Active breakouts are frustrating enough, but the scars acne can leave behind can feel downright diabolical. The good news is that acne scars can be treated.
However, before treatment can start you first have to get rid of any acne once and for all since new breakouts can lead to new acne scars. Some of the scar treatments below can’t be done alongside typical acne medications, and the inflammation that’s caused by breakouts can also reduce treatment effectiveness.
Types of scars
Scars are formed when a breakout penetrates the skin deeply and damages the tissues beneath it.
Before you try to treat your scars, it’s important to know what type they are. Each type responds to treatment differently, and some treatments are better for particular types than others.
Atrophic or depressed scars
These are most common on the face. A depressed scar sits below the surrounding skin. They’re formed when not enough collagen is made while the wound is healing. There are three types of atrophic scars:
These are wide, U-shaped scars that have sharp edges. They can be shallow or deep. The shallower they are, the better they respond to skin resurfacing treatments.
Ice pick scars are narrow, V-shaped scars that can go deep into the skin. They can look like small round or oval holes, like a chickenpox scar. These are the most difficult scars to treat because they can extend far under the surface of the skin.
These are wide depressions that typically have rounded edges and an irregular, rolling appearance.
Hypertrophic or raised scars
Discoloration left behind after a zit has cleared isn’t a scar. The purple, red, or brown marks will fade over a few months on their own.
Before you start any treatment for acne scars, it’s important to be seen by a dermatologist. They can help you determine the best method to reduce the appearance of your scars and also make sure that the marks on your skin are actually scars and not another condition.
Alpha hydroxy acids
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are often found in products made to treat acne since they help to remove dead skin and prevent clogged pores. Even better, AHAs can also help make acne scars appear less noticeable. The mild acid exfoliates the outer layer of the skin to help remove discoloration and rough skin.
Best for: All types of acne scars.
Don’t worry, this one has nothing to with the gym. A small 2010 study found that dermatologist-performed lactic acid peels done once every two weeks for three months improved the texture, appearance, and pigmentation of the skin and lightened acne scars.
There are countless peels, serums, and ointments with lactic acid, but you can also use diluted apple cider vinegar as a toner or spot treatment thanks to its natural lactic acid.
Best for: All types of acne scars.
Topical retinoids are another acne treatment with scar-smoothing benefits. In addition to speeding up your cell regeneration and improving your skin’s texture, retinoids can also help reduce discoloration and make scars less noticeable according to a recent review. However, they can also make your skin especially sensitive to the sun. Always wear sunscreen daily when using anything that contains retinoids.
You can find creams and serums with retinoids over the counter, but your healthcare provider can also prescribe you higher concentrations. Look for products that list retinol as one of the active ingredients.
Best for: Atrophic or depressed scars.
Chances are high that you’ve already used salicylic acid to treat your acne in the past. From pads to spot treatments and lotions to face cleansers, it’s in just about every kind of acne treatment these days.
Salicylic acid clears pores, reduces swelling and redness, and exfoliates the skin when applied topically. It’s considered to be one of the best treatments for acne scars. You can add products with salicylic acid into your daily routine or your skin care specialist may use it for less frequent chemical peels.
It might take a few weeks to see a difference when using salicylic acid. It can also cause dryness or irritation. You may need to use the product less often or try spot treating if you have sensitive skin.
Best for: All acne scars.
Yes, really. It’s vital to wear sunscreen every day over scars. Sun exposure can darken scars or make them more noticeable.
Best for: All acne scars.
If at-home treatments don’t seem to be making a difference, a skin care specialist or your healthcare provider can help with your treatments.
Dermabrasion is one of the most effective and common treatments for facial scars. While it uses the same general principle as the microdermabrasion kits you can do at home, healthcare providers use a wire brush or a wheel to more deeply exfoliate the top layer of the skin.
Best for: Scars close to the surface like shallow boxcar or rolling scars. However, deeper scars may also become less noticeable.
These aren’t the kind of face masks you binge watch your favorite guilty pleasure with. A chemical peel is a strong acid that’s used to remove the top layer of the skin to reduce deeper scars. Some chemical peels are mild enough to be used at home, but your healthcare provider can provide a stronger solution with more dramatic results.
There are many different types of chemical peels, so it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider about which one is right for you.
Best for: All types of acne scars, often used for deeper scars.
Much like a chemical peel and dermabrasion, laser resurfacing removes the top layer of the skin. This treatment typically has a faster healing time than other resurfacing treatments.
However, you have to keep the area covered with a bandage until it’s completely healed. This treatment is also not a good option for anyone who’s still getting breakouts, and it’s not as effective on darker skin tones.
Best for: All acne scars and lighter skin tones.
Healthcare providers use fillers to fill in acne scars and help even out the skin. The fillers can be made with collagen, your own fat, or a commercial filler. They’re injected under the surface of the skin to help plump up and smooth out depressed scars.
Most fillers last between 6 and 18 months before they need to be redone, but some are permanent.
Best for: Someone with a small number of boxcar or rolling scars.
This newer treatment uses a small, handheld, needle-studded roller or hand held “pen” on the surface of the scars. The needles puncture the numbed skin — but don’t go through it like a shot! As the skin heals, it makes collagen.
There’s evidence to suggest that microneedling helps reduce the depth of acne scars, but this treatment can take up to 9 months to see changes according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Outside of the slight fear factor, it’s a safe treatment that works for all skin tones.
Best for: Depressed acne scars.
There are a few different medications that can be injected into raised scars to help soften and flatten them including corticosteroids and chemotherapy drugs fluorouracil (5-FU) and Interferon. The injections are usually performed as a series with one every few weeks.
Best for: Raised scars.
Minor in-office surgery
At first brush, it might seem crazy to remove a scar and potentially replace it with a new one, but dermatologists or plastic surgeons can remove a very noticeable scar and leave behind a small scar that will fade with time.
A healthcare provider can also lift the scar by loosening the fibers beneath it to help bring it closer to the surface so it’s less noticeable. This procedure is called subcision.
Best for: Deep depressed scars and raised scars.
Acne scars can be frustrating, but there are many treatments that can make them less noticeable. Most scars are permanent, but a healthcare provider can help you find the right treatment to help reduce the appearance of your scars.
The best way to treat an acne scar is to prevent it in the first place. You’re less likely to develop acne scars if you break out less. Avoid picking, popping, or squeezing any breakout, no matter how tempting, to prevent irritating the skin and damaging the underlying tissue, which can lead to scars.