Acne is tough enough, but the marks it leaves behind can be just as emotionally triggering. Acne scars are an unwelcome reminder of how painful, confidence-destroying and difficult breakouts can be, long after the actual pimple has subsided.
While it may feel like there are few corners of solace when faced with a pitted scar or a dark brown mark on the skin, don’t get discouraged. Understanding why acne scars appear, and what type of scar you have, will empower you to treat it in the best possible way and vastly improve the appearance of indentations and discolouration on the skin.
Keep scrolling for the best expert advice…
Why does acne leave scars?
Scars are formed when a breakout damages the tissues beneath the skin. “In some cases, the wound does not healing fully,” explains Dr Mahsa Saleki, surgeon, cosmetic doctor and founder of London’s SAS Aesthetics clinic. “When acne occurs, the body’s natural response is to generate wound healing, which can sometimes lead to uneven texture and scars. It’s a very common symptom, even those that have battled with just one or two fierce blemishes may be presented with scarring.”
Can you get rid of acne scars?
Although there is no guarantee that you will be able to completely get rid of acne scarring, there are many effective treatments that will improve their appearance and texture, says Dr Saleki, who is a fan of using Morpheus8 in her clinic.
“Morpheus8 works by triggering the skin’s natural healing processes, gently evening out and plumping the depressions caused by acne scarring over time and stimulating the production of collagen and elastin to renew the skin’s surface.”
How to identify the type of acne scar you have
“The amount and type of acne scarring depends on several factors, like genetics and the severity of your acne,” Dr Saleki notes. However, identifying what type of acne scar you have means you can deploy the right skincare or aesthetic treatments to smooth it.
Atrophic scars, which leave a flat depression on the skin, are the most common on the face, while hypertrophic or raised scars are more prevalent on the chest and back.
There are three types of atrophic scars:
Ice-pick scars: “These appear small, deep, narrow and pitted [they look almost like chickenpox scars] and are most commonly treated by laser skin resurfacing,” Dr Saleki says.
Rolling scars: “Typically, rolling scars are broad depressions with sloping edges and can be treated with chemical peels,” she adds.
Boxcar scars: Those with cystic acne are more likely to suffer from boxcar scars, “which are like rolling scars but with sharp borders and can be treated best with micro-needling,” notes Dr Saleki.
Acne scars vs acne marks
“Not only can acne cause scarring, but inflammation can cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, too,” says Dr Saleki. Known as acne marks, these are smooth in texture rather than lesions on the skin, so call for a different approach to acne scars.
On pale skin, acne marks tend to be purply red in colour; on brown and black skin the marks are darker as more melanin is produced to defend against the trauma.
How do you stop acne from scarring?
The best way to treat an acne scar is to prevent it in the first place. 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.
“When a pimple heals, it leaves behind either a red or brown mark on the surface of the skin,” says Julie Morris, an aesthetics nurse at Effortless Skin. “If this pimple has been squeezed or picked at, the damage can go much deeper.”
That’s not to say that unpicked pimples won’t cause scarring, but you’ll certainly reduce the risk by not aggravating your skin further. If you absolutely have to squeeze it, then follow our guide to spot squeezing by Dr Pimple Popper.
You may also be able to reduce the appearance of acne scars with over-the-counter skincare, lifestyle changes and dermatologist-performed procedures:
Maintaining a good cleansing routine – morning and night – is key to keeping acne in check, says Dr Yannis Alexandrides, founder and surgical director at 111 Harley St. “The amount of cleanser you use is important,” he adds. “Make sure it’s an amount equal to the size of a water bottle lid – any less can result in breakouts as dirt and makeup debris may still be clogging pores.”
As for what ingredients to look out for in a cleanser, consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto, is a fan of salicylic acid – and it’s not hard to see why.
Salicylic acid is anti-inflammatory and antibacterial. It is also lipophilic (aka oil-soluble), meaning it works deep inside pores to dissolve the paste-like mixture of oil and dead cells that can accumulate and cause breakouts.
If you should accidentally disturb the head on a spot, or squeeze it, keep the wound clean by covering it with a hydrocolloid acne patch. Ones like ZitSticka Killa Clarifying Microdart Patch Kit and Starface Hydro-Stars calm redness and prevent scabbing, making scarring less likely, so you won’t have to figure out how to get rid of acne scars in the first place.
Yes, really. It’s vital to wear sunscreen every day over scars. Sun exposure can darken scars making them more noticeable.
More often than not, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation fades on its own over time. But there’s no harm in speeding up the process with a vitamin C serum to prevent and treat them, Dr Saleki notes.
L’ascorbic acid is the gold standard vitamin C for topical use and is known to block tyrosinase, an enzyme that triggers pigmentation. Vitamin C is also one of the most robust treatments for brightening the skin “and it aids in collagen production,” says Dr Mahto, which can help to plump up depressed scars.
Spot treat depressions in the skin with a targeted anti-scar gel. Murad InvisiScar Resurfacing Treatment is designed to minimise scar depth and discolouration in eight weeks thanks to a blend of BHA exfoliators, vitamin C and anti-inflammatory centella asiatica.
The Inkey List 2% Tranexamic Acid Serum combines this powerful amino acid with acai berry and vitamin C for a more even skin tone. Kate Somerville EradiKate Blemish Mark Fading Gel leans on salicylic acid to slough away dead skin cells and niacinamide to target dark marks while Cellderma GF5 Growth Factor Serum is beloved by Dr Saleki.
If you have existing acne, as well as acne scars, your best bet for addressing both is to use products laced with resurfacing ingredients.
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.
“Glycolic acid and lactic acid (which is gentler on the skin), help to minimise the depth and severity of scars, while working to keep the pores clear,” Julie says.
Dr Alexandrides concurs, noting that he recommends the 111Skin Exfolactic Cleanser. If you’re unsure which kind of resurfacing product will work best for your skin, check out our guide to acids.
Retinol carries a lot of clout for its youth-boosting abilities, but its resurfacing powers can also help with acne control and scar healing.
“Vitamin A in mild doses dries out sebum production,” says Shabir Daya, co-founder of Victoria Health. “With less sebum in the pores, the chances of them becoming clogged are reduced, ultimately decreasing the chance of acne breakouts.”
As for acne scarring, retinol and retinoids also speed up cell renewal and kickstart collagen production.
There are a few caveats, though. When using retinol, avoid acids in your routine – AHAs and BHAs – as the combination can lead to painful flare ups.
Remember, too, that if you’re using retinol for the first time, it’s important to ease this ingredient into your skincare regime gradually (ideally once a week for two weeks, upping to twice a week and then every other day).
Always start at a low dosage and apply an oil-free suncream as retinol can make skin more sensitive to UV rays.
If your active acne has cleared and scarring is your main concern, both Julie and Dr Alexandrides recommend trying an in-clinic treatment. “The most effective way to get rid of acne scars is through a treatment performed in a clinical setting, such as microdermabrasion, laser resurfacing or a peel,” says Julie.
- Microdermabrasion: 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 professionals use tools to more deeply exfoliate the top layer of the skin.
- Microneedling: Microneedling, where tiny needles create a controlled micro-injury on the skin’s surface, stimulates collagen production. This minimally invasive, non-surgical treatment “boosts the skin’s natural repair system without having to remove the top layer of skin,” says Dr Alexandrides. “This, in combination with laser treatment (dependent on the patient’s skin type), is a great way to treat acne scarring.”
- Chemical peel: A chemical peel involves applying an acid solution to the face to resurface the skin, remove dead skin cells and stimulate the growth of new ones for improved texture and tone. At-home versions are essentially acid exfoliators that contain acids at 6% to 30% concentrations. Professional chemical peels, on the other hand, are more intense and will require an element of downtime depending on the strength.
- Polynucleotides: A relatively new treatment in aesthetic medicine, polynucleotides are molecules that stimulate collagen and tissue regeneration. “By aiding the skin’s healing process they minimise the formation of acne scars,” says says aesthetic doctor Dr Bejma Magdalena. “Polynucleotides have known anti-inflammatory effects, reducing redness, swelling, and discomfort associated with acne lesions. I use Polynucleotides as a standalone injectable treatment as well as in combination with Morpheus8 and the CO2 resurfacing laser. I have noticed a massive improvement in scars, as well as in level of inflammation since Polynucleotides were added to the treatment protocol.”
Scarred skin can be delicate, so always speak to a professional before booking in for a treatment.
Diet plays a big part in the health of your skin and one of the best things you can do to help clear both acne and acne scarring, is to pay attention to what you’re eating and drinking.
Alcohol, sugars and carbs are best consumed in moderation while seasonal fruits, vegetables and water are all smart picks for flushing toxins from your skin.
Gluten, in particular, can be problematic for acne-prone skin. “There is a protein in gluten which often results in ‘leaky gut syndrome’, where food proteins enter the circulatory system and cause an inflammatory response and hyperpigmentation,” Dr Alexandrides explains.
If you think the gluten in your diet may be affecting your skin, try swapping in unprocessed fish, “zoodles” (zucchini noodles) or chickpea-based pasta.
Finally, some of your everyday products could be exacerbating your acne and scarring. To be on the safe side, try switching to non-comedogenic or mineral makeup.
“Makeup products that include parabens and artificial oils in their ingredient list can sometimes worsen your skin if not properly removed at night,” says Dr Alexandrides. BareMinerals Original Loose Mineral Foundation remains a cult buy for acne sufferers.
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