6 Acne Scar Treatment Options

How to treat acne scars and prevent new ones from forming

A young woman looks at a pimple in her mirror.

How to treat acne scars and prevent new ones from forming

Acne can leave a lasting reminder of its presence in the form of a scar on your skin. While these telltale bumps and depressions have no serious health effects, they can damage your self-esteem — which is never a good thing.

Thankfully, treatments are available to make acne scars look less visible.

“Many safe and effective acne scar treatments are available to minimize their appearance,” says E. Victor Ross, MD, a laser and cosmetic dermatologist at Scripps Clinic. “Possible solutions include dermal fillers, chemical peels, minor skin surgery and laser treatment for acne scars.”

A dermatologist can perform these treatments in a medical office. But before getting treatment for acne scars, you must first treat your acne. The worse acne gets, the greater the chance it will leave a scar.

There are many treatment options for acne, including over-the-counter and prescribed medications. Certain birth control pills are also approved for acne treatment for healthy women who also need contraception.

There is one general rule to prevent infection and scarring: Keep your hands off.

“Acne scars result from inflammation, so it’s best not to do anything that can increase it. This means no picking, popping or squeezing pimples since that increases the risk of scarring,” Dr. Ross says.

Once your acne is clear, then you can decide what to do about any remaining acne scars.

What is acne?

Acne is the most common skin condition in the United States, affecting up to 50 million Americans annually, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. It usually begins in puberty and affects many adolescents and young adults though it may also continue into one’s 30s and 40s.

Acne usually appears on the face, neck, chest, back and shoulders. It occurs when a pore in the skin clogs with dead skin cells and sebum, an oil that helps keep skin moisturized. Sometimes bacteria that live in the skin can also get inside the clogged pore and cause inflammation. Inflammatory acne lesions can result in permanent scars.

“Acne scars are created when skin tissue is damaged. While these bumps and depressions have no serious health effects, they can cause emotional distress and damage your self-esteem. Which is why treatment is always an option,” Dr. Ross explains.

Acne signs

A person who has acne can have any of these blemishes:

  • Blackheads
  • Whiteheads
  • Papules (small red, tender bumps)
  • Pustules (pimples with pus at their tips)
  • Cysts
  • Nodules

Most acne scars cause depressions or pits on the skin, often in the face, due to the loss of tissue. They are known as depressed or atrophic scars. They are further classified as ice pick, rolling and boxcar scars.

Six ways to treat and prevent acne scarring

Many people can treat mild acne with over-the-counter medication. Check with your doctor if you are worried about any side effects, however. “Anything that reduces inflammation can help the healing process,” Dr. Ross says.

If over-the-counter medication is not working and you have a lot of acne, a dermatologist can prescribe stronger medication and discuss other treatments to prevent or reduce acne scars, including the following:

1. Topical creams

Some topical medications help kill the bacteria. Others work on reducing oil in your skin. The medicine may contain retinoid, benzoyl peroxide, an antibiotic or even salicylic acid.

2. Laser and light therapies

Laser resurfacing is a treatment that uses focused light to improve acne scars. Treatments are typically done with ablative (wounding) and non-ablative (non-wounding) lasers.

Ablative lasers resurface the skin by removing the top layer of skin, and the scar with it. “From there, the natural healing process takes over and the skin heals,” Dr. Ross adds.

Non-ablative lasers stimulate collagen production and create changes in the skin without removing any skin. Collagen is a protein that gives skin strength and elasticity. Non-ablative lasers are less invasive, allow for quicker healing and work best on mild acne scarring.

Dr. Ross says the most common types of lasers for acne scarring are fractional lasers, which are available in ablative and non-ablative forms.

Green and yellow light lasers are often used to reduce red and brown areas associated with early acne scarring, he adds. Intense pulse light, which is similar to laser treatment, can also be used to reduce the red and brown after effects of acne lesions.

“The intent of these therapies is to make the scarred skin look less conspicuous, and normalize the overall skin appearance,” Dr. Ross says.

3. Micro-needling

Micro-needling, also known as collagen induction therapy, uses tiny needles to create small punctures in the skin in order to induce the skin’s repair mechanism and stimulate collagen growth to improve skin appearance.

Devices used include a dermaroller, a rolling device with tiny needles, and a pen-like tool that works like a sewing machine. Both create superficial wounds that help to regenerate the skin and reduce the appearance of acne scarring.

Consumers can buy micro-needling devices for home use. However, treatment from a board-certified dermatologist tend to provide better results than at-home skin care devices. Dermatologists, for example, use needles that go deeper to treat acne scars.

Dermatologists also use needles equipped with radiofrequency heating. “These devices increase the effectiveness of micro-needling and enhance the results to help smooth the skin,” Dr. Ross says.

4. Fillers

Dermal fillers are injectable treatments that add volume to the skin and diminish scars. Fillers, such as collagen, hyaluronic acid or fat, can be injected into the skin to smooth out scars and make them less visible. Most dermal fillers are temporary.

5. Chemical peels

Chemical peels use a solution to remove the top layers of the skin. The new skin is usually smoother and less scarred.

6. Surgery

For deep acne scars, minor surgery may be the answer. A punch excision removes the scar tissue and repairs the wound with stitches or a skin graft. This technique is often used to treat deep acne scars.

Visit a board-certified dermatologist

Safe and effective treatment for acne scars begins with a consultation with a board-certified dermatologist.

“There are a lot of options for taking care of acne scars, but it’s important to choose the ones that will be safest and most effective based on your skin type, condition and age,” Dr. Ross says.

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