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Acne scars aren’t one-size-fits-all. But, whether you’re dealing with pesky red or dark marks or more permanent changes in texture, using one of the best products for acne scars can help fade and reduce their appearance. To be clear, applying a gel or serum isn’t going to magically give you crystal clear, flawless skin overnight—that’s a bit unrealistic. That said, incorporating resurfacing formulas, retinoids, and other dermatologist-recommended acne scar treatments can make a huge difference.
Addressing current scars isn’t the only thing to keep top of mind, though. You need to ensure that you’re a) addressing any active acne on the skin and b.) doing your best to not make matters worse during treatment. “Larger, deeper breakouts lead to more potential scarring,” explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Marisa Garshick. “Avoid picking at the skin, as the more irritation and inflammation that develops, the more likely the acne is to scar.”
Here, Dr. Garshick, along with board-certified dermatologist and Facet medical director Dr. Peter Young, breaks down what causes acne scars, how to treat them, and giving their recommendations on the best products for acne scars.
What Causes Acne Scars?
While some pimples will come and go, others will come—and leave a permanent mark in their wake. The likelihood that acne will scar boils down to a handful of factors according to Dr. Young. He explains that inflammatory acne that’s red, swollen, and painful, along with cystic acne, is more likely to scar. What’s more, you can have a genetic predisposition to scarring. “The tendency towards acne scarring often runs in families,” he says. “Having a first degree relative with a history of acne scarring is a risk factor.”
Popping, squeezing, or picking at pimples can also make scarring more likely, so do your best to keep your hands clean—and off of your face.
Are There Different Types of Acne Scars?
As a rule of thumb, an acne scar is a mark left behind after a pimple goes away. But, the world of acne scars is a bit more nuanced. “Acne scars can appear as red or brown discoloration or as a change in skin texture, with the skin appearing indented or raised,” Dr. Garshick explains.
The type of scar you develop is tightly linked to your skin type and the type of breakout you experience the most. “Individuals with darker skin types are more likely to develop hyperpigmentation, while those with fair skin may notice more red blemishes. Larger, deeper breakouts also lead to more potential scarring.”
How Do I Reduce the Appearance of Acne Scars?
Prevention is key (don’t pick, please!), but if you already have an acne scar there are a couple skincare ingredients that can make a visible difference. You’ll want to start using a retinoid, acids, antioxidants, and, of course, sunscreen. “Retinoids are the most effective topical medications to help improve the appearance of acne scars. Retinol and adapalene are available over the counter, whereas tretinoin requires a prescription,” Dr. Young says. Dr. Garshick adds that retinoids are ideal for those who want to even out skin texture. “They work to regulate skin cell turnover, which in turn helps to even skin tone and boost collagen production to improve the textural changes.”
In a similar vein, exfoliants, like glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, and salicylic acid, can “work to eliminate dead cells” and “improve both texture and tone,” according to Garshick. While antioxidants, like vitamin C, won’t do much for indented or raised scars, they can help brighten discoloration.
Then there’s sunscreen—perhaps the most useful product in treating acne scars that are hyperpigmented. “With sun exposure, scars have the potential to darken which can make them more noticeable,” warns Dr. Garshick. “While those with acne are often hesitant to apply different products to their skin for fear of worsening breakouts, it is important for those with acne to remember to apply sunscreen and should look for one that is non-comedogenic and won’t clog the pores.”
The Best Products for Acne Scars
The Best Retinol Moisturizer for Acne Scars
One of Dr. Young’s personal favorites, this drugstore moisturizer addresses a range of concerns. Not only will it work to brighten dark spots and improve texture (thank you, retinol), but it’s also packed with hyaluronic acid to plump up the skin. As with any skincare treatment, you’re going to have to set aside some time to let this product work its magic. Expect to use this for at least eight weeks before noticing a difference.
The Best Plant-Based Retinol for Acne Scars
“This cream combines fruit stem cell complexes and antioxidants with bakuchiol, a plant-based retinol alternative. It is gentle yet effective and can help to reduce blemishes while also smoothing the skin and can be used one to two times per day,” says Dr. Garshick. It’s ideal for mature skin types (it helps with fine lines and wrinkles!), but is suitable for anyone looking to give their skin a jumpstart.
The Best Gel for Red Spots
The brand’s Anti Bump Solution is a miracle worker for cystic acne—and this product is the ultimate second line of defense. Once your pimple is completely healed, this gel works wonders to reduce the lingering redness. To make sure all the exfoliating acids penetrate the skin, you’ll want to apply this directly to the skin. Wipe away existing skincare on areas you’re trying to treat and dab this solution on with a Q-tip.
The Best OTC Retinol Gel for Acne Scars
While a dermatologist can prescribe retinoids like Retin-A and tretinoin, you can also get your fix at the drugstore via a vitamin A derivative called adapalene. Dr. Young is a big fan of this product for anyone with indented acne scars. It’s a great way to resurface the skin’s texture and boost collagen production. That in mind, retinol can be drying and make the skin more sensitive to the sun, so start out using this product just twice a week and don’t forget to apply sunscreen.
The Best Serum for Acne Scars
Dr. Garshick explains that this vitamin A serum uses retinaldehyde, a type of retinoid which delivers results faster than retinol. She’s a big fan of this product for improving overall texture and tone. Another plus? Retinaldehyde is thought to be less irritating than a traditional retinoid, so it’s great for drier or more easily irritated skin types. But don’t go crazy applying it every night—still ease it into your skincare routine.
The Best for Raised Scars
This medical-grade formula is the real deal. Thanks to an ingredient called bromelain, this gel is able to soften the texture of scars from both acne and surgery. Unlike a normal gel that you slather on in a second, you’re going to want to take the time to massage this gel onto the affected area. For new scars, use this two to three times a day for eight weeks. For older scars, use it twice a day for three to six months.
The Best Patch for Acne Scars
“These patches work to reduce the appearance of post-acne blemishes by lightening and brightening using kojic acid, niacinamide, vitamin C, and arbutin without irritating the skin,” explains Dr. Garshick. You’re going to want to make sure the pimple has completely resided (we’re talking about no more puss or inflammation) before incorporating these into your routine. Once you’re in the clear, just pop on a patch every three days before bed and let it do its thing.
The Best Vitamin C Serum for Acne Scars
Vitamin C won’t do anything for raised or indented acne scars, but it can help with uneven skin tone and brighten dark spots. This cult-favorite is the obvious choice for a product that delivers on its promises. We should warn you though: it has a bit of a strong scent. It goes on a bit tacky, but dries down completely within a minute or two.
The Best for Hyperpigmented Acne Scars
This is one of Dr. Garshick’s faves for dealing with discoloration in darker skin tones. It has niacinamide, an ingredient that’s great for redness and inflammation, as well as vitamin E, which is a brightening agent. Stick to using this at night—in tandem with a good moisturizer.
The Best Drugstore Product for Acne Scars
Sensitive skin? Dr. Garshick suggests you scoop this product up get your retinol fix. “It contains ceramides to help support and strengthen the natural skin barrier and niacinamide which is soothing and calming on the skin,” she explains.
The Best Sunscreen for Acne Scars
While SPF isn't going to make your acne scars disappear, it is one of the most important products to prevent pigmentation from getting worse. Dr. Garshick recommends a non-comedogenic formula for anyone dealing with acne—and we can’t get enough of this Supergoop! formula. Its texture is truly weightless, isn’t oily at all, and works like a dream under makeup.
The Best Brightening Product for Acne Scars
While retinol is a no-go during pregnancy, Dr. Garshick says that this azelaic- and glycolic-based formula is A-ok. “It helps address dark spots and uneven skin tone, while also improving overall texture,” she adds.
The Best Facial Tool for Acne Scars
This easy-to-use tool works wonders when targeting the uneven texture of acne scars. The stamp has little micro needles that work to exfoliate the skin’s surface, while also making sure your skincare products (pick a serum from this list) work even better. A word of warning: don’t overdo it with this tool. Stick to using it three times a week, using *gentle* pressure, and avoid the eye area.
The Best Luxe Serum for Acne Scars
For an all-in-one situation, iS Clinical has you covered. This super-charged product is packed with antioxidants like vitamin C and retinol, so rest assured you’re getting your dose of dermatologist-recommended ingredients. As an added bonus, this serum features olive leaf extract, which has anti-inflammatory properties that can help calm down cystic acne.
The Best for Active Breakouts
Dr. Young and Dr. Garshick agree: salicylic acid is one of the best ingredients for addressing acne and oily skin. This exfoliant will do its part to reduce the likelihood of developing new pimples that can lead to scarring, make pores look smaller, and smooth out rough patches of dry skin.
Samantha Holender is the Beauty Editor at Marie Claire, where she reports on the best new launches, dives into the science behind skincare, and keeps up with the latest trends in the beauty space. She has previously written for Us Weekly, Popsugar, Makeup.com, Skincare.com, and Philadelphia Wedding. Follow her on Instagram @samholender.
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