The bad news: There's no secret ingredient or miracle gadget that makes scars totally disappear. Don't get discouraged, though. A lot of what you think of as acne scarring is really just post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation or erythema brown or red spots rather than an actual change in the texture of the skin.
'Scars and discoloration occur as a result of injury to the skin, and in the case of acne, the injury is related to excess oil production, inflammation, and bacteria', says board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, who says that when the skin tries to repair itself after, it can leave a red, pink, tan, or brown mark behind, depending on the breakout and the individual's skin type. Because of the inflammatory and bacterial aspects, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation after acne is in its own category. 'This differs from sunspots or hyperpigmentation that is the result of an increase in melanin resulting from UV exposure and environmental stressors that lead to free radical damage that can manifest as brown spots.'
Luckily, there's a bevy of gels, creams, and treatments that can bring this kind of discoloration down. We asked top dermatologists to recommend the most effective products for lessening the marks left behind by breakouts. Here's what the experts recommend.
Neutrogena Rapid Clear 2-in-1 Fight & Fade Toner
Salicylic acid is one of the gold-standard ingredients for clearing up a breakout, but don't dismiss this exfoliant once the pimples are gone especially if they've left a mark. 'Salicylic acid helps to eliminate dead skin cells and can help to improve hyperpigmentation and promote new skin cells, improving both tone and texture associated with scars', Garshick says. It does its double duty in Neutrogena Rapid Clear 2-in-1 Fight & Fade Toner, which promises to both speed up the demise of active breakouts and lessen the look of the marks they may leave behind.
Clinique Even Better Clinical Radical Dark Spot Corrector + Interrupter
There are numerous spot-stopping ingredients in Clinique Even Better Clinical Radical Dark Spot Corrector + Interrupter, like the aforementioned salicylic acid. But look closely at the components of the brand's 'Interrupter Complex' and you'll find licorice extract, which finds its way into mark-fading formulas for several reasons. 'It is thought that licorice extract contains glabiridin, which helps to reduce melanin synthesis by blocking the enzyme tyrosinase', Garshick explains.
Additionally, she says, it contains liquiritin, which breaks down and remove melanin, fading dark spots. And because it also has antioxidants properties, it may aid in brightening the skin.
SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic
With a blend of potent antioxidants, SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic is loved by beauty editors and dermatologists alike. Vitamin C plays a leading role: 'The powerful ingredient has been shown to brighten dull skin and lighten brown spots. It may also be helpful in lightening a dark scar', says Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. The formula also includes another antioxidant vitamin, alpha tocopherol aka vitamin E. 'It helps seal cracks in the outer skin layer and may help repair a damaged skin barrier and improve the appearance of scars after the initial wound has healed.'
Elta MD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46
When it comes to scarring, many doctors will tell you that prevention is key. Wearing sunscreen daily is critical, says Heidi Waldorf, a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist. Elta MD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 is her favorite. 'It contains niacinamide, which reduces inflammation, and it's oil- free, which makes it excellent for daily use for acne-prone patients', she says.
Shani Darden Retinol Reform
Garshick says retinoids and retinol, like the 2.2 percent encapsulated retinol in Shani Darden's Retinol Reform, is a great option for treating hyperpigmentation associated with acne because it can even out skin tone via skin-cell turnover. 'It can also help to promote collagen synthesis which can help with textural changes related to acne scars', she tells ishonest. This serum also includes lactic acid, for an extra brightening and smoothing boost.
Murad Invisiscar Resurfacing Treatment
Because continuing to use the beta hydroxy acid aka salicylic acid post- breakout is beneficial for exfoliating away pigment buildup, Murad included it among vitamin C and cica in its Invisiscar Resurfacing Treatment. It promises to minimize the look of scar size, depth, texture, and discoloration in eight weeks, and in the meantime, this serum's light-diffusing and blurring powders give a cosmetic kickstart to your skin, allowing it to look smoother and more even as soon as you apply it.
Ole Henriksen Glow2OH Dark Spot Toner
This toner is so much more than just witch hazel though it does include that classic astringent. Ole Henriksen's Glow2OH Dark Spot Toner promises to start reducing discoloration within a week with its high concentration of exfoliating alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). Garshick says that the molecule size of different AHAs can determine their potency; for example, smaller-molecule acids such as glycolic acid are able to penetrate deeper and be more effective. 'Those with sensitive skin may opt for lactic acid, which is a slightly larger molecule, so it doesn't penetrate as deeply and may be milder on the skin but still effective', she says. Good news: This toner has both.
Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Peel Extra Strength Daily Peel
Dr. Dennis Gross's famous Alpha Beta Peel Extra Strength Daily Peel packed with glycolic acid promotes cellular turnover to remove the top layers of the skin revealing a brighter, fresh complexion. 'It boosts collagen production and elastin production with the removal of waste and dead skin cells', New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Dendy Engelman says, not to mention that it's very effective in breaking down skin cells and removing dead particles. And that's especially true when it's accompanied by fellow exfoliating acids like that of the lactic, malic, citric, salicylic variety. Bottom line: By removing these dead cells, healthy, glowy skin is revealed.
PCA Skin Pigment Gel
'I often recommend PCA Skin Pigment Gel to patients looking to treat scars left behind from acne', explains Rebecca Kazin, a board-certified dermatologist at Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery and Johns Hopkins department of dermatology. 'This gel contains 2 percent hydroquinone blended with other skin brighteners, like kojic acid, resorcinol, and azelaic acid, which work to lighten the pigmentation without irritating the skin.' The addition of lactic acid maintains moisture to prevent overdrying, which can worsen pigmentation.
Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream
The benefits of retinol seem limitless smoothing fine lines and easing the visible effects of sun damage among them but it can also improve the evenness of skin that's been broken out. A-Passioni Retinol Cream, Drunk Elephant's take on the vitamin A derivative, is a vegan one-percent strength that pledges less irritation while you work toward more clarity, thanks to cohorts like peptides, vitamin F, and antioxidant-rich botanical extracts like that of broccoli and avocado.
Peace Out Microneedling Dark Spot Brightening Dots
Stickers have become a convenient way to spot-treat zits, and thanks to the technology and ingredients found in Peace Out Microneedling Dark Spot Brightening Dots, they're becoming a must-have for spot-treating post- inflammatory hyperpigmentation. In addition to licorice and tranexamic acid, these dots tout niacinamide, a form of vitamin B3 that Garshick says reduces inflammation and redness associated with acne and may also improve discoloration. 'While the exact mechanism is unknown, it is thought to suppress melanosome transfer and reduce pigmentation', she says.
IS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance+
The potent IS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance+ uses a blend of restorative, antioxidant ingredients to promote skin healing, which is what acne scars need. Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is a time-released acid that simultaneously stimulates collagen synthesis and promotes wound healing. Retinol works similarly in this formulation, while zinc sulfate is as an anti-inflammatory, and arbutin helps manage hyperpigmentation.
Verso Dark Spot Fix
This entire skin-care line is made with the brand's proprietary retinol, but Verso's Dark Spot Fix contains the efficacious ingredient in the highest concentration in the whole line. It's a concentrated cream that treats unwanted spots and scars with the special super-strength, low-irritation retinol.