I’ve been really lucky when it comes to breakouts. I’ve written about them, I’ve had a few pop up from time to time, and I’ve recommended products to zap them, but I’ve really never suffered from the frustrating woes of teenage or adult acne. That being said, something recently changed. Perhaps it’s because I’ve recently ascended into my almost-late-20s (I’m not complaining—I feel wise), but now whenever I break out, no matter how small or inconsequential the actual pimple is, it leaves behind a red mark long after it clears up. It is so annoying. How are acne scars and discoloration problems only just starting to plague me now? Aren’t these years supposed to be zit-free?
I spoke with celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau, Seed to Serum’s Megan Schwarz, and dermatologist Carl Thornfeldt for their expert opinions and advice on why this is happening and how to make it stop. Like, immediately.
Keep reading for their sage guidance on how to reduce redness from acne.
Why is This Happening?
Rouleau explains: “Redness can be caused by trauma to the skin cells caused from aggressively picking at blemishes. Picking at the skin can leave a red post-breakout mark long after the infection disappears. Whether or not you picked at your blemish (hopefully not), it’s common to be left with a red, dark, or purple mark that can hang around for weeks.” It feels like she’s explaining my exact situation, to be honest. Sometimes I pick (eek, sorry!), and sometimes I’m really good about keeping my hands to myself.
She continues, “It leaves a scar because it stretches and damages the surrounding tissue, resulting in increased melanin activity. This is considered to be a scar, but it will fade with time by using a skin lightener and increasing exfoliation. Also, infections can cause a blemish to be red and inflamed.”
Thornfeldt adds: “Inflammation is the body’s natural response mechanism to heal itself. Unfortunately, when it goes on too long, inflammation can become very harmful to the skin—this is when we see dark spots where the acne lesion was. This is called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. So, the redness is the skin still creating inflammation as it’s healing the area. Another factor is dilation of the blood vessels. This occurs due to the increased nutritional needs of the inflamed lesions since the cells are excessively active. Those vessels may take six to 12 weeks to completely shrink, so often the older lesions have a purple hue as the rest of the inflammation resolves.”
Then, Schwarz brought in the age factor I had been worrying about: “Additionally, as we age, our skin’s renewal process begins to slow, allowing discoloration to linger anywhere from a few months to a full year (or longer!). You’ll often notice that hyperpigmentation on your cheeks is particularly stubborn.”
How Can I Prevent It?
"Do not pick your skin! Picking at a blemish will no doubt result in a red, irritated mess," says Rouleau. "For starters, ice it down. The cold helps to reduce both redness and swelling caused by picking at a blemish. Apply an ice cube directly to the blemish, and leave it on for 10 minutes. Then, apply a blemish treatment appropriate for the type you’re dealing with. I’ve even created a ‘No Picking Skin Contract’ that you can sign to commit to keeping your hands off your face. I promise you’ll have clearer skin with fewer scars.”
Thornfeldt advises, “The best way to prevent the inflammation is to use acne products that have anti-inflammatory properties in them. I recommend my patients use an Epionce Lytic product."
Eating an anti-inflammatory diet will also help prevent inflammation. Avoid foods that increase inflammation including chocolate, sugar, starch, alcohol, and spicy foods.
What Should I Do to Treat It?
Rouleau says, “If the affected skin is exposed to daylight, the UV rays stimulate the melanin cells—even if it’s cloudy outside—making the scar darker and redder in color and visible longer.”
In addition to using the appropriate blemish treatment, wear sunscreen to treat red spots since it can help expedite the healing and fading process.
Thornfeldt adds, “After the lesion is gone, continue to apply topical anti-inflammatory products along with a product that is going to help repair and fortify the skin barrier—so the skin can become healthy as quickly as possible. Spearmint tea and green tea especially help these clear faster as well.”
Green tea is a botanical derived from the leaves and buds of the tea plant Camellia sinensis. The active components of green tea are polyphenols (also called catechins) that are believed to benefit the skin due to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
What Products Should I Use?
Rouleau explains, “The Renée Rouleau Post-Breakout Fading Gel ($42) is a spot treatment to lighten and fade red, dark, or purple scars and spots left behind from blemishes on the skin. This product uses a blend of gentle brighteners and exfoliating acids to lift discoloration and fade stubborn acne marks. You’ll see a dramatically noticeable improvement in promoting even-toned skin with continued use. This gel contains white tea extract, which contains anti-inflammatory tea to soothe signs of redness and irritation, and lactic/amino acid complex, which provides cellular turnover with minimum irritation.”
Thornfeldt has a few favorites as well: “I recommend all of my patients, with or without acne, use an Epionce Renewal Facial Cream ($98). Also, if your skin is especially susceptible to dark spots, I recommend a hydroquinone-free lightening product to keep the PIH at bay. My go-to is the Epionce MelanoLyte Tx ($70) and MelanoLyte Pigment Perfection Serum ($100).”
Schwarz loves all-natural products to help with redness and irritation post-breakout. She says, “Let’s face it: Not every breakout can be prevented. So when redness and discoloration strike, fight back with gentle exfoliation to encourage cellular renewal and vitamin C and licorice extract to naturally lighten hyperpigmentation. My favorite redness-taming products include Laurel Facial Serum ($88), Kypris Moonlight Catalyst ($98), and De Mamiel Brightening Cleanse & Exfoliate ($70).”
Derived from the licorice plant, licorice extract is filled with a variety of beneficial compounds, which do everything from deliver antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects to help fade dark spots.
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Cleveland Clinic. Acne scars: management and treatment. Updated June 23, 2020.
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Hollinger JC, Angra K, Halder RM. Are natural ingredients effective in the management of hyperpigmentation? a systematic review. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2018;11(2):28-37.