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Similar to the lingering emotions you experience after an intense Riverdale episode, acne scars are basically the long-lasting aftereffects of your short-lived breakouts. An unexpected pimple (or five) is annoying enough, but the acne scars and dark marks it leaves behind are often worse. While there isn’t a magic wand that can get rid of them overnight, top dermatologists from across the country share how to handle marks and bumps, from prevention to treatment.
How To Remove Dark Spots Caused By Pimples
In order to treat acne marks and scars, it’s helpful to learn how to distinguish between the two. “What many people don’t realize is that a dark or pink mark on the skin is not actually an acne scar. Inflammation in the skin often leaves behind a stain as part of the natural healing process. The inflammation revs up pigment production, creating the mark that fades on its own over several weeks to months,” says dermatologist and 2018 Acne Awards judge Dr. Joshua Zeichner. Unlike scars, these are smooth to the touch (AKA, not raised or indented), and signify that there is no permanent collagen damage to the skin.
Acne scars, on the other hand, are formed when there is damage to the skin which leads to abnormal collagen production, and usually appear raised or bumpy. “There are two types of acne scars: depressed and raised. Depressed scars may look like pits or craters, and raised scars may be firm and tender,” explains Dr. Zeichner, who notes that unfortunately, these are permanent.
According to dermatologist Dr. Whitney Bowe, some scars are thick, raised hypertrophic scars that stick out above the skin; others are keloid, which are scars that have over-healed, and manifest as dense, rubbery skin tissue. Then, there are atrophic scars that appear as depressions in the skin — they’re the most challenging to treat. The three main categories of atrophic scars are:
- Ice pick scars: Deeper than they are wide, with jagged edges. Sometimes they resemble a large, scooped out pore.
- Boxcar scars: Broad, rectangular depressions with steep, defined edges.
- Rolling scars: Broad depressions that have rounded, sloping edges, hence the name.
What causes acne scars and dark marks?
The spots that linger after a pimple has healed are caused by inflammation that has disrupted the skin’s natural healing process. “When your skin is opened up (like when you pop a pimple) and then closes back together, you can get abnormal pigmentation, texture, and tone that looks different from the rest of your skin. Sometimes the broken blood vessels that remain after an acne lesion fades can result in a mark,” says Dr. Bowe. For a number of people who are able to refrain from picking, inflamed pimples or blemishes can still leave a dark brown or red mark — but these naturally fade over the course of a few months, notes dermatologist Heather C. Woolery-Lloyd, MD.
Since it’s pretty difficult to determine what causes one person to scar more than another, the best way to avoid scarring is to treat acne with a great skin care routine — and that means you need to resist picking, poking, or touching a pimple.
But, sometimes a particularly aggressive blemish is truly on a mission to leave its permanent mark. “Acne scars occur when normal tissue in the skin is destroyed and replaced with fibrous tissue. You can think of an acne lesion as a wound. When the damage caused by acne is severe, the body can respond by creating too much tissue or too little tissue. The production of too much tissue forms a keloid or a hypertrophic scar, and too little tissue leads to that depression in the skin, or atrophic scar. The deeper and more inflamed the acne lesion, or the more that it is picked or squeezed, the more likely it is to scar,” says Dr. Bowe.
Some acne marks and scars are completely within your control while others are pre-determined. Aside from genetics, there are several lifestyle habits that can make dark marks and scars worse. Spending time in the sun is a big one, and, to reiterate one last time, every dermatologist agrees that picking or squeezing pimples creates further inflammation and can ultimately lead to more damage.
Here’s the full run-down on how to get rid of acne marks and scars.
How to treat acne dark marks:
“The discoloration from dark marks will usually fade over time,” says dermatologist Sejal Shah, MD, who notes that they tend to take between 3-6 months to go away on their own. “But, there are a number of treatment options to help speed up the process.”
Sunscreen: “Sun exposure during an active breakout can lead to darkening of inflammatory lesions, prolonging their appearance on your skin and making them harder to fade over time,” says Dr. Shereene Idriss from Union Square Dermatology, which means it’s important to lather on the sunscreen daily — even when it’s cloudy. And don’t worry about breaking out from a pore-clogging sunscreen; the latest formulas are more innovative and acne-friendly than ever. Elta MD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 is a top derm-approved favorite. It contains niacinamide, which is an anti-inflammatory that helps reduce redness.
Topical vitamin C serum: “Vitamin C serums block abnormal pigment production and can brighten spots that have already developed,” says Dr. Zeichner. “They can be layered underneath your sunscreen in the morning.” These serums can also help build collagen and promote healing, says says Dr. Shah, who suggests trying “SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic to do the trick.
“Retinoids work over time by continuously increasing cell turnover which in turn helps fade hyperpigmentation,” says Dr. Idriss. Dr. Shah agrees, noting that Retin-A helps with acne marks by causing your skin cells to “divide more rapidly and pushing out cells with discolored pigments.” Since retinoids make your skin super-sensitive to the sun, it’s best to not only wear SPF, but to also apply a treatment like RoC Retinol Correxion Sensitive Night Cream before you go to bed.
Chemical peels: “A chemical peel is a treatment that uses the application of mild solutions for skin refinement and regeneration. Products containing glycolic acid promote cell turnover, which is the process where new skin cells form and help even out your skin tone,” says Dr. Bowe. You can try an at-home peel like Peter Thomas Roth 40% Triple Acid Peel, which uses both glycolic and salicylic acids to help fade spots by exfoliating dead skin cells and smoothing out skin texture. “Or, your dermatologist can prescribe you a stronger peel based on your skin type and treatment goals,” says Dr. Bowe.
Dermarolling: Those little needle rollers you’ve been seeing all over social media? Turns out, they’re good for more than just a cute Instagram video. “Microneedling works by creating a small ‘injury’ to the skin, which in turn can increase collagen and elastin production, improving scars and fine wrinkles and reducing hyperpigmentation,” explains dermatologist and founder of Curology, David Lortscher, MD. Use the microneedler a few times a week as a part of your nighttime routine after cleansing and before toning. “It’s particularly important to pay attention to sterility, and remember that overdoing can damage the skin and incite inflammation, so proceed with caution if you are considering home treatments. Consider a consultation with a dermatologist to explore in-office options,” says Dr. Lortscher.
How to treat acne scars:
Acne scar treatments are best handled with special attention and care from your dermatologist since they require more intense procedures than over-the-counter options. The downside: Treatments tend to be expensive. If you aren’t quite ready to put a dent in your savings, know that you aren’t alone in your struggle with acne scars. Just by reframing your way of thinking, you may even learn to feel much more comfortable with them](http://www.teenvogue.com/story/acne-appreciation-photoshoot).
Steroid injections: If you feel a stress pimple rearing its ugly head, a steroid shot can be administered the same day you call your derm because the process is very fast. Not only does it immediately reduce the inflammation of an existing zit, but cortisone can also help thick scars (keloids) appear softer and flatter. “These are specifically for raised scars, however,” says Dr. Shah. “It’ll help flatten out the scar, but it won’t do anything to any discrepancies in the texture.”
Dermal fillers: “Certain scars can be filled with a substance that elevates the depressed areas, like hyaluronic acid. This can make the surface of the skin more even and get rid of shadows,” says Dr. Bowe. Until recently, fillers weren’t a lasting solution. But now, if you’re over 21 years old, Bellafill is the first FDA-approved dermal filler designed for permanently correcting moderate to severely dented acne scars. Unlike other fillers, it contains two different ingredients to help improve acne scarring. “It’s 20% polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA), which helps your body make more protein to allow itself to heal,” says Dr. Shah. “PMMA are tiny balls that sort of act as a scaffolding. Most fillers degrade over time, but since PMMA cannot be absorbed into the body, this offers a permanent result,” she says. The other 80% is collagen. The procedure takes about 20-30 minutes, and while you may need a touchup a couple months later, some people just need the single treatment, says Dr. Shah.
There are also temporary options that apply like makeup and are easily removable — Dermaflage makes a great one.
Lasers: Dermatologists often remodel collagen using lasers, “which do not completely eliminate acne scars but can improve them by 30% or more,” according to Dr. Woolery-Lloyd. “These can be helpful in reducing the redness associated with acne marks and scars. I use a pulse-dye laser called the V-Beam for red scars. When treating older scars that are no longer red, I like to use the Fraxel laser. When lasers are used to treat acne scars, the results can differ dramatically based on two things: how many treatments you have done, and how much social downtime you’re willing to accept as part of the recovery process,” says Dr. Bowe. “Erbium laser resurfacing is also another option and it’s more aggressive than Fraxel,” says Dr. Shah. “It’s a minimal burning of surrounding tissues and has fewer side effects like less swelling and redness, but it’s won’t work for those with darker skin tones.”
Punch excisions: “This procedure is best for those with icepick scars, which aren’t as wide as rolling or boxcar scars,” says Dr. Shah. “If you use a punch excision on a scar that’s wide at the surface, you’re making a bigger punch and trading in one scar for another,” she says. “Your dermatologist will numb up the area and use a tiny cookie-cutter like device to cut out the scar, and then sew it closed with a tiny stitch. The stitch is removed in less than a week,” says Dr. Bowe. However, Dr. Idriss cautions against this method for those with darker skin or undertones who are prone to hyperpigmentation.
Mix and match: “Since acne scars vary, so do treatments. Depending on the individual, I often use a multimodal approach to treating acne scars. First, I might use Fraxel treatments to smooth out the skin texture. Then, I often use a combination of the fillers Restylane and Belotero to lift the depressed scars. Finally, I perform a few punch excisions to surgically remove any deep scars that may remain,” says Dr. Bowe. There are also topical treatment options for active breakouts that help prevent scarring, which can be used to get out ahead of things.
There you have it! As with any skin condition, it’s best to consult your regular dermatologist to see which option is best for you. And while technology has come a long way in making dark marks and acne scars treatable, remember that most of us will experience them at some point. So while these are all feasible options for fading your acne scars, don’t forget that you always have the choice of pimple positivity, too.