How to Get Rid of Acne Scars and Marks, According to Dermatologists
With so many people experiencing breakouts during the pandemic (hi, maskne), the concern around blemishes and the unwanted parting gifts — aka acne scars or marks — they leave behind has only grown. First, the bad news: getting rid of acne scars isn't entirely possible. Once a pimple has scarred, the damage is done (which is why most dermatologists advise against picking).
Now for the good news: what you might think is scarring is often just post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation or erythema (brown or red spots), rather than a textual change of the skin. Plus, even if they are in fact scars, there are ways to minimize the appearance of acne marks. All it takes is using the right products and treatments in your skin-care routine.
That's where we come in. We spoke with a handful of experts — including two board-certified dermatologists, Anna Guanche, MD, and Dendy Engelman, MD, and New York City aesthetician Taylor Worden — to get their recommendations for treating, preventing, and minimizing the appearance of acne scars and marks. If you want information on how to fade acne scars, keep reading for more.
What Are Acne Scars, and What Causes Them?
Before we get into how to treat acne scars and acne marks, it's important to understand what they are: visible raised marks and indentations left behind due to skin damage from a pimple or serious acne.
"Acne scars are when the blemish damages the top layer of skin as well as the deeper levels of the skin," Worden tells POPSUGAR. "It damages the skin and leaves you with an indentation like a pockmark or crater in the skin."
Acne can be caused by a multitude of factors: genetics, environment, hormones, diet, sebum production, pH of skin, bacteria buildup, medication, and inflammation. As the inflammation subsides and the skin attempts to heal itself, scar tissue can form. Scars could look different depending on skin type and skin tone. Light-color skin tones will often produce red marks after acne, whereas dark complexions show brown marks after acne.
What's the Difference Between Acne Scars and Acne Marks?
The main difference is the level of permanence. "Acne marks are red (erythema) or brown (hyperpigmentation) discolored marks that are temporary, taking just a few months to fade and heal," Worden says. Acne scars, however, can be permanent if not treated early on.
According to Dr. Engelman, acne marks can include dark marks or hyperpigmentation, which are not raised. One telltale way to know the difference: acne scars have a texture. "They are raised or depressed marks that are able to be felt on the skin," she says.
What Are the Types of Acne Scars?
Generally speaking, there are two types of scarring: superficial and deep indented scars.
"If you feel a divot or textural irregularities in the skin, those are referred to as deep or indented scars," Dr. Guanche says. "Superficial scars are often referred to as post-inflammatory erythema and do not typically have textural indentations in the skin. This type of scarring will heal over time without treatment."
Although oily skin tends to be more acne prone, all skin types are susceptible to acne and acne scars. There are differences in the way skin will heal: "Some can have deep cystic breakouts that look disfiguring but then heal with perfectly smooth skin," Dr. Guanche says. "Others can have a mild breakout that results in permanent noticeable scars. The difference is likely genetics."
Then, to get more granular, there are four main types of acne scarring: boxcar (broad depressions with sharply defined edges); icepick (deep, narrow, pitted scars); rolling (broad depression with a sloping edge); and hypertrophic scars or keloids (raised, thick, lumpy scars).
Can I Get Rid of Acne Scarring at Home?
When working to get rid of acne scarring at home, topical formulas can help lighten the areas. "Treat dark marks with salicylic acid or glycolic acid, and peels containing these acids, to promote cell turnover and remove the top layers of the skin," Dr. Engelman says. She recommends the Perfect Image Glycolic 50% Gel Peel ($30) and Glo Skin Beauty Hydra-Bright AHA Glow Peel ($85). Since dark scars are superficial blemishes, they can also be treated with LED light therapy masks or Rhofade, a topical prescription cream.
On the flip side, textured scars can be treated by "resurfacing the skin and promoting cell turnover and collagen production," Dr. Engelman says. When doing this at home, you can use a gentle microneedling tool, the process of creating micro-injuries in the skin that trigger its natural healing process. Dr. Engelman recommends the Environ Cosmetic Gold Roll-CIT if you go this route.
Worden encourages her clients to stay up on their vitamins (vitamins A, B, C, and E) and mineral supplements (pomegranate-seed oil, zinc, fish oil) to help the process of wound healing. Retinol is also a product that helps fade acne scars, and you can also invest in products that contain lightening ingredients: niacinamide, azelaic acid, rosehip oil, retinoids, lactic acid, turmeric, AHAs, salicylic acid, and licorice root.
What In-Office Treatments Are Best For Acne Scarring?
When in doubt, see a dermatologist. Dr. Guanche recommends a pulse dye layer for superficial red scars. "VBeam is best to reduce the redness and remodel collagen," she says. For indented scars, you can commit to pro-grade microneedling, fraxel resurfacing, fillers (which are injected to plump up skin and fill the scar), chemical peels (for collagen buildup to fill texture scars from within), or radiofrequency microneedling.
How to Prevent Acne Scarring
All three experts agree that controlling and treating acne is the first step. Otherwise, you may just be chasing more scars. "Use a nourishing oil cleanser to remove makeup, dirt, and grime, then use a face wash to deeply cleanse," Dr. Engleman says. It's also important to focus on hydrating the skin to promote a healthy skin barrier that is less vulnerable to acne.
Again, as tempting as it is, the best advice to prevent scarring is not to pick pimples. "Picking worsens the problem and increases the risk of scarring," Dr. Guanche said. Instead of picking, you can apply a targeted spot treatment like Humane Acne Spot Treatment Gel ($20) — or better yet, pimple patches to help you fight the urge.
The second best line of defense is to wear sunscreen no matter what. "SPF will help fade the scars and prevent post-inflammatory pigmentation," Worden says.