Even if battling zits is a distant memory, filed away with high-school gym class and algebra tests, acne marks and scars can annoyingly linger long after pimples are gone. “If someone gets a very large pimple or cyst, the natural healing process of the skin will create a scar,” says David Avram, M.D., of Heights Dermatology and Laser. “The more intense the inflammation, the more likely it will leave a scar.”
True acne scars — as in indentations in the skin like ice-pick scars — can only be erased with professional procedures like microneedling or lasers. Fortunately, what most of us refer to as “scars,” according to Julia Tzu, M.D., founder and medical director of Wall Street Dermatology, are actually marks caused by post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (brown spots) or post-inflammatory erythema (red spots), that will fade over several months or years. Fortunately, there are products that can speed up the process.
We spoke with Tzu, Avram, Arielle Nagler, M.D., of NYU Langone Medical Center, and Michele Farber, M.D., of Schweiger Dermatology, to get their recommendations for treating, preventing, and camouflaging acne marks.
How to treat existing acne scars
Since the UV rays and visible light from the sun can further darken acne marks, all the dermatologists agree it’s essential to wear sunscreen daily. “Sun protection can make a big difference in whether or not these marks remain permanent,” says Nagler, so much so that she’ll often recommend patients wait and see what their scars look like after a year of careful sun protection before opting for an expensive or invasive procedure. This CeraVe oil-free sunscreen is ideal for acne-prone skin, and also contains niacinamide, which is known to help brighten skin and fight inflammation.
Despite its name, this RoC cream is for more than just wrinkles. Retinol, its active ingredient, works to fade marks by increasing the rate of cell turnover. Avram likes RoC for its powerful retinol, available without a prescription.
Both Avram and Tzu recommend looking for products with mark-fading hydroquinone. Ambi Fade Cream includes 2 percent hydroquinone, the highest concentration allowed without a prescription. “It also contains soy, which is well known for treating pigmentation issues, and vitamin E which helps with scarring,” says Tzu. While the FDA considers hydroquinone safe, it is banned in Europe and can potentially cause irritation or further discoloration, so remember to patch-test and check with a dermatologist whether it’s right for you.
From the makers of every beauty editor’s favorite vitamin C serum, this SkinCeuticals potion is specifically designed for fading and preventing hyperpigmentation. It features niacinamide for brightening and evening skin tone, and kojic acid for lightening dark spots. It’s a good alternative if you don’t want to use hydroquinone.
Another ingredient derms like for fading marks is azelaic acid. Farber says it inhibits the formation of an enzyme called tyrosinase, which in turn stops the mechanism that produces skin-darkening melanin. This PCA treatment pairs azelaic acid with kojic acid and exfoliators like lactic and glycolic acids for a multi-pronged attack on dark marks.
And an under-$10 azelaic acid from cult skin-care favorite the Ordinary.
Yes, it’s another pricey SkinCeuticals serum, but dermatologists absolutely love their products for treating acne marks. You’ll get more bang for your buck with the inclusion of glycolic and lactic acids, two alpha-hydroxy acids that Avram says help fade marks by exfoliating the top surface of the skin. Nagler says “vitamin C is helpful as an adjunct in preventing free radical damage, which helps with pigmentation.” It’s also worth investing in a high-quality serum since, according to Nagler, vitamin C isn’t stable — and is therefore less effective — in some other products.
How to prevent them
When it comes to acne scars — especially difficult to treat indented or raised ones — the best offense is a good defense. If you’re still struggling with active acne and want to avoid future scarring, Avram likes this drugstore-staple Neutrogena wash because it contains salicylic acid, a beta-hydroxy acid that he says “exfoliates the skin, softens the appearance of the acne itself, and has some antibacterial properties.”
Skin-care geeks rejoiced when the formerly Rx-only Differin gel became available over the counter, in 2016. A prescription-strength retinoid, Differin also affects cell turnover faster than OTC retinols to prevent the formation of new acne. Avram recommends it for those dealing with a lot of small pimples and only the occasional monster cyst. Because Nagler says retinoids “encouraging collagen remodeling,” a well-tolerated formula like Differin can also reduce the appearance of deeper scars.
How to camouflage the ones you have
While you’re waiting on all those active ingredients to kick in, Tzu says it’s best to use “makeup or foundation with a green tint to neutralize the redness.” She likes the Clinique Redness Solutions line, designed to color-correct red marks or spots. While this foundation includes SPF, it’s still best to layer over a dedicated sunscreen for maximum protection.
Strat beauty editor Rio Viera-Newton mentioned this paraben- and fragrance-free concealer in her post on makeup for broken-out skin. “This has helped me conceal even the worst of the worst,” she wrote. Designed for buildable coverage, it will also work on masking those acne marks until they gradually fade away, and the gentle formula means it won’t cause additional irritation.
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