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How to Minimize the Look of Acne Scars

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Breakouts are bad enough when they stick around for a week and then fade away. The only thing more frustrating is when your temporary pimple turns into a stubborn mark that just won’t go away, even after the blemish heals. Unfortunately, acne scars—sometimes called post-acne marks—are sometimes a side effect of pimples. They can come in all different shapes and sizes (and colors) and range in severity from barely noticeable to seriously severe. Some fade with little to no intervention, while others will only disappear with intensive professional treatment.

If you’ve ever tried to research how to remove acne scars, you probably quickly learned that treatment depends heavily on what type of acne scar you have—and that isn’t always easy to determine. Thankfully, you have us. Ahead, we’re breaking down everything you need to know about acne scars. Read on to learn exactly what they are, how they form, and how to get rid of acne scars (or at least fade the discoloration) with our comprehensive guide to acne scarring.

What Are Acne Scars?

In the simplest terms, acne scars are marks left on the skin after a pimple heals. There are three main types of acne scars: indented scars, raised scars, and dark spots. Indented scars are also known as atrophic scars and are sometimes referred to as "pockmarks" or "icepick scars." Raised scars are referred to as hypertrophic scars and aren’t quite as common.I Dark spots, on the other hand, aren’t really scars. They’re a form of hyperpigmentation that appears as small, flat dark marks on the skin and may be left behind after a breakout.II

What Causes Scars from Acne?

Whether they’re flat, depressed, or raised, the basics of why an acne scar appears will remain the same. Certain types of acne penetrate the skin more deeply, and the result is that they damage the surrounding tissue. The actual blemish will go away with the right treatment or enough time, and your skin attempts to repair the damage. One key component of this is your body producing collagen. This is a process that requires more precision than you might have thought. If the right amount of collagen isn’t produced (either too much or too little), a scar will form in the wake of your breakout. How much collagen is made will determine whether the resulting scar is depressed or raised.III

Why Depressed and Raised Scars Form

An excess of collagen will cause a hypertrophic or raised scar, while too little collagen will result in an atrophic or depressed scar.III

Why Flat Acne Scars Form

Acne marks are known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) and occur when the skin over-produces melanin. Studies show inflammation induces damage to cells in the epidermis, which causes them to release large amounts of melanin. A common cause of the inflammation that leads to this chain of events is none other than acne. This is especially common for people of color and those with darker skin tones.IV

Will You Get Acne Scars?

Acne scars don’t appear after every breakout and aren’t dealt with by everyone. If you have inflammatory acne, the likelihood of scarring increases. Acne scars often develop after an inflammatory acne breakout that includes cysts and nodules. The reason being, this type of acne penetrates deep into the skin. The longer someone has this type of inflammatory acne, the more likely it is to leave a scar.

Like many other skin concerns, your genes can also play a role. Having a relative with acne scars could make you more prone to experiencing them.

While you can’t control your genes or dictate that you never want to get inflammatory breakouts, there is one thing that’s in your hands—quite literally—that can impact whether you get acne scars: pimple popping. If you squeeze, pop, or pick at your acne, which we know can be tempting, it causes inflammation and can lead to scarring.III So, remember to keep your hands off.

Treatments for Acne Scars

Determining the best treatment for acne scars is dependent mainly upon the type of scar you have. Raised or indented scars are difficult to remove, and as such, are often addressed with medical or cosmetic procedures, such as laser resurfacing or microdermabrasion.V Flat dark spots, on the other hand, can be addressed with skincare products and ingredients shown to improve skin tone and texture, such as vitamin C.VI Ahead, we’ve put together a skincare routine designed to help reduce hyperpigmentation and dark spots left behind after a breakout. Keep reading to learn how to fade acne scars and marks for a smoother, clearer, more even complexion.

Kiehl’s Best Routine For Acne Scars

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1. Kick Things Off With The Right Cleanser

Morning and night, thoroughly cleanse your face with a mild cleanser to remove impurities from the skin’s surface. We recommend Clearly Corrective Brightening & Exfoliating Daily Cleanser, which contains pearlstone, a natural exfoliant derived from volcanic ash. This gentle yet effective ingredient helps remove buildup from the skin’s surface for a brighter, smoother-looking complexion.

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2. Use A Balancing Toner To Prep Skin

After cleansing, reach for a soothing toner, such as Blue Astringent Herbal Lotion. This iconic formula (we first released it in 1964) features menthol and camphor to balance oily skin and reduce shine. You can use it as an all-over toner after cleansing your face or dab it on problem areas as an effective, refreshing spot treatment.

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3. Treat With a Dark Spot Corrector

Next, address hyperpigmentation with a targeted treatment, like the best-selling Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Solution. This potent formula stars vitamin C, which we started to touch on earlier. It’s a powerful antioxidant that can reduce the appearance of dark marks and prevent the formation of new skin discolorations. Apply the brightening serum to your entire face for all-over color correction, or use as a spot treatment for individual post-acne marks.

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4. Don’t Forget, Moisturizer Is a Must

Moisturizing is crucial to maintaining a healthy-looking complexion. A well-hydrated skin barrier protects the skin from environmental aggressors that lead to complexion concerns such as premature aging, irritation, and hyperpigmentation. And yes, this is all true even if you have oily, acne-prone skin. We recommend Clearly Corrective Brightening & Smoothing Moisture Treatment, which contains vitamin C and exfoliating glycolic acid to promote a smoother, more even-looking complexion. Apply morning and night to keep your skin feeling healthy and refreshed.

Kiehl's Expert Tip: If you do notice a breakout forming, reach for a spot treatment, such as Breakout Control Targeted Spot Treatment. This potent formula contains 10% sulfur and niacinamide to rapidly reduce the appearance of blemishes and keep new breakouts from forming.

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5. Finish With Sun Protection

Though breakouts cause acne marks, sun protection is a key part of managing post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.IV It’s just one more reason to wear sunscreen every single day. Experts recommend wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15, such as Super Fluid UV Defense SPF 50+ or Super Fluid Daily UV Mineral Defense, every day.VIII Apply your SPF as the final step in your daily skincare routine to keep your complexion protected from the sun’s harmful rays and follow all official sun-protection recommendations.

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6. At Night: Use an At-Home Peel

At night before dozing off, you can add one more step to your routine. To help reduce hyperpigmentation and boost skin clarity, use a nighttime skincare treatment formulated to help resurface the skin, such as Nightly Refining Micro-Peel Concentrate. This nighttime treatment features quinoa husk extract and phytic acid to accelerate skin cell turnover for a visibly refreshed complexion.

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7. Three Times a Week: Try a Micro-Dermabrasion Scrub

An intense exfoliating treatment can help improve the appearance of raised or indented acne scars, but it isn’t a daily skincare step. Three times per week, swap out your daily cleanser for Epidermal Re-Texturizing Micro-Dermabrasion. This highly effective facial scrub is formulated with micronized shells and willow herb to resurface the skin for a visibly smoother, more even complexion.

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8. As Needed: Upgrade Your Routine With Ampoules

If you’re dealing with particularly dark or stubborn scars, an intensive treatment such as Clearly Corrective Accelerated Clarity Renewing Ampoules can help. This two-week routine features a potent blend of resurfacing glycolic, lactic, and phytic acids to visibly improve skin tone, texture, and clarity. Be sure to wear sunscreen every day for the duration of treatment, as the acids in these ampoules can cause sun sensitivity and increase the risk of sunburns.

Kiehl's Expert Tip: The Clearly Corrective ampoules are formulated for use alongside Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Solution, so don’t forget to keep up with the rest of the routine laid out above. You’ll see more amplified results when you pair them with the serum.

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Now that you know how to address the scars that come after acne, we want to make sure you’re an expert on managing breakouts as they pop up, too. Read up on one of our favorite acne-fighting ingredients in our article, The Benefits and Uses of Salicylic Acid for Skin.

Sources:
I."Acne Scars: Signs and Symptoms." American Academy of Dermatology
II."Age Spots (Liver Spots)." Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 21 Jan. 2020
III. "Acne Scars: Who Gets and Causes." American Academy of Dermatology
IV.Davis, Erica C., and Valerie D. Callender. "Postinflammatory Hyperpigmentation." The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, July 2010, pp. 20–31.
V.Lawrence E. Gibson, M.D. "Acne Scars: What's the Best Treatment?" Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 20 Sept. 2018
VI."How to Fade Dark Spots in Skin of Color." American Academy of Dermatology, www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/skin-care-secrets/routine/fade-dark-spots.
VII."Sunscreen: How to Help Protect Your Skin From the Sun." United States Food and Drug Administration. 2019.

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