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Acne can affect teens and adults alike, thanks to a variety of causes: hormonal changes, medications, diet, and genetics, to name a few.

Besides being a nuisance, acne can also cause scarring, especially when breakouts are picked or popped.

While some scars fade over time, others may be permanent. However, with some dermatologist-recommended products that help treat acne scars, you can lessen the damage caused by breakouts.

There are several types of acne scars. According to Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD, a dermatologist in New York City, acne scarring usually presents as:

  • Hyperpigmentation. This may be brown or red discoloration.
  • Depressed scars. Also known as atrophic scars, these include ice pick scars (narrow and deep), boxcar scars (shallow with sharp edges), and rolling scars (shallow with smooth edges).
  • Raised scars. These are also known as hypertrophic, or keloidal, scars.

Severe acne has a greater chance of leaving permanent scars while it heals,” Garshick adds. She also notes that topical treatments can only take you so far. Chemical peels and microneedling are also beneficial in diminishing acne scarring.

Joshua Zeichner, MD, the director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Department of Dermatology, adds, “Unfortunately, topical treatments have limited use in treating acne scars, and physical modalities, like lasers, are often needed.”

Zeichner says depressed scars usually benefit more from lasers, thick and raised scars are treated with cortisone injections, and ice pick scars are usually removed with a minor surgical procedure.

Scarring occurs as a result of injury to the skin and excess oil production, bacteria, and inflammation.

Zeichner explains, “Inflammation in the skin tells our pigment producing cells to become overactive, explaining why pimples leave behind dark spots.”

The hyperpigmentation that remains isn’t permanent, but it can be uncomfortable for some people. It can also present differently, depending on your complexion.

“[Hyperpigmentation] is more common in patients who have darker skin tones,” he adds. “Whereas, fair skinned patients are often left with pink or red spots in areas where there used to be pimples. This post-inflammatory erythema heals on its own over several weeks.”

Although most superficial breakouts heal on their own without leaving a significant mark, there are others that leave a more noticeable scar behind.

“This is why it’s advised to avoid picking pimples. It can lead to more injury to the skin, which can lead to a greater chance of a scar,” Garshick says.

To create this list, we asked dermatologists which products they swear by for the different types of acne scarring.

They took into consideration:

  • skin type
  • efficacy of the products
  • any safety concerns patients should be mindful of

Keep in mind that some scarring can be treated at home, but it’s best to talk with a dermatologist about severe scarring.

Pricing guide

Skin care products can range as low as $10 or as high as $100. Our experts suggested both cost-effective and splurge-worthy products.

  • $ = under $20
  • $$ = $20–$50
  • $$$ = over $50

Best over-the-counter (OTC) retinoid for acne scars

Differin Gel Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment

  • Price: $
  • Best for: all types of acne scars
  • Key ingredients: adapalene 0.1% (retinoid)
  • Product size: 0.5-ounce (oz) tube
  • Use: once daily

Differin gel is an over-the-counter (OTC) retinoid treatment that has been on the market for some time. The active ingredient is adapalene, which helps decrease swelling and inflammation, prevent breakouts, and treat scarring.

According to Garshick, “it can help discoloration and textural changes that go along with acne scars by evening out the skin tone and boosting collagen production.”

She adds that it’s safe to use once daily, but it’s best to start just a few times per week and increase the frequency as tolerated.

Reviewers say the product gently helped clear up all kinds of acne (including cystic acne), and they saw improvement with their skin in about 12 weeks.

Pros

  • FDA-approved OTC acne treatment
  • fragrance-free
  • said to work on all acne types
  • helps boost collagen

Cons

  • may cause “purging” (meaning breakouts may get worse before they get better)
  • must be used consistently
  • may cause stinging, redness, or dryness

Best skin toner for acne scars

Neutrogena Rapid Clear 2-in-1 Fight & Fade Toner

  • Price: $
  • Best for: all types of acne scars
  • Key ingredients: 2 percent salicylic acid
  • Product size: 8-oz bottle
  • Use: 1-3 times daily

Toning is a key part of your skin care routine that’s done after cleansing. While there are many types of toners, Neutrogena Rapid Clear 2-in-1 Fight & Fade toner is a fan-favorite for fighting acne.

The toner contains salicylic acid, which is known to help reduce breakouts and fade discoloration caused by breakouts.

Garshick says the glycolic acid in the toner also helps get rid of dead skin cells, and the Glyctone Enhance Brightening Complex combined with azelaic acid aids in brightening the skin.

“Because both azelaic acid and glycolic acid may be considered pregnancy-safe, this may be an option for pregnant or nursing moms dealing with acne and hyperpigmentation,” Garshick suggests.

But she says it’s always best to check with your doctor first.

Reviewers on the Neutrogena website say this toner is rapid-acting. Some saw results overnight, while others say they saw improvement in a matter of weeks.

Pros

  • fast acting exfoliant
  • brightening
  • soothing
  • loved by reviewers
  • may be safe option for pregnant or nursing people
  • budget-friendly

Cons

  • contains fragrance
  • may cause dryness or peeling
  • may not be suitable for sensitive skin types, according to reviews

Best exfoliating peel pads for acne scars

skinbetter science AlphaRet Exfoliating Peel Pads

  • Price: $$$
  • Best for: all types of acne scars
  • Key ingredients: glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acid
  • Product size: 30 peel pads
  • Use: up to 3 times weekly

This product falls on the pricier side of this list (a pack runs you about $100), but you only need to use them one or two times per week.

The pads contain hydroxy acids, including lactic acid, salicylic acid, and glycolic acid, in combination with AlphaRet, a retinoid that helps boost collagen.

“It’s easy to use and a great option for those looking for an exfoliant to help brighten the skin and improve the skin tone and texture associated with acne scars,” Garshick says.

Two of the acids — glycolic acid and lactic acid — help with lightening discoloration, while salicylic acid helps unclog pores.

Reviewers enjoy how well this product exfoliates their skin in between dermatologist visits and how convenient it is to carry, even while traveling.

Pros

  • easy to use
  • easy to travel with
  • free of parabens, fragrance, and dye
  • cruelty-free

Cons

  • pricey
  • contains alcohol denat, which can be drying or cause irritation

Best exfoliating cleanser for acne scars

SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser

  • Price: $$
  • Best for: all types of acne scarring
  • Key ingredients: salicylic acid, licorice root extract, glycerin
  • Product size: 6-oz bottle
  • Use: day and night routine, as tolerated by skin

This cleanser exfoliates and cleanses all at once. The ingredients include a mix of alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), including lactic acid, glycolic acid, citric acid, and malic acid. These help to improve skin tone and texture and prevent breakouts.

“This combination makes the cleanser a great option for those with acne scars and blemishes, as it helps to improve skin tone,” Garshick explains.

Reviews show that, even as an exfoliant, it’s still gentle enough to use on a regular basis. Those with sensitive skin should be mindful of temporary redness after exfoliating.

One note: Be sure to use sunscreen after using this cleanser. AHAs can increase your chances of sunburn.

Pros

  • includes both AHAs and BHAs for improving tone and texture
  • clarifying, exfoliating, and non-drying, according to reviews
  • alcohol-free
  • paraben-free
  • gentle overall

Cons

  • scented (citrus/lavender)
  • may cause temporary redness for some
  • contains sodium C14-16 olefin sulfonate, which can be irritating or drying
  • best to limit sun exposure and use SPF while using this cleanser

Best exfoliating body cleanser for sensitive skin

Dove Gentle Exfoliating Body Wash

  • Price: $
  • Best for: all types of acne scars
  • Key ingredients: stearic acid, palmitic acid
  • Product size: 22-oz bottle
  • Use: safe for daily use if needed

Although acne is relatively common on the face, it can show up on your body, including your back and chest, too.

Those with scarring from body acne will appreciate the results from this budget-friendly cleanser. It’s made with sensitive skin in mind, gently exfoliating the skin and leaving it smooth and moisturized.

Garshick recommends this cleanser because it’s good for those who can’t tolerate a chemical exfoliant.

“This gentle exfoliating wash helps to get rid of dead skin cells, improving the appearance of dark spots, blemishes, and acne scars,” she says.

Reviewers with skin conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema, say they benefitted from using this Dove cleanser.

Pros

  • gentle and moisturizing product
  • low price point
  • large bottle made from recycled plastic
  • free of sulfates and parabens
  • cruelty-free

Cons

  • contains fragrance, which some reviewers say it’s too strong

Best retinol serum for acne scars

CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum

  • Price: $
  • Best for: all types of acne scars
  • Key ingredients: licorice root extract, ceramides, niacinamide, retinol
  • Product size: 1-oz bottle
  • Use: daily

This CeraVe retinol serum is great for all types of acne scars, especially if you’re new to retinol. Retinol helps with resurfacing skin texture, while licorice root extract brightens the skin and improves its overall appearance.

“This serum contains ceramides and niacinamide, so it’s both gentle and soothing on the skin,” Garshick explains.

The ceramides aid in restoring and maintaining the skin’s natural barrier, while the niacinamide brings down inflammation and calms the skin.

Customer reviews show that this retinol leaves their skin smooth, and it’s even gentle enough for sensitive skin. Unlike other forms of retinol, reviewers say this one is moisturizing and doesn’t leave dry patches.

Pros

  • noncomedogenic
  • includes soothing and brightening niacinamide
  • free of fragrance and parabens

Cons

  • sunscreen is necessary with use of this product
  • contains alcohol, which may be drying

Best sunscreen for acne scars

EltaMD UV Daily Broad-Spectrum SPF 40

Sunscreen is a must no matter what your skin care routine is. But when it comes to dealing with acne, sunscreen also plays a key role in preventing scars from becoming darker.

This popular EltaMD sunscreen contains niacinamide, which helps soothe the skin, calms any possible redness, and improves discoloration.

“I especially love this sunscreen for those with acne-prone skin or discoloration. It’s a lightweight, oil-free sunscreen that won’t leave the skin feeling greasy.” Garshick says.

Reviewers love that this sunscreen is good for sensitive skin and wears well under makeup. Even though some customers say it’s on the pricier side, they believe it’s worth every penny because of how effective it is.

The brand even offers a tinted version for those who want a sheer tint without using foundation.

Pros

  • lightweight and non-greasy
  • includes calming niacinamide
  • includes hyaluronic acid (targets wrinkles, gives a smoothing effect)
  • nice for use under makeup
  • noncomedogenic, free of fragrance, parabens, and alcohol
  • airless pump for easy dispensing

Cons

Best oil-free serum for acne scars

SkinCeuticals Blemish + Age Defense

  • Price: $$$
  • Best for: discoloration
  • Key ingredients: salicylic acid, dioic acid, glycolic acid
  • Product size: 1-oz bottle
  • Use: day and night routine

This dual-performing oil-free face serum is expensive, but highly rated.

It combines 2 percent dioic acid with salicylic acid and glycolic acid. The dioic acid reduces sebum. The salicylic and glycolic acids help reduce breakouts, as well as post-acne marks, by brightening the skin and improving the skin’s texture.

According to Garshick, “this can be used for all acne scars and can be especially helpful for someone who’s also looking to improve signs of aging.“

Reviewers say this product does a good job at keeping all types of acne at bay and has helped prevent maskne. Some even say they saw results in a matter of a week.

Note that, if you have dry or sensitive skin, it’s important to use a good moisturizer after this product. Some customers experience peeling and say it can be a little drying.

Pros

  • free of oil, fragrance, and parabens
  • brightening
  • good for oily, combination, acne-prone and mature-looking skin
  • may help with clogged pores
  • highly rated

Cons

  • side effects include peeling or drying skin
  • pricey
  • contains alcohol denat (drying or irritation is possible)

Best overnight retinol for acne scars

RoC RETINOL CORREXION Line Smoothing Night Serum Capsules

  • Price: $$
  • Best for: depressed or rolling scars
  • Key ingredients: antioxidant dimethylmethoxy chromanol, retinol
  • Product size: 30 capsules per 0.35-oz jar
  • Use: nightly

This retinol comes in capsule form and is a favorite of Zeichner’s for patients.

“Retinol is known to enhance cell turnover, stimulate collagen, and improve the appearance of mild scars,” he says.

RoC’s retinol is especially good, because it contains stabilized retinol in a single-use capsule. It can also benefit those who have depressed or rolling scars, and it must be used regularly (several weeks to months) to really work.

Customers love how smooth each capsule leaves their skin overnight and how it quickly reduces the appearance of fine lines.

Pros

  • free of fragrance, alcohol, and paraben
  • targets fine lines
  • biodegradable
  • easy to use (pre-dosed capsules)
  • easy to travel with

Cons

  • requires consistent use

Best glycolic acid at-home treatment for acne scars

Alpha-H Liquid Gold with Glycolic Acid

  • Price: $$
  • Best for: discoloration
  • Key ingredients: glycolic acid, licorice root extract
  • Certifications: cruelty-free, paraben-free
  • Product size: 3.38-oz bottle
  • Use: every other night

Glycolic acid is a key ingredient when it comes to acne scarring. Zeichner explains that, “exfoliating ingredients, like salicylic acid and glycolic acid, are useful by helping the skin to shed darkly pigmented cells.”

He says this specific glycolic acid is potent, but in a good way, because it helps brighten, strengthen, and even skin tone.

The product is good for normal, oily, combination, and dry skin types.

Reviewers say the glycolic acid keeps their skin soft while fading some dark spots, and it even improves their skin texture.

If you have sensitive skin, you may want to slowly introduce this product into your routine and limit the number of days you use it. Some customers with sensitive skin say it’s too harsh for them to use on a daily basis.

Pros

  • brightening
  • good for dullness, fine lines, and pigmentation
  • helps with sun damage
  • free of fragrance and parabens
  • cruelty-free

Cons

  • may be too intense for sensitive skin types
  • may cause a temporary tingling sensation
  • contains alcohol denat (drying agent)

Best post-breakout treatment for acne scars

Naturium Tranexamic Acid Topical Acid 5%

  • Price: $$
  • Best for: discoloration or post-inflammatory erythema
  • Key ingredients: tranexamic acid, kojic acid, niacinamide, licorice root extract
  • Product size: 1-oz bottle
  • Use: as tolerated by skin

This affordable topical acid contains a combination of tranexamic acid, kojic acid, niacinamide, and licorice root. These ingredients help brighten the skin and improve discoloration and dark marks.

Zeichner recommends this product because of its effectiveness with post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. It’s gentle enough for any skin type and can be applied underneath a moisturizer.

Reviewers say the tranexamic acid helps with lightening melasma and hyperpigmentation. Some claim this product works better than other ones they tried with the same active ingredients.

One reviewer says she had bad acne marks before using this product, and, after one use, she saw the redness disappear and the marks fade significantly.

Pros

  • vegan and cruelty-free
  • gentle
  • calming
  • brightening (contains niacinamide and tranexamic acid)
  • free of fragrance, gluten, parabens, and alcohol
  • good for hyperpigmentation

Cons

  • may cause redness
  • must wear SPF during the day

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Besides using these products to improve acne scars, there are a few other changes you may want to make to your skin care routine.

Use sunscreen

Garshick says sunscreen should be used daily for added protection.

“While some topical treatments may help to lighten the marks, with unprotected sun exposure the marks can darken again,“ she explains.

Dr. Mary Ramirez, a board certified dermatologist in Austin, TX, says sunscreen is the most important daily step to help prevent and treat post-inflammatory erythema (red), post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (dark), and post-inflammatory hypopigmentation (light) changes to the skin.

“The use of a broad spectrum, oil-free sunscreen and wide-brimmed hat can help with these types of changes post-acne,” she says.

Don’t over apply

The number of applications per week varies based on the product. Some products are meant to be used daily, while others should only be used a couple times per week.

Garshick warns to avoid applying too much product too soon. This will help minimize irritation or dryness.

If you have sensitive skin, it’s best to only use one product at a time.

Cleanse and moisturize

“In general, it’s often best to cleanse prior to applying any leave-on or topical products, and apply moisturizer after use, unless otherwise directed,“ Garshick advises.

Additionally, she recommends applying a thin layer and avoiding multiple harsh active ingredients all at once, which is what leads to dryness and heightened sensitivity.

Talk with your doctor

If you’re pregnant, be sure to talk with your doctor about which products are safe to use and which you should avoid.

“While OTC acne scar treatments might lessen the look of acne scars, there could be side effects,” says Dr. Jeannette Graf, a board certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

These possible side effects include:

  • dry skin
  • irritation
  • redness
  • burning
  • peeling

Graf explains that these products can have a high percentage of active ingredients that can cause side effects for sensitive skin.

“It’s best to start by using these products in small amounts so the skin can get used to them and if you’re concerned about irritation, test it on a small patch of skin before using,” she says.

Do acne scars go away on their own?

According to Graf, acne scars will fade with time but may not completely go away on their own.

“Sometimes, it can take 4 to 6 months for acne scars to fade on their own. Since acne scars are skin damage that has affected the texture and color of the skin, acne scar treatments can help lessen these effects with active ingredients and exfoliants,” she says.

Are products for acne scars actually effective?

Acne scar products that contain the right ingredients can be effective.

“Retinoid gels will speed up skin cell turnover and decrease the swelling of the skin and will effectively fade acne scars,” Graf explains.

AHA and BHA products, as Graf points out, can help improve the texture of the skin and even out the skin tone.

“Salicylic acid will brighten the skin, exfoliate it, and prevent new acne scars.,” she says.

How can I lighten acne scars fast?

To speed up the process of lightening acne scars, Graf suggests using products with active ingredients, like AHA and vitamin C.

“Both of these ingredients will work together to lighten, exfoliate, even out skin pigmentation, and renew the surface of the skin. This will reduce the look of your acne scars at a faster rate,” she says.

Some types of acne scarring, like discoloration, may be treatable at home.

However, OTC topical treatments can only do so much. If you have severe scarring, it’s best to seek the help of a dermatologist.