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How to Address Acne Scars and Acne Marks

Those pesky reminders of past breakouts don’t have to permanently plague your skin.

September 08, 2023

Acne is hands down one of the most frustrating skin problems to deal with — and it’s also one of the most common. The lumps and bumps that form can be painful, hard to conceal and overall distressing. For many acne sufferers, once the blemishes have run their course, they may leave behind a trail of scars, which can range in type and severity. Luckily, they don’t have to be permanent because there are a few ways you can get rid of acne scars. With time, patience, and the right skin care routine, you can help address the appearance of your acne scars and pave the way toward clearer-looking skin


Take notes as we share more about acne scars and acne marks, including how to avoid them and ways to improve their appearance. 


What Are Acne Scars?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, acne scars are lesions or indentations left on the skin when a pimple (papule, pustule, nodule or cyst) becomes inflamed. When the skin tries to heal that pimple, it can create a noticeable scar tissue on the skin and in some cases, leave an unwanted mark.  

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What Are the Common Types of Acne Marks?

The same way there isn’t just one type of acne, there isn’t just one type of acne scar. Since the skin reacts differently to different types of breakouts, the result can be scarring that’s either raised or indented. Here’s the scoop on each:


1. Atrophic (Depressed) Scarring

Atrophic scarring looks like indentations in the skin and are classified into three groups based on their appearance: ice pick, rolling scars  and boxcar (for example, boxcar scars are boxy in shape). According to research provided in the National Library of Medicine (NLM), depressed scarring is more common than raised scarring. These types of acne scars look like punctures in the skin and are more difficult to heal, per the Cleveland Clinic.


2. Hypertrophic

Hypertrophic scars are lesions that are raised from the skin. They’re often characterized by a dark pink hue and are firm to the touch. Also referred to as keloidal scars, they’re caused by fibrous collagen tissue that overgrew where the acne formed (which is why you can feel it if you run your finger over it). The NLM states that hypertrophic and keloid scars are more common in people with darker skin tones.

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Acne Scars vs. Acne Marks: What’s the Difference?

The terms acne scars and acne marks are often used interchangeably, but they refer to different things. Acne scars refer to the indentations or raised tissue on the skin that often results from severe acne. Acne marks are milder, and refer to the flat, dark or red spots left behind on the skin after a small blemish heals.  


What Causes Acne Scars and Acne Marks to Form?

Acne forms when a clogged pore (blackhead or whitehead) becomes infected with bacteria, creating an inflammatory response. According to the Cleveland Clinic, a scar is formed when the acne pore swells and the wall of the pore breaks down, in some instances even spilling the content of the pimple into the surrounding tissue. The skin then jumps into repair mode (as healthy skin will always do when you have a wound) in an effort to treat the wounded area, and when there is an overproduction of collagen fibers, a raised scar forms. Alternatively, if there is a loss of tissue, an indentation scar forms. For smaller blemishes, a flat, dark or red acne mark may form. 


There are also things you could be doing that exacerbate the forming of an acne scar. Here are three common practices to note so you can add them to your don’ts list when you have an active breakout.


1. Pimple Popping

Since your fingers might carry bacteria, popping a pimple can push bacteria deeper into the skin and increase the chance of a scar forming. Even if you wash your hands before popping pimples, don’t do it. It can lead to increased scarring if done incorrectly, and there is the possibility of potential infection.


2. Picking At Blemishes

Have you ever tried picking your blemish only to be mad at yourself after because you made it worse? That’s usually how it goes so it’s best to avoid any type of pimple picking and popping. Similar to popping pimples, picking at your acne with your hands or even beauty tools can inflame the area. As your skin attempts to heal, a scar can form, so hands off those breakouts.


3. Skipping SPF

Since your skin is hypersensitive when you have an active breakout, you want to do everything you can to protect it and that includes not skipping important parts of your skin care routine. We can’t stress enough how important it is to wear sunscreen daily, not only to prevent premature skin aging, but also to keep dark marks away. If your skin is already in repair mode, you run the risk of deepening the pigment of acne marks if you don’t apply SPF. While wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen doesn’t necessarily stop an acne scar from forming, it can help keep acne marks from deepening in color and becoming more noticeable.


How to Prevent Acne Scars and Acne Marks

We always say the best defense is good offense, and if you can avoid acne scars altogether, you can save a ton of time and money on methods to remove them. Here are some simple ways to prevent acne scars from forming, plus how to avoid them from getting worse once they’ve already developed.


1. Get Extractions From a Professional Only

To help reduce the risk of acne scars forming, make sure not to pick at your blemishes. You probably saw that coming, but may also be guilty of it (we’re in the same boat!). An easy way to do this is to make an appointment for a facial with your dermatologist or esthetician once you feel a breakout coming. That way, if your pimples need to be treated it’ll be done by a professional, and you can treat it as an opportunity to relax and practice some self-care.


2. Always Wear Sunscreen

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) suggests that acne scars may look more noticeable with age as collagen levels begin to decrease. The sun’s harmful rays can also darken the appearance of scars and marks, so be sure to apply broad-spectrum SPF 30 or greater prior to heading outdoors to prevent sun damage.


Do Acne Scars and Acne Marks Fade Over Time?

Acne scars and marks may fade on their own, but it will take a significant amount of time. While there are skin care products such as serums, facial moisturizers and even cleansers that can help treat or fade acne scars over time, they require patience and consistent use. If you want to treat acne scars faster, you’ll need to undergo a professional procedure (more on that later). Either way, take proper sun protection measures so that you don’t undo the progress of your skin care products to fade dark spots.


How to Remove Acne Scars

There are different ways to fade acne scars and acne marks so they’re less noticeable, as well as methods to get rid of acne scars completely. They vary in intensity, and as a result, cost. Depending on what type of acne scar you have and how long it's been around, some treatments will be less effective than others. 


Check out these additional acne scar treatments so you can decide which method is best for you. Due to the different types and severities of acne scars, it can be challenging to pinpoint the right options that will prove successful for all. We recommend visiting your dermatologist to talk about the side effects and risk factors associated with each option before determining the best plan of action for your acne scars. 


1. Retinol

There’s good reason why derms love this powerhouse anti-aging ingredient, and one lesser known is that retinol can be an effective ingredient in treating acne scarring. Namely, tretinoin, a more potent retinoid available by prescription, has been shown to smooth ice pick scars (deep V-shaped scars, that look like an ice pick made a puncture in the skin) and younger pitted (atrophic) scars, as per a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). If you want to try this method, you’ll need to visit a board-certified dermatologist for a prescription or application method that works best for you.


2. Glycolic Acid

You should also look for products containing ingredients like glycolic acid, an alpha hydroxy acid which works as an exfoliant that helps shed dead skin cells and brightens the skin. The NCBI explains that the best results for treating acne scars with glycolic acid includes at least five sequential sessions using an extremely high dose of the acid, done every two weeks. In other words, you will need to seek out professional services to get a treatment potent enough to have the effect you desire, especially if you have deep scarring.  

Editor’s tip: Glycolic acid may increase photosensitivity, so be sure to apply a face moisturizer or sunscreen that has SPF 30 or greater daily. We love to layer on the L’Oréal Paris Bright Reveal Broad Spectrum SPF 50 Daily UV Lotion at the end of our skin care routines for UV protection without a greasy feel or visible residue.

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3. Vitamin C

Known for its antioxidant properties and ability to brighten skin, vitamin C is often included in over the counter serums and spot correctors, like the L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives 12% Pure Vitamin C + E + Salicylic Acid Serum, to help improve dark spots and acne scars alike. Including vitamin C in your skin care routine will also help brighten the skin and even skin tone, per the Cleveland Clinic


4. Niacinamide 

According to the Mayo Clinic, mild acne marks that do not leave any indentations may improve with the use of dark spot correctors and proper sun protection measures. Spot treatments come in many different forms from hydrocolloid patches to concentrated serums, like the L’Oréal Paris Bright Reveal 12% [Niacinamide + Amino Sulfonic + Ferulic Acid] Dark Spot Serum. According to the Cleveland Clinic, topical niacinamide in a serum or spot treatment can help lighten dark spots and reduce skin redness with minimal side effects.

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5. Dermabrasion

If your acne scars are deep, your dermatologist may recommend a skin-resurfacing procedure known as dermabrasion. According to the Mayo Clinic, dermabrasion utilizes a device that sands the outer layers of skin to reduce the look of facial lines and improve the look of acne scars and other hyperpigmentation. 


6. Chemical Peels

Chemical peels are often used to help reduce the look of signs of aging (such as fine lines and wrinkles), certain types of acne and skin discoloration. During a chemical peel, your dermatologist will apply a chemical solution to the skin, encouraging the top layer of skin to peel away. Talk to your dermatologist to see what type of chemical peel is best for you. 


7. Laser Resurfacing

Fractional or ablative lasers are commonly used to address the appearance of acne scars. These aggressive lasers can leave the skin swollen and red for some time. Some skin care providers may prefer a non-ablative laser to lighten scars. However, while this type of laser doesn’t require downtime, a series of treatments will be necessary for the desired results. 


Editor’s tip: Make sure to research and seek out laser treatment from a trained professional only. Some laser treatments can be damaging to people with darker skin tones. 


8. Microneedling

When deep peels and laser treatments are too invasive for an area of the skin, some turn to microneedling for post-acne scar treatment. The tiny punctures that are made to the skin in this procedure break the collagen bundles that create scarring, effectively smoothing out the skin, as per the NCBI. Microneedling is used to treat several skin conditions, including atrophic acne scarring, and it’s done with minimal downtime, limited side effects and a lower cost than more invasive treatments.


9. Fillers

The AAD suggests that dermal fillers may improve the look of depressed acne scars but not icepick scars. These fillers can be injected into the acne scars to fill them out and soften their crater-like appearance. Note that this is only a temporary solution and would likely need to be done regularly.

Next: How to Hide Acne Scars with Makeup

 Photo Courtesy of L'Oréal Paris

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