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Let's start with one thing: If you have acne or acne scars, that's completely fine. It's a myth that skin has to be smooth and clear to be glowy and beautiful. You don't have to change anything about your skin (and we're not going to tell you to, either!). That said, you're allowed to want to avoid scarring, lift discoloration, and fade acne scars. No shame either way. If you're interested in the latter, we can help.
It’s important to keep in mind that not all types of acne scars are the same, and treating them also requires different approaches. “Acne can leave multiple types of scars. These are generally categorized into acne blemishes, atrophic acne scars, and hypertrophic acne scars,” explains Dr. Y. Claire Chang, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist.
Meet the Expert
- Dr. Y. Claire Chang is a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York City. She has extensive experience in skin brightening treatments, including laser skin rejuvenation with an emphasis on treating pigmentation and acne scarring.
- Dr. Jeremy Fenton is a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. He has participated in basic science and clinical research studies over the years, publishing papers and giving presentations on the subjects of sunscreen efficacy and the treatment of acne and disorders of pigmentation.
Acne blemishes are distinguished by a change in skin color; these can be either red marks or dark spots, the latter of which are referred to as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Atrophic scars, commonly referred to as ice pick scars, are caused due to a loss of collagen and elastin and show up as actual changes in the texture of the skin (think: crevices and pits). And finally, hypertrophic scars or keloids are caused by haphazard collagen production that occurs during the wound healing process and shows up as growths of excess skin.
No matter what type of scars you have, it’s worth seeing your dermatologist. Most people have multiple types of scarring, and, particularly for atrophic and hypertrophic scars, in-office treatments such as lasers and fillers are your best bet, Dr. Chang notes. That being said, there are effective at-home treatments you can seek out that are especially effective for those discolored acne scars and marks.
Below, the top acne scar treatments to try at home.
Best Overall: Murad InvisiScar Resurfacing Treatment
Effective on many types of scars
Should be used twice daily
While different types of acne scars typically require different types of treatment, this option by Murad touts ingredients that work to address all kinds. The formula, which includes a blend of silicones, antioxidants, and salicylic acid, is designed to fill in areas of uneven skin texture as well as help even out tone and brighten any dark marks or discoloration. Use it twice daily, dabbing on a thin layer wherever you have the most stubborn scarring.
Active Ingredients: Salicylic acid, silicones | Size: .5 oz | Dosage: Twice daily | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best Budget: RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream
Offers anti-aging benefits
Can irritate sensitive skin
According to Dr. Chang, in-office treatments are the gold standard for addressing deep, atrophic scars. That being said, using topical retinol can help stimulate collagen, a boon when it comes to treating this type of scarring. Enter this drugstore pick— which, according to the brand, has been clinically proven to reduce the look of fine lines and wrinkles in just 12 weeks. If you’re combatting the effects of adult acne and want an anti-aging boost as well, grab this one.
Active Ingredients: Retinol | Size: 1 oz | Dosage: Once daily | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: No
Best Preventative: Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel
Has exfoliating and brightening benefits
Can be intense for sensitive skin
No matter whether your complexion is usually clear or you’re trying to combat active acne, using these pads (a long-time fan-favorite among beauty editors) can go a long way towards minimizing the likelihood of future scarring. The two-step system contains a potent blend of five different acids that helps keep pores clear and gently exfoliate away discoloration. Follow that with step two, a formula loaded with collagen-boosting retinol and antioxidant-rich resveratrol, which further evens out and smooths your complexion.
Active Ingredients: Alpha-hydroxy acids, beta-hydroxy acids | Size: 30 treatments | Dosage: Once daily | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best for Sensitive Skin: Re:P Cell Revival Cica Cream
Good for sensitive skin
Dr. Chang recommends this K-beauty staple, which uses four different Centella asiatica-derived ingredients. Also known as tiger grass, Centella asiatica is a plant-based ingredient that’s long been used for its effective wound healing and anti-inflammatory properties—both big pros when it comes to combating acne scars and helping to calm sensitive skin. Plus, it contains antioxidant-rich edelweiss extract and panthenol.
Active Ingredients: Centella asiatica | Size: 1.69 oz | Dosage: Once or twice daily | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: Unknown
Best Retinoid: SkinBetter Science AlphaRet Overnight Cream 30ML
Offers multiple benefits
Use once daily
Like we said, using a retinoid can be a great way to help promote collagen production and subsequently smoother, more even-textured skin. This one gets our vote for the addition of lactic acid; the formula is an effective-yet-gentle exfoliating solution that addresses discoloration. It also has plenty of moisturizing ingredients, which is ideal for counteracting the potential for dryness that can often come when using a retinoid. It’s also a top pick for Dr. Jeremy Fenton, a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City: “It’s been formulated to be very tolerable even for more sensitive skin types,” he says, adding that retinoids are one of his favorite classes of ingredients for helping with acne scarring.
Active Ingredients: Retinoid, glycolic acid, lactic acid | Size: 1 oz | Dosage: Once daily | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Runner-Up, Best Retinoid: Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment
Offers multiple benefits
Use once daily
Can irritate sensitive skin
Sure, it may be called an acne treatment, but Fenton says it’s another great option for combating acne scars and dark marks. “Retinoids are one of the best exfoliators to help remove that pigment on the top layer, and they also help build collagen over time so you’re getting multiple benefits,” he says. “This is an over-the-counter retinoid that is as strong as many of the prescription-strength options," he adds.
Active Ingredients: Adapalene | Size: .5 oz | Dosage: Once daily | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: No
Best for Dark Skin: Ambi Fade Cream for Normal Skin
Hydroquinone is a controversial ingredient
“Those with darker complexions may be more prone to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation or brown blemishing after acne lesions heal,” says Dr. Chang. Enter this solution, which touts hydroquinone, a top spot fading ingredient (albeit a bit controversial). And it has a 2% concentration of hydroquinone at that—the maximum you can get over-the-counter. It’s a great choice for applying on wider areas of discolored scars, not to mention that it rings in at just a few dollars and contains vitamin E, too. FYI, skip it if you’re pregnant since hydroquinone isn’t recommended for use during pregnancy.
Active Ingredients: Hydroquinone | Size: 2 oz | Dosage: Once daily | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: No
Best for Dark Spots: Naturium Tranexamic Topical Acid 5%
Great for all skin types, even sensitive
Clean and cruelty-free
Won’t help with raised scarring
“This product contains several ingredients that have been shown to suppress the production of pigment in the melanocyte, the cells that produce the pigment,” says Fenton of another one of his picks. (More specifically, it touts tranexamic acid, kojic acid, niacinamide, and licorice root.) “This is an example of a product that the sooner you put on acne the better, as it can help stop the dark spots from forming at all,” he says.
Active Ingredients: Tranexamic acid, kojic acid, niacinamide, licorice root | Size: 1 oz | Dosage: Once daily | Byrdie Clean: Yes | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Runner-Up, Best for Dark Spots: Dermologica Age Bright Spot Fader
Clean and cruelty-free
Not good for other types of scarring
Talk about multi-tasking. This pick gives you plenty of bang for your buck, acting as a two-for-one that both helps clear existing breakouts while simultaneously warding off the appearance of new ones. Credit a trio of salicylic acid, niacinamide, and hexylresorcinol, all of which work synergistically to treat pimples and prevent the tell-tale post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation that can occur after the fact.
Active Ingredients: Salicylic acid, niacinamide, hexylresorcinol | Size: .5 oz | Dosage: Twice daily | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best Sunscreen: EltaMD UV Physical Broad-Spectrum SPF 41
Lightweight, tinted formula
Doesn't help treat existing scars
Sunscreen may not be the first thing you think of when you think of an acne scar treatment, but trust us, it’s essential. Sun damage will not only make any discolored spots darker, but it also breaks down collagen, which is the last thing you want if you’re dealing with scars that have caused uneven texture and roughness. The bottom line: When you’re trying to eliminate scars, your daily dose of SPF is more important than ever. Dr. Chang recommends this tinted option: “It has a smooth, sheer application and can cover up existing blemishes,” she says.
Active Ingredients: Zinc oxide, titanium dioxide | Size: 3 oz | Dosage: Once daily | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best for Raised Scars: Biodermis Pro-Sil Silicone Scar Stick
Great for new and existing scars
Easy to use
Won’t help with pigment changes
If you’re already dealing with hypertrophic or keloid scars, you’ll most likely need to see a dermatologist for the most effective treatment. Still, Dr. Chang says that using silicone topically can help prevent these types of scars from forming in the first place. Enter this easy-to-use, mess-free stick which you can quickly swipe on as needed. It also works on all skin types and tones,
Active Ingredients: Silicones | Size: 4.25 grams | Dosage: Several times daily | Byrdie Clean: Yes | Cruelty-Free: Unknown
Best Splurge: iS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance +
Good multi-tasking formula
Just a few drops of this pricey pick (which just happens to contain the highest levels of antioxidants of any of the brand’s products) pack a major punch. The formula, made with zinc sulfate and vitamin C, tones down redness and helps brighten the skin. But the benefits don’t stop there; along with working well on both current breakouts and scars, it can also help with everything from rosacea to bug bites. Talk about getting good bang for your buck.
Active Ingredients: Kojic acid, arbutin, zinc sulfate | Size: 1 oz | Dosage: Once daily | Byrdie Clean: Yes | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Treating scars is a complex task and one that largely depends on the type of scar you’re trying to treat. The Murad InvisiScar Resurfacing Treatment is our overall favorite pick, a rare formula that contains ingredients that can both treat textural and tone changes in the skin. Retinoids are another ingredient dermatologists suggest looking for (not to mention ones that offer several other benefits). Try the RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream, Differin Adapalene 0.1% Acne Treatment, or SkinBetter Science AlphaRet Overnight Cream, all great retinoid-based options.
Whether or not you end up with acne scars is a result of several factors. Genetics plays a role, and excess trauma also ups your likelihood of ending up with a scar. Consider this yet another reason to adopt a hands-off approach and not pick or pop pimples.
What to Look For in an Acne Scar Treatment
Since discoloration is one of the tell-tale signs of the post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation associated with acne scarring, look for proven brightening ingredients such as retinoids, tranexamic acid, azelaic acid, and vitamin C. (Though with the caveat that the more intense ingredients should be used with caution if you have sensitive skin, more on that point to come.)
What types of products best address acne scars?
This depends largely on the type of acne scar, says Fenton, who points out that no topical product is going to yield a large improvement for pitted acne scars. He says over-the-counter products are better able to help fade the discoloration associated with acne, citing exfoliating formulas that contain ingredients such as retinoids and glycolic acid, and brightening formulas that contain ingredients such as hydroquinone, tranexamic acid, and vitamin C as good choices.
Are there any ingredients to avoid in acne scar treatments?
If you have sensitive skin, steer clear of the retinoids and/or hydroquinones of the world, because they can potentially irritate your skin, cautions Fenton. If you do want to try them, start slowly, using one just a few times per week to make sure you can tolerate it.
How long does it take to see results from acne scar treatments?
According to Fenton, this timeline can vary greatly from person to person. “Some people see dark spots fade in weeks, for others it can take months, but I usually say that you can expect at least some improvement within one month,” he says.
How often should you use acne scar treatments?
“This depends on the type of treatment you are using. Most are designed to be used daily, however, if it is something that can be drying or irritating, you may only want to use it a few times per week. For example, if your skin cannot tolerate it, a retinoid may be better used only two to three times per week,” says Fenton.
Why Trust Byrdie
Byrdie contributor Melanie Rud has over a decade of experience in the beauty industry, writing for some of the biggest magazines and websites out there. She frequently covers acne and acne treatments.