This isn't news to anyone, but I feel it bears repeating: Acne scars suck. Anyone who has suffered from post-pimple hyperpigmentation knows this truth to be self-evident. And, post-puberty, they affect every age and skin color. They manifest as red or brown marks that can last weeks — and sometimes, for the really unlucky, months. As someone from that unlucky category, I can confidently tell you that I have tried every — and I mean every — remedy known to man.
I'm also a realist: I know the only permanent ways to eradicate this woe immediately are lasers and Retin-A. But those options continue to be out of reach for the majority of those who are afflicted with this stupid, infuriating skin condition. (What? I'm not bitter.)
That said, quite a few at-home, non-prescription products do a damn good job of fading those marks faster, to get you back to the even-toned complexion you had before that massive breakout. And, for the most part, they don't cost an arm and a leg. As anyone who has spent hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars over the years in a fruitless effort to win the war on zits knows, that's a huge selling point. While these products, for the most part, have no real effect on actually preventing blemishes, we know that fading those dark marks is half the battle.
Ahead, check out each tested scar lighteners that are the everyday heroes of our beauty arsenal. And, if I missed any, let me know in the comments what you swear by. Knowledge is power.
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How to Get Rid of Acne Scars and Dark Marks: Your Complete Guide
Top dermatologists breaks down what these dark marks and acne spots are, why they appear, and how to treat them.
by Eden Univer, Christa Joanna Lee and Tina Ferraro
Similar to the lingering emotions you experience after an intense Game of Thrones episode, acne scars are basically the long-lasting aftereffects of your short-lived breakouts. An unexpected pimple (or five) is annoying enough, but the acne scars and dark marks it leaves behind are often worse. While there isn't a magic wand that can get rid of them overnight, top dermatologists from across the country share how to handle marks and bumps, from prevention to treatment.
What's the difference between acne marks and acne scars?
In order to treat acne marks and scars, it's helpful to learn how to distinguish between the two. "Patients often mistake dark spots for acne scars but they're actually very different," says New York-based dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D. The red, purple, or brown marks that linger after a pimple or blemish has disappeared are classified by derms as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. "These marks can take between 3-6 months to go away on their own," notes Sejal Shah, M.D., a New York-based dermatologist. "You can expedite the process with a diligent treatment of topical retinoids, vitamin C serums, sunscreen, and over-the-counter brighteners." True acne scars, however, are permanent indentations from collagen damage and can come in many shapes and forms, says Dr. Bowe, and laser treatments and temporary dermal fillers are the only ways to treat the issue. Some scars are thick, raised hypertrophic scars that stick out above the skin; others are keloid, which are scars that have over-healed, and manifest as dense, rubbery skin tissue. Then, there are atrophic scars that appear as depressions in the skin — they're the most challenging to treat. The three main categories of atrophic scars are:
- Ice pick scars: Deeper than they are wide, with jagged edges. Sometimes they resemble a large, scooped out pore.
- Boxcar scars: Broad, rectangular depressions with steep, defined edges.
- Rolling scars: Broad depressions that have rounded, sloping edges, hence the name.
What causes acne scars and dark marks?
The spots that linger after a pimple has healed are caused by inflammation that has disrupted the skin's natural healing process. "When your skin is opened up, like when you pop a pimple, and then closes back together, you can get abnormal pigmentation, texture, and tone that looks different from the rest of your skin. Sometimes the broken blood vessels that remain after an acne lesion fades can result in a mark," says Dr. Bowe. For a number of people who are able to refrain from picking, inflamed pimples or blemishes can still leave a dark brown or red mark — but these naturally fade over the course of a few months, notes Heather C. Woolery-Lloyd M.D., a Miami-based dermatologist.
The tone of your skin makes a huge difference in the shade of the spot. "In lighter skin tones, red or purple marks are more common and fade over a few weeks. For darker skin tones, a pimple typically leaves a brown mark that takes on average four months to go away on its own," says Dr. Woolery-Lloyd, who founded Specific Beauty, a skincare line specifically designed to treat uneven skin tones, hyperpigmenation, and other issues that women of color tend to face.
Since it's pretty difficult to determine what causes one person to scar more than another, the best way to avoid scarring is to treat acne with a great skin care routine — and that means you need to resist picking, poking, or touching a pimple.
But, sometimes a particularly aggressive blemish is truly on a mission to leave its permanent mark. "Acne scars occur when normal tissue in the skin is destroyed and replaced with fibrous tissue. You can think of an acne lesion as a wound. When the damage caused by acne is severe, the body can respond by creating too much tissue or too little tissue. The production of too much tissue forms a keloid or a hypertrophic scar, and too little tissue leads to that depression in the skin, or atrophic scar. The deeper and more inflamed the acne lesion, or the more that it is picked or squeezed, the more likely it is to scar," says Dr. Bowe.
Some acne marks and scars are completely within your control while others are pre-determined. Aside from genetics, there are several lifestyle habits that can make dark marks and scars worse. "Sun exposure can supercharge melanocytes, or pigment-producing cells, causing marks and scars to darken." And, to reiterate one last time, picking or squeezing pimples creates further inflammation and can ultimately lead to more damage, Dr. Woolery-Lloyd and Dr. Bowe both warn.
Here's the full run-down on how to get rid of acne marks and scars.
How to treat acne dark marks:
"The discoloration from dark marks will usually fade over time," says Dr. Shah. "But there are a number of treatment options to help speed up the process."
"Sun exposure makes scarring appear more prominent," says Dr. Shah. When your skin isn't properly protected, UVA and UVB rays can darken acne marks and scars. "Sunlight can even penetrate through your clothing so it's important to be diligent about applying it everywhere, every day." And don't worry about breaking out from a pore-clogging sunscreen; the latest formulas are more innovative and acne-friendly than ever. Elta MD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 is a top derm-approved favorite. It contains niacinamide, which is an anti-inflammatory that helps reduce redness.
Topical vitamin C serum:
"Vitamin C can help build collagen and promote healing," says Dr. Shah. "SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic serum is a combination of pure L-ascorbic acid, which is vitamin C and absorbs into the skin so that it continues working even long after it dries."
"Retin-A is a superficial treatment that helps with acne marks by causing your skin cells to divide more rapidly and pushing out cells with discolored pigment," Dr. Shah explains. Since retinoids make your skin super-sensitive to the sun, it's best to not only wear SPF, but to also apply a treatment like RoC Retinol Correxion Sensitive Night Cream before you go to bed.
"A chemical peel is a treatment that uses the application of mild solutions for skin refinement and regeneration. Products containing glycolic acid promote cell turnover, which is the process where new skin cells form and help even out your skin tone," says Dr. Bowe. You can try an at-home peel like Peter Thomas Roth 40% Triple Acid Peel, which uses both glycolic and salicylic acids to help fade spots by exfoliating dead skin cells and smoothing out skin texture. "Or, your dermatologist can prescribe you a stronger peel based on your skin type and treatment goals," says Dr. Bowe.
For marks that are more brownish in color, pigment-lightening ingredients like retinol, vitamin C, kojic acid, or licorice can help treat discoloration. If you have a deeper skin tone, be wary of formulas with hydroquinone, which Dr. Woolery-Lloyd says can leave a lighter ring around the dark discoloration you're attempting to target. Instead, try L'Oréal Paris Youth Code Dark Spot Correcting & Illuminating Serum Corrector, which helps to reverse hyperpigmentation and prevent further discoloration, or Specific Beauty Intensive Skin Brightening Serum, which contains a potent blend of the best brighteners, including retinol, licorice, and niacinimide (an ingredient that can also help alleviate acne).
Skin-brightening ingredients don't work as well for pink or red acne marks unrelated to the skin's pigment or melanin. "These should be treated with sun protection and can be lightened significantly using a laser called a pulsed-dye laser that targets hemoglobin (red pigment). It usually takes three treatments to make them go away completely but they can lighten up significantly after just one treatment," says Dr. Bowe.
"If you're not seeing improvement within three months from using over-the-counter treatments, it might be time to see your derm to see if a stronger topical prescription or a laser treatment is an option," says Dr. Shah.
How to treat acne scars:
Acne scar treatments are best handled with special attention and care from your dermatologist since they require more intense procedures than over-the-counter options. The downside: Treatments tend to be expensive. If you aren't quite ready to put a dent in your savings, know that you aren't alone in your struggle with acne scars. Just by reframing your way of thinking, you may even learn to love them.
If you feel a stress pimple rearing its ugly head, a steroid shot can be administered the same day you call your derm because the process is very fast. Not only does it immediately reduce the inflammation of an existing zit, but cortisone can also help thick scars (keloids) appear softer and flatter. "These are specifically for raised scars, however," says Dr. Shah. "It'll help flatten out the scar, but it won't do anything to any discrepancies in the texture."
"Certain scars can be filled with a substance that elevates the depressed areas, like hyaluronic acid. This can make the surface of the skin more even and get rid of shadows," says Dr. Bowe. Until recently, fillers weren't a lasting solution. But now, if you're over 21 years old, Bellafill is the first FDA-approved dermal filler designed for permanently correcting moderate to severely dented acne scars. Unlike other fillers, it contains two different ingredients to help improve acne scarring. "It's 20% polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA), which helps your body make more protein to allow itself to heal," says Dr. Shah. "PMMA are tiny balls that sort of act as a scaffolding. Most fillers degrade over time, but since PMMA cannot be absorbed into the body, this offers a permanent result," she says. The other 80% is collagen. The procedure takes about 20-30 minutes, and while you may need a touchup a couple months later, some people just need the single treatment, says Dr. Shah.
There are also temporary options that apply like makeup and are easily removable — Dermaflage makes a great one.
Dermatologists often remodel collagen using lasers, "which do not completely eliminate acne scars but can improve them by 30% or more," according to Dr. Woolery-Lloyd. "These can be helpful in reducing the redness associated with acne marks and scars. I use a pulse-dye laser called the V-Beam for red scars. When treating older scars that are no longer red, I like to use the Fraxel laser. When lasers are used to treat acne scars, the results can differ dramatically based on two things: how many treatments you have done, and how much social downtime you're willing to accept as part of the recovery process," says Dr. Bowe. "Erbium laser resurfacing is also another option and it's more aggressive than Fraxel," says Dr. Shah. "It's a minimal burning of surrounding tissues and has fewer side effects like less swelling and redness, but it's won't work for those with darker skin tones."
"This procedure is best for those with icepick scars, which aren't as wide as rolling or boxcar scars," says Dr. Shah. "If you use a punch excision on a scar that's wide at the surface, you're making a bigger punch and trading in one scar for another," she says. "Your dermatologist will numb up the area and use a tiny cookie-cutter like device to cut out the scar, and then sew it closed with a tiny stitch. The stitch is removed in less than a week," says Dr. Bowe.
Mix and match:
"Since acne scars vary, so do treatments. Depending on the individual, I often use a multimodal approach to treating acne scars. First, I might use Fraxel treatments to smooth out the skin texture. Then, I often use a combination of the fillers Restylane and Belotero to lift the depressed scars. Finally, I perform a few punch excisions to surgically remove any deep scars that may remain," says Dr. Bowe.
There you have it! As with any skin condition, it's best to consult your regular dermatologist to see which option is best for you. And while technology has come a long way in making dark marks and acne scars treatable, remember that most of us will experience them at some point. So while these are all feasible options for fading your acne scars, don't forget that you always have the choice of pimple positivity, too.
10 Most Effective Ways To Remove Acne Scars & Pimple Marks
For many acne sufferers, the prospect of living blemish-free can easily lead to a medicine cabinet full of chemical creams and oral medications. While these treatments may offer immediate and powerful results, they also tend to carry a long list of side-effects. For those who desire a safe alternative to get rid of the scars left behind from pimples and acne, try some of these clever natural solutions.
1. Aloe Vera
Fresh aloe vera gel is a potent source of vitamins which can help to heal skin and fade scars. Aloe is gentle, so you won’t have to worry about further damaging or irritating skin. Also, because aloe is such a wonderful natural moisturizer, it will leave your skin looking and feeling softer and healthier.
While aloe vera gel may be found in any drug store, pharmacy or online, fresh organic aloe is best. Potted aloe plants are easy to find and require almost no maintenance to grow even without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Should you choose to use fresh aloe to combat your acne scars, just break off a small piece of one leaf, peel away the outer flesh to expose the gel, and massage gently into your skin. For best results, let the gel soak in for at least thirty minutes before washing it off. If you don’t have a readily available aloe plant, then you can purchase organic aloe vera gel from here.
2. Baking Soda
Baking soda is a common household item with literally hundreds of uses, including the ability to help heal scars. Baking soda is composed of sodium bicarbonate crystals which gently exfoliate skin when used as a cleansing scrub. Just mix a few teaspoons of baking soda with enough water to form a thick paste then massage into skin where scars are present. Once applied, you should leave the mixture on for a minute or two. This will allow the soda to cleanse pores and help prevent further blemishes. After a couple of minutes, wash your face in lukewarm water and apply a good natural moisturizer like rose hip seed, jojoba, coconut, or olive oil.
Do this about once every other day for great results!
3. Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is at the top of the list when it comes to natural moisturizers with healing properties. Scoop about a quarter of a teaspoon of organic virgin coconut oil (this is the best brand available to buy) into the palm of your hand and let it melt as it comes up to body temperature. With your fingertips, massage oil directly onto scarred skin and let it soak in. There is no need to wash coconut oil away as the vitamins and essential fatty acids will continue to work and improve skin health as long as you wear it. However, if the oil is too heavy for your comfort, leave it on for at least thirty minutes before removing with an all-natural cleanser.
Cucumbers are a popular ingredient in facial treatments for good reason. This vegetable is not only super hydrating, cucumber also contains vitamin A, vitamin C, and magnesium – all of which are great for your skin. To use this treatment for healing acne scars just pick up an organic cucumber from your local market, cut off a few thin slices, and lay them over your scarred skin. After about thirty minutes, discard the cucumber slices and rinse your face with cool water. Repeat daily as desired.
Another natural moisturizer which can help heal scars is honey. It is best to use raw honey, not the processed kind found on the shelves of most chain grocery stores. To obtain the best quality, try your local farmer’s market or this is a good option available on Amazon. Once you’ve gotten the good stuff, simply massage a small amount of honey over your scars and let this wonder of nature work its magic. You can also mix about a teaspoon of ground cinnamon per two tablespoons of honey for added pore-cleansing power. Use this treatment as often and for as long as you like.
Lemon juice is a natural alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) that can be used to fade scars, promote healing, and revitalize skin. Simply squeeze the juice from one organic lemon into a small bowl. You can use this treatment undiluted or mixed with water if you have sensitive skin. Dab juice over scars with a cotton ball and let it dry completely. Then rinse your face with cool water and follow up with a natural moisturizer. Repeat this treatment once every two or three days.
Remember that lemon juice will make skin more sensitive to UV radiation, so it’s best to avoid direct sunlight for a while after using this treatment.
7. Potato Juice
Vitamin- and mineral-rich potato is another vegetable which is great for skin health and healing. Use the juice of a fresh organic potato to fade acne and pimple scars by cutting off a few thin slices and applying them directly to affected areas. Alternately, you can cut thicker slices and apply the juice by massaging them over scars. For best results, leave potato juice on your skin for at least fifteen minutes before rinsing off with warm water. You can do this up to once per day.
8. Rose Hip Seed Oil
Rose hip seed oil is in a class by itself when it comes to promoting naturally healthy skin. For maximum health benefits, be sure to use organic cold-pressed oil. Apply this light-weight, non-greasy treatment once or twice each day to reap the benefits of its essential fatty acids and high concentration of trans-retinoic acid – a natural form of vitamin A found in rose hip seeds. Try this 100% organic rose hip seed oil in conjunction with a derma roller to heal scars even faster!
9. Sugar Scrub
For a more therapeutic way to heal acne scars, make yourself a homemade sugar scrub. Sugar cane contains glycolic acid, another alpha hydroxy acid that removes dead skin and promotes cell regeneration. Simply mix raw organic cane sugar with virgin olive oil at a two-to-one ratio then add several drops of organic lemon juice until your scrub is workable, but not too watery. Apply sugar scrub to scars about once every two or three days. Leave on for about fifteen minutes and remember to follow up with a good natural moisturizer!
10. Vitamin E
Probably the easiest way to use vitamin E for healing scars is to simply puncture the end of a gel capsule and squeeze the contents onto your fingertip. Apply the oil directly to scarred skin or mix it into your daily moisturizer to help heal acne and pimple scars faster.