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We’ve all been there: A pesky pimple crops up (always at the least opportune time, of course). You do your best to treat it and are relieved when it finally goes away, only to then realize you’re now left with a mark where it used to be. What gives?
Acne and pimples can leave behind two different types of skin damage. First are acne marks. These spots, which tend to be either pinkish-red or brown, depending on your skin tone, are a result of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, or PIH. Breakouts create inflammation in the skin; once this inflammation subsides, it can leave behind a mark as the skin starts to heal. These types of acne marks are simply discolored, and the skin won’t feel any different. On the other end of the spectrum are true acne scars, defined by skin that’s either raised, depressed, or bumpy. A particularly aggressive blemish can lead to actual destruction of skin tissue, just like a wound would. Lifestyle habits, namely, unprotected sun exposure can also make matters worth.
While treating actual scars is best reserved for the dermatologist’s office, where procedures such as lasers and fillers are most effective for resurfacing the skin, there are a number of ways to help address dark acne marks. Happily, most will fade on their own over the course of a few months, but you can speed along the process with any one of these top treatments.
Best Overall: iS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance Plus
There’s no shortage of good-for-your skin ingredients in this potent serum, which helps treat not only acne and acne marks, but also is great for healing everything from rosacea to bug bites. Zinc sulfate reduces inflammation, while vitamin C packs both antioxidant protection and delivers skin brightening benefits to knock out those pesky dark marks. Plus, it also pulls double duty to ward off any future blemishes, thanks to the addition of kojic acid.
Best Budget: Roc Deep Wrinkle Night Cream
Retinol remains one of the gold-standard skincare ingredients, thanks to its long list of tried-and-true benefits. When it comes to acne scarring specifically, it works in two ways. On the surface of the skin, it helps to boost skin cell turnover, improving texture and tone and fading spots. But it doesn’t stop there; it also works on the deeper layers, stimulating collagen production, helpful if your scars are deeper.
This wallet-friendly pick is oil-free, non-comedogenic, and clinically proven to work in just 12 weeks. Insider tip: Retinol is potent and can have some irritating side effects, especially if your skin is sensitive to begin with. Try applying a plain moisturizer all over first, then layering this on top. It won’t compromise the efficacy of the ingredient, but can help mitigate some of the dryness and flaking that often occurs as your skin gets acclimated to retinol.
Best for Face: Skinceuticals C E Ferulic
A fan favorite among dermatologists, this antioxidant serum is the best of the best. Anyone and everyone can benefit from this formula, since the hefty dose of antioxidants offers essential protection from damaging free radicals caused by exposure as sun and pollution. It’s an especially good option if you’re trying to address acne marks; a 15 percent concentration of pure vitamin C delivers not only that antioxidant protection, but also notably brightens skin.
This formula is also unique for its use of ferulic acid, another powerful antioxidant, that just so happens to improve the efficacy of the vitamin C, too. Earning a perfect five stars on Dermstore.com, this has over 1100 glowing reviews. While it’s admittedly pricey, a little bit goes a long way, so one bottle will last for quite a while.
Best for Back: Paula’s Choice Clear Acne Body Spray
Backne happens to the best of us. (FYI, if you’re prone to breakouts on your face, you’re likely more prone to breakouts on your back, too.) The star in this spritz is a two-percent concentration of salicylic acid, which both fights existing breakouts and keep new ones from forming while keeping dark marks at bay. It also contains anti-irritants to help tamp down redness. Alcohol-free, it won’t feel drying or stripping, but does dry quickly so you can get dressed immediately after using it. Best of all, the spray bottle makes it easier than ever to actually reach your back.
Best Preventative: Elizabeth Arden Prevage City Smart Broad Spectrum Sunscreen
In the event you needed extra incentive to wear sunscreen daily, 365 days a year (though fingers crossed you already doing so), keep in mind that sun exposure is one of the biggest external factors that can exacerbate acne marks and scars. Not only do the sun’s rays trigger your skin to produce more pigment—making those post-pimple marks even darker—it also breaks down collagen and elastin, the proteins responsible for keeping your skin strong and healthy. And less collagen can make actual acne scars (the ones that are raised or depressed) even worse and harder to treat. No, thank you.
The bottom line: Wearing sunscreen every day is the best way to prevent acne marks and scars. This option has both the requisite broad-spectrum SPF protection, and an added antioxidant and DNA repair complex. Plus, it’s tinted, so if you do have a few existing dark marks, it can help create the appearance of more even skin while doing its protective duties.
Best Overnight Treatment: Peter Thomas Roth Brightening Sleeping Mask
Make the most of the overnight hours and treat acne marks while you snooze with this nocturnal treatment. The namesake ingredient, the camu camu berry, contains 30 times the amount of vitamin C that an orange does. Translation: A powerful dose of the brightening and collagen-boosting vitamin to help not only fade dark marks and keep new ones from forming, but also keep your skin smoother, firmer, and less wrinkled. Apply a thin layer across your entire face in lieu of your standard night cream two to three times per week.
Best for Stubborn Spots: Proactiv Advanced Dark Spot Correcting Serum
It only makes sense that the brand known for the revolutionary and best-selling three-step acne treatment system would also have a standout product for dealing with the dark marks all too often associated with acne. Hydroquinone is the star ingredient here, the most commonly prescribed skin-lightening ingredient by dermatologists. Here, it’s in a two percent concentration, the highest you can get over-the-counter without a prescription. The clear gel formula also contains skin-soothing sea buckthorn. Because it is so powerful, reserve this for targeting super specific or stubborn single marks, rather than using it all over your complexion.
Our writers spent 6 hours researching the most popular acne scar treatments on the market. Before making their final recommendations, they considered 50 different treatments overall, screened options from 40 different brands and manufacturers, read over 40 user reviews (both positive and negative), and tested 14 of the treatments themselves. All of this research adds up to recommendations you can trust.