The thing that sucks most about zits (besides, well, everything): the red and brown scars that stick around on your face long after the pimple itself has gone away.
“Studies show that acne scarring occurs to some degree in 95 percent of acne patients,” says New York City dermatologist Y. Claire Chang, M.D. of Union Square Laser Dermatology. So…you’re not alone. Scars show up as acne erythema—or red marks— in lighter-skinned patients, and as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation—or brown marks—in darker skin tones, says Chang. In some cases, skin texture can become permanently uneven and pitted.
Why does this happen? “Pimples cause a lot of inflammation in the skin, and the way many skin types respond to inflammation and injury is to release color from cells,” says Rachel Nazarian, M.D., F.A.A.D., of Schweiger Dermatology Group. “You can see this happen with insect bites, cuts, and yes, pimples.”
The good news: Red and brown acne scars will likely resolve on their own with time, says Chang. And in case you needed another reminder not to pick your pimples…messing with them can lead to worse discoloration and an increased risk of scarring, she adds.
While deeper, pitted scars don’t respond to OTC treatments (you’ll need to go to your derm for lasers, chemical peels, or other treatments), there are certain ingredients that can get rid of brown and red acne scars a little faster. Great ingredients that work for every kind of spot include vitamin C, salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and retinoids like tretinoin.
So next time you’re dealing with a dark acne scar on your face, try one of these essential products to get rid of it (and keep it from getting worse):
Best SPF: EltaMD UV Elements Tinted Broad Spectrum SPF 44
The most important acne scar treatment in your arsenal is actually SPF. “I recommend this sunscreen because it’s a 100 percent physical sunscreen that allows for broad-spectrum UV coverage to prevent acne blemishes from getting darker,” says Chang. It also contains vitamin C to improve pigmentation issues and hyaluronic acid to moisturize skin. Bonus: The tint also helps mask acne scars while they’re healing.
Best overall treatment: Proactiv Advanced Dark Spot Correcting Serum
Nazarian’s favorite spot treatment for post-acne scars and dark marks also contains sea buckthorn to calm irritated skin. You’ll want to avoid direct sun exposure and generously apply that sunscreen every morning when using this product.
Best cleanser: Olay Clearly Clean Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment Scrub
“It contains salicylic acid, which is ideal for this type of scarring because it prevents future zits while chemically exfoliating skin to fade dark spots faster,” says Nazarian. The scrub will also target blackheads and excess oil with essence of citrus mint that is refreshing to boot.
Best affordable serum: COSRX Triple C Lightning LiquidBUY IT
With one of the highest concentrations of vitamin C on the market at 20.5 percent along with stabilizing black chokeberry to ensure its efficacy, Chang recommends this antioxidant-rich serum to help both brown spots from acne as well as dark spots from the sun.
Best multi-tasker: Murad Rapid Age Spot and Pigment Lightening Serum
Chang says this serum contains a powerful combination of lightening agents to help treat acne marks, including 2 percent hydroquinone to target pigmented spots, glycolic acid to even skin tone, and vitamin C to help brighten skin. Studies show visible results after just one week.
Best peel: Peter Thomas Roth Max Complexion Correction Pads
With 10 percent glycolic acid and 2 percent salicylic acid, these pads will help exfoliate your skin and treat those dark acne scars. There’s also 2 percent hydroquinone to inhibit melanin formation, plus vitamin C for brightening benefits, says Chang.
Best kit: Éminence Organic Skin Care Acne Advanced Treatment SystemBUY IT
The cleaner, masque, and hydrator trio contain encapsulated salicylic acid that time-releases over hours to unclog pores and help rev up skin cell turnover rates for a brighter complexion.
Best splurge serum: SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic Serum
“I know it’s expensive, but using even just two to three drops a day on your face will help over a few weeks,” says Nazarian. She loves this serum because vitamin C targets brown spots and brightens skin, while anti-inflammatory vitamin E helps heal damaged skin and redness.
Best moisturizer: Glytone Soothing Lipid Recovery Cream
Overdoing it and irritating already inflamed skin can make scars stay longer, says Chang. To balance out your more aggressive products, try this deeply replenishing cream that replaces the skin’s natural protective lipid barrier to calm skin so it can repair itself better.