This isn't news to anyone, but I feel it bears repeating: Acne scars suck. Anyone who has suffered from post-pimple hyperpigmentation knows this truth to be self-evident. And, post-puberty, they affect every age and skin color. They manifest as red or brown marks that can last weeks — and sometimes, for the really unlucky, months. As someone from that unlucky category, I can confidently tell you that I have tried every — and I mean
every — remedy known to man.
I'm also a realist: I know the only permanent ways to eradicate this woe immediately are lasers and Retin-A. But those options continue to be out of reach for the majority of those who are afflicted with this stupid, infuriating skin condition. (What? I'm not bitter.)
That said, quite a few at-home, non-prescription products do a damn good job of fading those marks faster, to get you back to the even-toned complexion you had before that massive breakout. And, for the most part, they don't cost an arm and a leg. As anyone who has spent hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars over the years in a fruitless effort to win the war on zits knows, that's a huge selling point. While these products, for the most part, have no real effect on actually preventing blemishes, we know that fading those dark marks is half the battle.
Ahead, check out each tested scar lighteners that are the everyday heroes of our beauty arsenal. And, if I missed any, let me know in the comments what you swear by. Knowledge is power.
When you hear the word "toner" you might not automatically assume it's a powerful, acne scar fighter — but it is. This one from Fresh is infused with a peony extract, vitamin C, and licorice root extract that visibly brightens, plumps, and leaves lasting hydration.
Peony Brightening Moisturizing Facial Toner, $60, available at
The retinol in this night oil will help reduce the visibility of your dark spots over time while also working to help erase the acne you've already got.
Luna Sleeping Night Oil, $105, available at
Ignore the name; this isn't a skin-bleaching product. But, the kojic acid and licorice root in this mask
fade acne scars and age spots in record time.
Whitening Mask, $24, available at
This one comes with a hefty price tag, but it's well worth the money. The serum targets spots fast and leaves your face with an immediate glow.
White Lucent MicroTargeting Spot Corrector, $130, available at
This serum is one of our favorite tools to battle acne scars. It targets dark spots, but doesn't change your natural skin tone in any way. It's a great nighttime moisturizer, but you can use it in both the a.m. and p.m. — just remember to use sunscreen during the day.
Mission Perfection Serum, $72, available at
Products labeled as "brightening"
sometimes get a bad rap
. But they're the best mode of treatment for pesky acne scars. This mask from GlamGlow isn't necessarily one you should use every day, but you can whip it out weekly in addition to other healing treatments.
Flashmud Brightening Treatment, $69, available at
One of the big issues with acne-scar treatments is that you have to do some serious sleuthing to find the right products — very few brands mention "acne scars" on their labels. Most use ambiguous descriptions and names that hint at brightening, evening the skin tone, or addressing hyperpigmentation.
One of the few exceptions is this straight-to-the-point tube from Clean & Clear. It uses a known acne-fighting ingredient — salicylic acid — to help treat pimples and lessen post-breakout marks. A two-for-one deal, for the price of a coffee and a croissant from that fancy spot down the block — you can't beat that.
Clean & Clear
Advantage Mark Treatment, $7.06, available at
This cult classic proudly boasts on its box that it can diminish scars, stretch marks, and uneven skin tone, as well as signs of aging and dehydrated skin. Pretty lofty claims to live up to.
While I can't personally attest to the whole stretch-marks thing — which is what it's best known for — I can tell you it's one of the most effective hyperpigmentation healers on the market. Ignore the '70s packaging, because cheesy as it may look this stuff is more effective than many products twice its price tag.
Specialist Skincare, $15.99, available at
Okay, okay: This one is on the pricier end of the spectrum. However, it's one of the few products that I think is worthy of its $100 price tag. Again, not the most obvious scar treatment — but "illuminating" and "skin-perfecting" are just fancy marketing terms that mean it treats bumpy, blotchy, marked-up skin.
I particularly like how soft it makes my skin feel, as well as the pleasant, subtle scent of rose — not at all overwhelming or perfume-y. I use it at night and wake up to what those marketers would call glowy, dewy, perfected skin.
Cellularose Brightening Serum, $117, available at
Hydroquinone is effective at fading dark scars and other post-breakout marks. It's a common active ingredient in skin-lightening formulas, including this gel from derm-created line Murad.
A few things to know: Apply it to
the affected area (or it could lighten the rest of your complexion, too)
washing your face and
applying your moisturizer. Also, most derms will warn you about "rebound pigmentation" when using hydroquinone, which means that if you use it for too long (more than six weeks is a common estimate) it could start making the area darker instead of lighter. Stick to a six-week run on each scar for the best results — and always wear SPF!
Post-Acne Spot Lightening Gel, $65, available at
This acne spot-fading gel from Renée Rouleau is another one of those "says what it does" treatments. It won't work on existing zits, but it's specifically formulated for post-breakout skin — which means you know exactly when and how to use it. And when it comes to a problem people in the industry don't really address, a product like this is a big relief for the millions of us who deal with the issue on a day-to-day basis.
Post-Breakout Fading Gel, $38.50, available at
This Kiehl's dark-spot corrector is a super-light serum that helps to both zap acne scars and even out your skin tone. It uses activated vitamin C, which has been proven to combat discoloration effortlessly.
Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Solution, $49.50, available at
I've written the beauty equivalent of a Jane Austen romance about
this sheet mask
. I can't stop shouting its name from the rooftops, because it is
What makes it so special is that it provides instant relief. Slap on this sucker for 20 minutes before bedtime, then remove it. Let the serum sink in, then fish around in the packet for some extra serum and press that into the skin for a double layer of goodness. Your marks will look much less prominent after you initially remove the mask, but I've found that the next morning you'll see an even more amazing skin transformation.
If I'm feeling thrifty (read: always), I'll save the leftover serum and use it the next evening and the subsequent few evenings, depending on how long it lasts. If you're feeling REALLY crafty, you can also save that excess serum to make another mask by applying it to the skin and then layering peeled-apart cotton pads on top —
. Talk about getting your money's worth.
Purifying Bio Enzymes Mask, $12 for 1, available at
SkinCeuticals has a long, storied history of creating science-based formulas that kick major ass at preventing, protecting, and repairing the skin. This lighter texture of a cult-favorite product straddles all three of those categories by protecting against free radicals, evening out the skin tone, firming your complexion, and diminishing both dullness and dark spots.
Another interesting tidbit: According to the brand, once it sinks in, you can't wash or rub it off for at least 72 hours. It definitely falls into the super-duper long-wear category, that's for sure.
Two warnings for newbies — it stinks, and it can cause breakouts in some. The distinctive odor, caused by the potent mix of vitamin C, ferulic acid, and phloretin, can be a bit much to handle — but trust me when I say it's worth enduring. And you do get used to it eventually, so there's that.
Phloretin CF Gel, $163, available at
Medicated pads bring me back to the days of standing in front of my mirror and furiously rubbing at my acne with an
. Thank god I finally learned to stop doing that. Noted dermatologist and acne slayer Dennis Gross, MD, has created a much more sophisticated, effective, and way less harsh product that gives you the convenience of pre-soaked pads without all the burning pain.
Salicylic acid is again the star ingredient here, and it's used to clear pores, soothe new breakouts, flatten blemishes (key in helping you
more effectively), prevent new ones from cropping up, and fade those pesky dark marks. It gets pimples at every stage of their life span — which with this product is mercifully quicker than that of your average breakout.
Important to note: It can cause some stinging, so start off using it once a week and see how you feel.
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare
One Step Acne Eliminating Pads, $38, available at
Products with vitamin C almost always trumpet their brightening abilities. And yes, the ingredient is great at making dull skin look more vibrant. The unadvertised perk is that, in the right product formulation, it can also work gangbusters on erasing redness.
PTR's overnight mask uses camu camu berry, which the brand claims has 30 times the vitamin C of an orange. I don't know about that (must have forgotten my vitamin-level detector at home), but I do know I have never used a vitamin C product this effective at treating acne scars.
One night of wearing this, and a severe cheek breakout (screw you, hormones) was significantly less noticeable the next morning. I used it five nights in a row and kept seeing even better results.
It plateaued after that, so I've been switching it up with the By Terry serum for a twice-weekly treatment. My skin future has never looked brighter.
Peter Thomas Roth
Camu Camu Power C x 30 Vitamin C Brightening Sleeping Mask, $62, available at
Another power pigment eradicator is glycolic acid. Less sticky and irritating on sensitive skin than salicylic, glycolic purges pores of blackheads, exfoliates the dead skin that can lead to clogged pores in the first place, and lightens existing pigmentation.
T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum, $90, available at
This incredibly effective new moisturizer was made for brightening, but it goes above and beyond the call of duty with smoothing glycolic and lactic acids, exfoliating fruit enzymes, and naturally hydrating squalane. It's basically a one-and-done for all your dark spot-fading, dullness-fighting needs.
ExfoliKate Glow Moisturizer, $65, available at
Kypris' Moonlight Catalyst also employs exfoliating acids like punkin enzymes and alpha-hydroxy acids to fight acne and lighten hyper-pigmentation. It also contains rosehip and sea buckthorn extract to hydrate the skin.
Moonlight Catalyst, $72, available at
This overnight treatment not only targets active acne, but reduces the redness and appearance of leftover acne scars as well. With the help of a potent glycolic acid formula (over 20%), the swab works while you sleep for an at-home peel that won't leave your skin stripped dry.
Peter Thomas Roth
20% Glycolic Solutions Jumbo Peel Swab, $48, available at
As you know from our
constant musings on the subject
, retinol has long been praised for its ability to both keep skin clear and gradually even skin tone. (Plus, a whole lot more.) There are countless options to try, but we have a fondness for Hollywood aesthetician
's formula. It doesn't dry out skin, even though it's packed with 5% retinol and 5% lactic acid.
Pro tip: Apply in the evening, after cleansing, while skin is still damp — and allow it to fully soak in (about 15 minutes) before topping with anything else.
Resurface by Shani Darden
Retinol Reform, $95, available at
Shani Darden Skin Care
In just four weeks, this vitamin B3 and C cream promises to fade light scarring left from your past blemishes.
Correcting Cream Clarant B3 Dark Spot Normal to Oily Skin, $8.19, available at
Lemon and salicylic acid fight your spots... and the applicator's rollerball cools you off in the process.Win-win!
On Your Mark Blemish Mark Fader, $7.99, available at
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