HOW TO TREAT RED MARKS AND ACNE SCARS
Acne is enough of an issue on its own, so we openly admit it’s not fair that long after a breakout has healed you’re left with pink, red, or brown marks where the breakout once was. There are skincare steps you can take to prevent these marks (to the extent possible) and, more important, help them go away faster than they would on their own.
A common point of confusion is the diﬀerence between an actual acne scar and a post-breakout red mark or discoloration. Some people who ask us about solutions for acne scars are actually referring to the superfcial pink, red, or brown marks from a breakout, which will heal over time; others are referring to a genuine acne scar that looks like a dent or depression in the skin. These actual scars are a result of deep, large pimples or from not letting acne breakouts heal by constantly picking at them.
A mild to moderate breakout often leaves a red, pink, or brown discoloration, which eventually fades over time. Although people often refer to such marks as acne scars, they are post-inﬂammatory hyperpigmentation marks, which appear as your body heals. Luckily, such marks are not really scars at all, and it’s rare for them to be associated with permanently damaged skin.
That means there are steps you can take to speed up their healing and return
to clear, even-toned skin!
A true acne scar results when there’s damage to the deeper layers of your skin (that is, the skin below what you see on the surface) that has broken down the skin’s support structure. Moderate to severe acne can damage these deeper layers of skin, causing the permanent breakdown of collagen and elastin. This leaves you with an actual indented, semi-circular, or jagged “ice pick” scar.
Physical scarring of skin cannot be improved without the aid of medical or cosmetic corrective procedures.
A quick note: If you have the bad habit of picking at a pimple—don’t! Picking can further damage your skin and turn a pimple or white bump into a permanent scar, which otherwise could have been merely a red mark that diminished over time.
OK, now that we’ve defined the diﬀerence between a post-breakout discoloration and an acne scar, let’s talk about what works and what doesn’t for each!
Skin-lightening or skin-whitening treatments don’t work on red marks because these products contain ingredients meant to reduce melanin production (melanin is responsible for giving color to your skin). Although they can reduce the appearance of brownish discolorations caused mostly by sun damage, they won’t help fade post-acne marks because these red marks are not related to melanin production. The one exception is for those with darker skin tones whose post-acne marks are brownish in color from the skin’s pigment, melanin, which in darker skin tones is more involved in skin’s immune response to acne. In those cases, hydroquinone and other melanin-inhibiting ingredients are an option for fading their appearance.
At-home treatments, such as rubbing lemon juice or other citrus fruits on your face won’t work, either. They can’t exfoliate skin properly and their acidic juices are potent skin irritants that actually can prolong the healing process.
Don’t fall for that one! There are no solutions in the kitchen for this skin issue.
Following are tips to help you achieve your skincare goals of fading post-acne discolorations and treating the underlying causes that lead to breakouts, and they work for any skin tone or ethnicity.
Use only well-formulated, gentle skincare products. It’s tempting to try abrasive scrubs and all manner of irritating treatments in a desperate eﬀort to get rid of acne discolorations, but irritation only causes more harm, which impedes your skin’s ability to heal itself.
Use a leave-on AHA or BHA exfoliant daily. The benefits of a well-formulated leave-on AHA or BHA (especially BHA) product can be truly impressive in helping to heal red marks. Both AHA and BHA increase cell turnover in the upper layers of skin to remove unwanted, built-up skin cells that prevent new healthy skin cells from coming to the surface normally. BHA’s inherent anti-inﬂammatory properties mean it can reduce redness.
Use a broad-spectrum SPF 30 product every day, without exception.
Unprotected exposure to UV light (which will get to your skin whether it’s sunny or cloudy) hurts your skin’s ability to heal, which means the red marks from acne will stick around longer. Protecting your skin from UV exposure every day is critical to fading discolorations, plus it keeps your skin healthier-looking longer!
Use products loaded with antioxidants and cell-communicating ingredients. These two categories of beneficial ingredients defend your skin by helping it heal while also “communicating” with your cells to speed up their ability to repair damage.  The result is reduced inﬂammation and a shorter healing time for your discolorations. Using a toner, serum, and/or moisturizer formulated with a variety of these ingredients is the best way to reap their skin-repairing benefits. The cell-communicating ingredients niacinamide and retinol are particularly beneficial in the fight to fade your post-acne annoyances.
Consider professional help. Research shows that dificult or stubborn post-inﬂammatory red pigmentation responds well to a series of intense pulsed light (IPL) treatments. Those with deeper skin tones, speak with your dermatologist about alternatives to IPL, as it can have the reverse eﬀect on dark complexions. Another option is prescription tretinoin (Retin-A, Renova) and/or a monthly BHA or AHA peel performed by a cosmetic dermatologist. These options should be considered only after the other choices we listed here didn’t work for you (but do give them at least a few weeks of daily use to work before giving up).
For true acne scars (the pitted, indented kind), treatment options aren’t as easy. Due to the extensive damage to and the loss of skin-supporting collagen, no skincare product can reverse their appearance. Injected dermal fllers can plump up the indentations, and you can combine dermal fllers with AHA or
BHA peels or a series of fractional laser treatments (Fraxel) to achieve the best results. This approach isn’t cheap, but can produce truly remarkable results on scarring that seemed beyond help.
Dermabrasion is another option, but there’s a much greater risk of damage to your skin than with laser treatments or high-strength AHA or BHA peels.
The results aren’t as impressive either, yet the risks are greater. The medical options described above have advantages and disadvantages, so it’s important to discuss them with your dermatologist.
RECOMMENDED OTC ACNE TREATMENTS:
The products listed below are suitable for all skin types struggling with breakouts. They should be used as part of a gentle daily skincare routine that includes cleansing, sun protection, moisturizing, and other steps needed for your skin type and concerns.
» Ambi Even and Clear Spot Treatment with 5% Benzoyl Peroxide ($5.99)
» Avon Clearskin Professional Acne Mark Treatment (salicylic acid, $11)
» Clinique Acne Solutions Emergency Gel-Lotion (benzoyl peroxide, $17)
» Kate Somerville Anti Bac Clearing Lotion (benzoyl peroxide, $39)
» La Roche-Posay Eﬀaclar K Daily Renovating Anti-Relapse Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment ($31)
» Paula’s Choice Clear anti-acne products (complete routines, $12–$29)
» Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment ($55)
» Paula’s Choice Resist Weekly Retexturizing Foaming Treatment 4% BHA ($35)
» philosophy clear days ahead oil-free salicylic acid acne treatment and moisturizer (BHA; $39)
» ProActiv Clarifying Night Cream (BHA; $28.75)
» ProActiv+ Pore Targeting Treatment (benzoyl peroxide; $42)