From major breakouts of red, inflamed acne to the occasional pimple, dealing with acne is never an enjoyable experience.
Luckily, a wide range of medications are available to treat even the most severe acne and bring breakouts under control.
While getting rid of acne can feel like a victory in itself, the unfortunate reality is that many types of acne can leave behind scars — a major annoyance that can affect both your appearance and your confidence even after you’re no longer prone to breakouts.
From pitted scars to hyperpigmentation, acne scar can vary in size, type and severity. Just like with acne itself, numerous treatments are available that can help you make acne scars smaller, less visible and, in some cases, get rid of them completely.
Below, we’ve explained how you can treat acne scars, from over-the-counter products available from your local drugstore to prescription medications, fillers, surgical procedures and more.
Acne scars are an annoying, stubborn souvenir left behind by certain types of acne, particularly inflamed and infected acne.
Scarring from acne develops when inflamed acne lesions cause your skin to become damaged. As part of its healing process, your body forms new skin tissue to replace areas that have been damaged by the inflammatory effects of certain types of acne.
Just like it’s normal for skin to grow back differently after a scratch or surgical incision, the skin that grows back after a major acne breakout doesn’t always look the same as the skin that was there before.
Acne scars come in a variety of types, with the specific type depending on how your skin grows back after an acne breakout.
The most common types of acne scars are referred to as atrophic scars. These develop when the dermis (the thickest layer of your skin) in areas affected by acne grows back with a smaller amount of collagen than the surrounding skin.
Atrophic scars are depressed or indented. The skin tissue that grows back after your acne goes away sits slightly below the normal layer of skin tissue, giving it a pitted, uneven appearance.
There are three main types of atrophic acne scarring: ice pick scars, boxcar scars and rolling scars. Each type differs slightly in appearance:
Sometimes, acne scarring is referred to as hypertrophic scarring. This type of scarring develops when the skin that grows after a severe acne breakout has a larger amount of collagen than the surrounding skin.
Hypertrophic scars are also known as keloid scars. They’re less common than atrophic scars, accounting for about 10 to 20 percent of all acne scarring. Most hypertrophic scars are raised from the surrounding skin, pink in color and firm to the touch.
Although both types of acne scarring can affect people of all races, people with dark skin tones typically have a higher risk of developing hypertrophic acne scars.
If you’re prone to acne scarring, you may notice a variety of different scar types on the parts of your skin that have been affected by acne. It’s normal to have a mix of ice pick, boxcar, rolling and other acne scars, even within small areas of your skin.
Our guide to acne scars goes into greater detail about the different types of acne scarring and the simple methods that you can use to tell acne scars apart.
Just like acne breakouts can vary hugely in severity, acne scarring can range from very mild to very severe. Acne scarring is usually scored using a four-level grading system:
Generally speaking, the lower the grade of your acne scarring, the easier it will usually be to get rid of the scarring (or at least minimize its appearance) with treatment.
Acne scars can be annoying, unsightly and the source of a hit to your self-confidence, especially when they develop on your face and parts of your body that other people can easily see.
Luckily, most types of acne scarring are treatable. Although treatments can’t always fully get rid of acne scars, most can reduce their appearance so that they’re less obvious and blend in more easily with the surrounding skin.
Because acne scarring can vary in type and severity, there’s no “best” treatment for all types of acne scarring. A range of different treatments are available, ranging from over-the-counter scar treatments suitable for light scarring to cosmetic procedures ideal for heavier, deeper scars.
We’ve listed all of your options below, along with information on how each treatment works and the type of results you can expect.
Although it’s of limited use if you already have significant scarring, the most effective way to get rid of acne scars is to prevent them from developing in the first place.
If you’re prone to acne and want to avoid scarring, you should make treating your acne your top priority. Simply put, fewer acne breakouts means fewer chances for all types of acne scarring to develop.
You should do this even if you already have acne scars, as further breakouts may worsen your scarring and make it more difficult to treat in the future.
When you do get acne, avoid popping or picking at your pimples. Popping pimples on your own can introduce bacteria into your skin and cause an infection — something that’s closely linked to obvious, permanent acne scarring.
We’ve covered methods of treating acne in our guide to science-backed acne treatments. If you have severe acne, it’s often worth contacting a dermatologist or talking to a medical professional online to learn more about the treatment options that are available to you.
Numerous over-the-counter products are available to treat acne scars, including exfoliants and silicone gel strips. Although these products usually aren’t enough for moderate or severe acne scarring, they may be effective if you only have a few mild acne scars.
A range of silicone strips, patches and gels are available to treat scars, including certain types of acne scarring. These products are typically easy to use and can be purchased from a wide range of stores, making them a readily available, simple treatment option.
Most scar strips are designed to treat hypertrophic scars rather than the more common atrophic acne scars. Research shows that they’re fairly effective. For example, a study from 2009 noted that a silicone gel treatment produced improvements in keloid and hypertrophic scarring.
An article published in the journal Advances in Wound Care also noted that although the exact mechanism by which silicone sheets work isn’t known, their ability to improve hypertrophic and keloid scarring largely is largely agreed upon in the scientific community.
If you have recent acne scars that are hypertrophic (raised from your skin), applying scar strips may help to make them less obvious. However, there’s limited research on the effectiveness of silicone products for atrophic scars, such as ice pick, boxcar or rolling acne scarring.
Several over-the-counter topical treatments are available to treat acne scarring, including mild, non-prescription retinoids and exfoliants. These include:
Tretinoin, a prescription retinoid that’s often used as an acne and anti-aging treatment, may be an option worth considering if you have atrophic acne scarring.
Tretinoin is a topical medication. As an acne treatment, it’s applied directly to affected areas of skin, where it works by speeding up the production of new cells. Most research into tretinoin as an acne scar treatment looks at its effects on atrophic acne scars.
Several studies have found that tretinoin can help to treat acne scars when it’s delivered using a process called iontophoresis, which involves the use of electrodes to deliver medication into the deeper layers of the skin.
For example, one study from 1999 found that a 0.025% tretinoin gel delivered via iontophoresis produced a significant decrease in scar depth in 94 percent of patients with atrophic acne scars, all without significant side effects.
Another study from 2004, which involved the use of 0.05% tretinoin gel by iontophoresis, found that 79 percent of patients with atrophic acne scarring experienced improvements.
We’ve talked more about how tretinoin may be helpful for acne scarring and how you can use it in our guide to topical tretinoin for acne for acne scars.
A range of cosmetic treatments are available to treat acne scarring. Some of these treatments, such as dermal fillers, involve filling in areas of skin with atrophic scars. Others involve injuring or stimulating the skin to encourage the growth of new skin cells.
Since acne scars can vary in size, type and severity, there’s no one-size-fits-all procedure that’s most effective for removing acne scars. Because of this, it’s important to talk to a dermatologist or healthcare provider before you choose a specific procedure to treat your acne scarring.
We’ve listed the most common surgical and cosmetic procedures for acne scarring below, along with more information on how each procedure works.
These treatments work by stripping away the outermost layers of your skin and encouraging the growth of new skin cells. Some use chemicals, while others use medical devices such as lasers and abrasive instruments. Exfoliating treatments for acne scars include:
Although dermal fillers are often associated with anti-aging, they’re also used to treat scarring, including some types of acne scars. Dermal fillers such as Juvederm®, Restylane® and others can be injected into atrophic scars to raise them and better match the surrounding skin.
A scientific review from 2015 looked at several studies of dermal fillers for acne scarring, noting that most fillers produced improvements in facial acne scars and achieved high levels of patient satisfaction.
Fillers can vary in price from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the type of filler and the amount that needs to be injected. Some dermal fillers only last for a few months, meaning you may need to repeat this treatment several times per year for lasting results.
In addition to exfoliating procedures and dermal fillers, several other cosmetic procedures are used to treat acne scars. These include:
If you have acne scars that you’d like to treat, a variety of options are available, including some that you can purchase from your local drugstore.
If your scarring is mild, an over-the-counter exfoliant or retinoid might be strong enough to make your scars lighter and less visible. However, if you have deep or obvious acne scarring, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider or schedule an appointment with a dermatologist.
While many procedures for acne scarring can seem intimidating, they’re worth considering if you want to get rid of your scars for good.
Finally, if you still get acne breakouts, make sure to get them under control before you focus on treating your acne scars. Our full guide to prescription acne medication goes into detail on your options for ending acne breakouts and enjoying smoother, pimple-free skin.