Breakouts are enough of a headache when they stick around for a week before disappearing. And the only thing more frustrating than occasional pimples is the permanent marks they can sometimes leave behind. Unfortunately, acne scars can be tough to treat, and unlike post-acne marks, they don’t tend to fade on their own. What’s more, stubborn scars can give your skin a rough, uneven appearance—the kind that a bit of gentle exfoliation isn’t likely to improve.
Admittedly, that all sounds bleak, but there are ways to help improve the appearance of acne scars. It all starts with a solid skincare routine. Here, we’ll teach you all about acne scars, including what causes them and how to distinguish between different types of scarring. We’ll also arm you with the information you need to tackle these post-breakout blemishes safely and effectively (with your favorite Kiehl’s products, of course). Read on to learn how to minimize acne scars for smoother-looking skin.
What Are Acne Scars?
Before we dive into acne scar treatments, it’s crucial you have a solid grasp on what acne scars are (and what they aren’t). Generally speaking, acne scars refer to raised or indented lesions that develop after a breakout. They’re typically associated with more severe types of acne, such as cystic acne, and are caused by your body’s response to the blemish. When you have a deep breakout, your body may respond by producing collagen, a protein involved with maintaining the skin’s structure. If the right amount of collagen is produced, your skin should recover normally. Too much or too little collagen, however, can result in visible scarring.
What Causes Raised Acne Scars?
Raised acne scars, also known as hypertrophic scars, result from excess collagen production (the same thing that can cause keloid scars to form in some people after an injury). Hypertrophic scars often appear pinkish or brown. These types of acne scars are relatively uncommon and only account for around 10-20% of all acne scarring.
What Causes Indented Acne Scars?
The opposite of hypertrophic scars, atrophic scars are indented lesions that develop when too little collagen is produced following a breakout. There are different types of indented acne scars, and they’re typically classified by their appearance. Icepick scars, which account for around 60-70% of atrophic scars, are narrow but relatively deep.<sup>I</sup> Rolling scars, by contrast, are wide and have rounded borders, while boxcar scars are shallow, with sharper “edges.”
How Do Acne Scars Differ From Post-Blemish Marks?
Post-blemish marks are another type of skin concern that may develop after a breakout. Unlike acne scars, these spots aren’t raised or depressed, but flat. They’re characterized by discoloration around the area of the original blemish and are caused by an overproduction of melanin, your skin’s natural pigment. They can affect anyone but are most common for those with darker skin tones. While they’re sometimes referred to as acne scars, post-blemish marks aren’t true scars but a type of skin discoloration (much like sun spots or age spots). They typically fade on their own with time (unlike scars, which are often permanent) and affect the skin tone rather than its texture.
Can You Prevent Acne Scars From Forming?
The only guaranteed way to prevent acne scars is to never get a pimple (an unreasonable goal at best). However, maintaining a proper routine tailored to your skin type can help keep blemishes at bay, which in turn can help prevent acne scars from forming. If you’re prone to breakouts, we recommend following a skincare routine for acne-prone skin (and always leave your blemishes alone: squeezing your spots makes you more likely to develop acne scars and post-acne marks).
How To Care For Acne Scars: 6 Tips
While no over-the-counter acne scar remedies will completely erase your scars, the right products can help even your skin’s texture and tone. Ahead, discover six tips for improving the appearance of acne scars at home.
Spot-Treat Blemishes When They Appear
Acne scarring is largely genetic—as we mentioned earlier, the only surefire way to prevent scarring is to never break out. But pimples aren’t always avoidable, even with a targeted skincare routine. If you do notice a pimple starting to rear its ugly head, we suggest addressing the blemish with a spot treatment, such as our Breakout Control Targeted Acne Spot Treatment. Suitable for oily, combination, & blemish-prone skin, this powerful formula helps visibly reduce the appearance of acne blemishes, leaving your skin looking clearer and feeling more comfortable. Using the treatment is simple: Just apply a thin layer to your blemish once daily and blend into the skin. You can also increase application to two to three times daily as needed, but reduce the number of applications if dryness or peeling occurs
Exfoliate Every Day
Exfoliation helps remove dead cells from the skin’s surface, which can give your skin a smoother, more even appearance. While exfoliating may not erase your acne scars, it can certainly help improve uneven texture.
Clearly Corrective Brightening & Exfoliating Daily Cleanser
We recommend those prone to acne scarring start their skincare routine with a gentle exfoliating cleanser, like Clearly Corrective Brightening & Exfoliating Daily Cleanser. This creamy face wash with white birch extract and pearlstone helps remove dirt, oil, and environmental pollutants to purify the skin. When used consistently, it also helps refine the skin’s texture. Our exfoliating cleanser is suitable for all skin types and can be used morning and night for smoother, brighter-looking skin.
Milk-Peel Gentle Exfoliating Toner
If you prefer chemical exfoliation, use an exfoliating toner instead. We suggest Milk-Peel Gentle Exfoliating Toner, which contains lipo-hydroxy acid and lactic acid, both of which provide gentle chemical exfoliation. The dual-action formula helps dissolve impurities and exfoliates the skin’s surface. It’s clinically-demonstrated to smooth and refine the skin without causing discomfort.* Over time, it also helps restore the skin’s moisture levels for a hydrated, supple feel. To use it, lightly shake the bottle, then use a clean cotton pad to swipe the exfoliating formula over your face, focusing on areas prone to dullness or unevenness.
*Results based on expert grading in a clinical study of 44 panelists, aged 30-50, after four weeks of use.
Address Discolorations Early
While post-blemish marks aren’t scars, strictly speaking, they can affect your overall appearance. If you’re prone to skin discolorations, try incorporating a brightening serum into your regular skincare routine to help keep your skin tone even and clear. We suggest using Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Corrector, which contains activated vitamin C and peony root extract. The effective serum helps visibly brighten the skin. Additionally, it’s clinically-demonstrated to help improve the appearance of a wide range of skin discolorations, including post-blemish marks.*
*Based on a 12-week clinical study of 17 women with all skin types presented with mild to moderate severity of attributes, including post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
For added skin-brightening benefits, pair your serum with Clearly Corrective Accelerated Clarity Renewing Ampoules as needed. The powerful two-week system contains 28 individual ampoules made with a potent blend of exfoliating acids. When used as directed—that is, twice daily for 14 consecutive days—the skin-refining treatment visibly renews and rejuvenates the skin. The potent formula also helps smooth skin’s texture and boosts brightness, revealing a more refined appearance over time. To help maintain the results (and prevent future skin discolorations) be sure to wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen like Super Fluid Daily UV Defense SPF 50+ every day—rain or shine.
Keep Your Skin Well-Hydrated
Hydration alone won’t prevent acne scars, but it may help keep breakouts at bay (it seems counterintuitive, but dehydrated skin may produce more oil than properly-moisturized skin). If you’re blemish-prone, we suggest completing your daily skincare routine with a gel moisturizer, like Calendula Serum-Infused Water Cream. The refreshing formula with calendula extract soothes the skin with weightless hydration and helps keep your skin feeling moisturized for up to 24 hours. When used regularly, the unique moisturizer also helps even skin tone and improves the appearance of uneven skin texture for fresh, dewy-looking skin.
You can exfoliate at home with Epidermal Re-Texturizing Micro-Dermabrasion. The highly-effective scrub, which contains glycerin, shea butter, and diatomaceous earth, instantly helps smooth the skin. With regular use three times per week, it also helps refine skin’s texture and improves the appearance of dark spots and discolorations, leaving your skin looking visibly clearer. The effective formula is suitable for all skin types, but note that it should only be used on healed skin—in other words, skip it if you have any active breakouts.
Consult a Dermatologist
While there are a number of steps you can take at home to help improve the appearance of mild scarring, many effective acne scar treatments are best left in the hands of a professional. If your at-home treatments aren’t providing the results you want (or working as quickly as you’d like), we suggest scheduling an appointment with your dermatologist. They have many tools at their disposal and can help formulate a treatment plan that works for your skin.
Sources I. Fabbronici, Gabriella et al. “Acne Scars: Pathogenesis, Classification, and Treatment.” Dermatology Research and Practice, vol. 2010 (2010).