouts, this two-in-one brightening spot treatment reduces the appearance of active breakouts and post-breakout marks,” explains Heather Hickman, the Senior Director of Education at Dermalogica.
Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant
Dermalogica’s Microfoliant is a best-seller for a reason. Hickman explains that it’s cult status is due to its “unique rice-based powder with papain and salicylic acid that exfoliates dull skin, and a botanical brightening complex with licorice and grapefruit that instantly leaves skin noticeably smoother and brighter.”
Don’t let the word “intense” listed on the front scare you away. While Chantecaille’s serum is formulated with a good amount of retinol, it also comes packed with vitamin C and green decaffeinated coffee to tackle hyperpigmentation head-on.
Rapid Age Spot and Pigment Lightening Serum
“Topical treatments that contain retinoids, hydroquinone, and azelaic acid have all been proven to dramatically lighten dark marks,” says Dr. Chang. “The Murad Rapid Age Spot and Pigment Lightening Serum pairs hydroquinone with vitamin C and glycolic acid, two dark mark-fighting ingredients. Glycolic acid helps improve existing brown spots by increasing skin-cell turnover and chemically exfoliating the skin; vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that can brighten the skin.”
Vitamin C Serum
To help fade dark spots faster, Dr. Z suggests reaching for Ghost Democracy’s Lightbulb Vitamin C serum that provides a strong dose of vitamin C to bring you one step closer to clear skin.
Rapid Tone Repair Dark Spot Corrector
Packed with a high concentration of vitamin C and retinol, this dark spot corrector aims to instantly penetrate into the skin to brighten and fade dark marks.
La Roche Posay Anthelios 60 Ultra Light Sunscreen Fluid
La Roche Posaydermstore.com
“Wearing SPF every day will not only help prevent new discoloration, but keep your current scars from worsening over time,” says Dr. Anne Chapas.
CeraVe Sun Protection, SPF 30 Sunscreen Face Lotion
Too much sun exposure can darken the spots even more, so sunscreen will be your best friend. “Scarring and post inflammatory hyperpigmentation can darken with sun exposure and linger on the skin longer than needed,” Dr. Idriss adds. “Therefore, a broad spectrum sunscreen, most preferably a physical blocker, is strongly advised.”
Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Sunscreen Lotion with SPF 60
What’s not to love about this Neutrogena classic? It has SPF 60 (more protection for your skin), leaves no residue, works wonders for sensitive skin, and costs as much as a fresh-pressed green juice.
SkinCeuticals Protect Ultra Facial Defense SPF 50 Plus
Stop premature aging right in its tracks with the proper sun protection. SkinCeuticals Protect Ultra Facial Defense sunscreen is a lightweight, moisturizing cream perfect for the sweltering summer heat and brisk winter air.
Pond’s Clarant B3 Even Skin Tone Daily Facial Moisturizer with SPF 30 Sunscreen 1.7oz
This daily moisturizer delivers soft, supple skin for a more vibrant glow. It’s also packed with SPF 30 to prevent further discoloration from occurring.
Neutrogena Rapid Clear Benzoyl Peroxide Leave-on Acne Face Mask
Spot-treating is a great preventative method for acne but Dr. Zeichner suggests treating the entire face to avoid any future breakouts with Neutrogena’s Rapid Benzoyl Peroxide Leave-On Mask.
When scouring the aisles for acne treatments, Dr. Idriss suggests looking for “brightening agents such as kojic acid, niacin, vitamin C, licorice root extract that help reduce the effects of pigmentation.”
Post-Acne Spot Lightening Gel
Murad’s Post-Acne treatment is powered with hydoquinone, “a powerful skin-lightening ingredient used to reduce post-acne discoloration and dark spots,” explains Dr. Sperling . The gel also mixes in tea tree oil, which is known for treating everything from cuts and bites to soothing irritated skin.
C E Ferulic
“While a bit on the pricier side, SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic is a combination of vitamin C, vitamin E, and ferulic acid,” Dr. Sperling explains. “This powerful blend of antioxidants is great for brightening the skin’s complexion and for treating dark spots and scarring.”
Alpha Beta® Universal Daily Peel
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincarenordstrom.com
My morning beauty routine begins with Dr. Dennis Gross’ Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel. Despite its name, your skin doesn’t actually peel but both pads work hard to even out skin tone, smooth the skin’s texture, brighten, and reverse damage without, well, damaging the skin.
The Complete GLO, GloPRO® + Pack N’ Glo Microneedling Regeneration Set
This at-home microneedling treatment comes with a range of attachment heads that treat your face, lips, under eyes and body. Wrinkle, who?
Espada Blue Light Acne Treatment
Turn your bathroom into your own personal spa with Foreo’s Blue Light acne treatment. The blue light zap acne directly at the root and gets deep beneath the skin’s surface to prevent future breakouts.
SpectraLite FaceWare Pro
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincaredermstore.com
The price might cause you to turn away but it’s worth coughing up a few pennies. This mask kills bacteria that causes acne by using red and blue LED lights. The red light encourages natural production of collagen to target wrinkles and sun damage, while the blue light zaps bacteria to stop future breakouts.