As someone currently rocking a zit so massive it’s altering my jawline, I tend to feel like everyone I come into contact with is staring at my blemishes, silently judging me (which, as we all know, is rarely the reality). What’s worse are the dark spots and scars that pimples leave behind, which take even longer to fade. Unfortunately, having the skin of a haunted porcelain doll that’s been in the attic for 50 years makes those acne scars highly visible—not to mention that my skin is incredibly sensitive. (I once had such a severe reaction to a vitamin C serum that my face blew up like Ilana in that one episode of Broad City.)
So, as a person forced into being extra gentle to their epidermis, I really value the kind and professional advice of dermatologists—namely, Dr. Marisa Garshick. I recently chatted with the board-certified dermatologist about the best products for treating and preventing different types of acne scarring, for all skin tones and types.
Garshick points out that it is much easier to prevent acne scars than it is to treat them, and reminds us that—especially as we get into the summer months—it’s important “to make sure if you're exercising, that you wash well and get rid of sweat, rinsing off regularly makes sure that there's no extra buildup.” Also remember to address the root causes of acne—excess oil production, hormonal imbalance, and skin inflammation—and to wash your pillowcases and phone regularly so residue doesn’t transfer back to the skin. Finally, if you have any known allergies, a great resource for cross-examining which products are okay to use is Skin Safe, a website where you can search (or even scan) products to make sure they don’t contain any allergens.
The key to finding the best products for acne scars is first determining what kind of acne scars you’re dealing with, says Garshick. After a zit goes away, it often leaves lingering discoloration, which can appear darker, lighter, or more red than the normal skin color, also referred to as hyperpigmentation. Some people also experience scarring that causes textural changes—which can either be depressed or look almost like an indentation.
The best products for treating blemishes, hyperpigmentation, and dark spots
Some of the ingredients that have scientifically proven track records of improving the appearance of dark spots and discoloration include retinol, antioxidants like vitamins C and E, and gentle chemical exfoliants including glycolic, lactic, or salicylic acid (which is especially good for those who have oily skin).
Garshick points out that It’s important for people with hyperpigmentation to wear sunscreen. Persistent sun exposure can cause marks to get darker and prolong healing and recovery, so make sure you’re wearing a daily broad spectrum SPF of 30 or higher to lighten scars and prevent further discoloration. Those with super-fussy skin should opt for sunscreens that are zinc oxide- or titanium dioxide-based, because they are less likely to cause skin irritation compared to chemical filters.
Differin Dark Spot Correcting Face Serum
Differin is a great over-the-counter retinoid for getting rid of both acne and residual acne scars. This adapalene gel was the very first retinoid treatment you could get without a prescription that is proven to minimize acne, blackheads, and control inflammation.
Medik8 Crystal Retinal 1 Night Serum
If you’ve dabbled with Differin, and feel like you need something a little stronger, Garshick recommends Medik8 Crystal Retinal night serum—which is still going to be much gentler on skin than a prescription-strength retinoid. The main ingredient is retinaldehyde, which reduces pigmentation and smooths overall texture, reducing signs of aging.
Pond's Rejuveness Advanced Hydrating Night Cream
On the other end of the spectrum, if your skin is extremely sensitive to retinol (it can take weeks or months for skin to adjust), you might find success with a product containing niacinamide, such as Pond’s Rejuveness Advanced Hydrating Night Cream, which also helps with blemish-prone skin and discoloration. Its niacinamide/retinol combo is good for general skin tone and texture, and it also has anti-aging benefits.
Glytone Enhance Brightening Complex
Glytone is an enhanced brightening serum that contains glycolic and azelaic acid, which is a nice option for anyone that can’t tolerate a retinol—plus, it’s pregnancy-safe. One satisfied reviewer writes that Glytone “is gentle enough to use every day, twice a day, and my skin is brighter with less noticeable spots.”
The best products for treating depressed acne scars and craters
Using products that are designed to help boost collagen, as well as retinoids, can be especially helpful for textural scars, recommends Garshick. Depending on the severity, there are in-office procedures, such as microneedling, laser resurfacing, and filler injections which can help facilitate collagen production and smooth out the overall texture of the skin. There are a ton of treatments available out there to not only help to heal existing scars, but to help continually fight off blemishes; some people see improvement from using them as little as once a week. However, you should avoid using them in tandem with retinol to prevent irritation.
BioRepublic Extra Exfoliation Organic Facial Sheet Mask
According to Garshick, this sheet mask is excellent for “giving skin a nice glow, and [it] helps with brightening. The lactic acid offers skin an instant pick-me-up, but be mindful not to overdo it.”
The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution
While it might make you look like Kim Kardashian during her famous vampire facial, The Ordinary’s peeling solution is much gentler. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) exfoliate the skin's topmost surface for brighter, more even-looking skin, while beta hydroxy acids (BHA) help clear pore congestion, and the combination of them may reduce the look of fine lines with continued use, according to Garshick. The brand’s niacinamide serum is also a Rec Room favorite—it helped finally end one editor’s battle with cystic acne.
Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial
Drunk Elephant’s “Babyfacial” treatment is great for “getting rid of dead skin cells, which helps the rest of your skincare products penetrate better, stimulates new collagen production, as well as brightening the skin,” remarked Dr. Garsdhick. It contains a blend of the “dream team” of acids—glycolic, tartaric, lactic, citric, and salicylic—as well as chickpea flour, pumpkin ferment, and a soothing antioxidant blend of matcha tea, milk thistle, and apple, which provides enzymatic action and improves skin’s elasticity.
Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel
The Universal Daily Peel from dermatologist Dr. Dennis Gross’s popular skincare line is a fast-acting, two-step treatment with five different AHA/BHAs plus antioxidants and vitamins that lift away dead skin along with excess oil and impurities. You simply wipe your face with each ingredient-packed toilette (available in sensitive and extra-strength formulas), which is a quick and gentle option for those who don’t have time for a mask, or are just being introduced to chemical exfoliants.
The best products for treating cystic pimples and raised acne scars
Garshick admits that stubborn underground zits and raised scars tend to be a little bit harder to treat on your own at home, but patches including Zit Sticka, Scaraway, Scarguard, and Mederma make silicone sheets that are especially great for breakouts and marks on the chest or back. For severe cases, see a dermatologist about cortisone injections.
Hyperfade by ZitSticka
Hyperfade is essentially a miracle sticker you slap on before bed, and it works tirelessly on healing your problems overnight. Well, not problems, per se—but skin woes such as acne, sun, and age spots are the prime targets of Zit Sticka’s unique patch with 24 self-dissolving “microdarts” that release a combination of ingredients, like hyaluronic acid (for hydration), niaminicide (reduces redness), and vitamin C (prevents melanin production) deep into the skin. I am personally a fan, and have noticed quick results, but I particularly like that it protects sensitive skin from anything lurking on my pillowcases, and curbs the urge to take matters into my own hands.
Scaraway Silicone Sheets
Silicone sheets are the #1 doctor-recommended treatment for reducing the appearance of scars, including keloids. Silicone simulates the skin’s natural barrier, hydrating scar tissues and allowing it to soften and flatten.
Mederma Silicone Scar Sheet
Mederma patches have all the benefits of other silicone sheets, but are quite thin and flexible, and can be washed and reused for up to three weeks. They also come in small sizes that are easy to place on the face.
The best products for healing from picking your skin and popping zits
Many people are prone to picking or squeezing blemishes (not a great idea, but sometimes, you just can’t help it), and an effective way to help prevent scars from forming is to use some kind of healing ointment on the irritated area. Garshick usually recommends Vaseline or Aquaphor, “not just to provide moisture to the skin, but also to help facilitate healing and form a protective barrier to prevent excess irritation and [deter prodding].” The only caveat is that an ointment will not prevent any new breakouts, Garshick explains, but it can go a long way for people with a tendency to touch their face.
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La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Matte Face Moisturizer
Healing and maintaining your skin’s natural moisture barrier is integral for preventing further scarring. Any creams or lotions you use should be non-comedogenic or oil- free, according to Garshick. She recommends the La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Matte Face Moisturizer, which includes ceramide-3, niacinamide, glycerin, and La Roche-Posay Prebiotic Thermal Water to soothe and retain moisture for up to 48 hours.
The best acne scar products for darker skin tones
Because melanin production is more active in darker skin, dark spots are more common when healing from acne, Garshick says. However, she has recommendations that are formulated specifically for helping to prevent and treat acne on darker skin tones.
Melē Even Dark Spot Control Serum
Garshick highly recommends the brand Melē, which is specifically formulated for darker skin tones, but can be used by anyone. The serum contains niacinamide, which is gentle and non-irritating, and helps to brighten overall discoloration and reduce the number and appearance of dark spots, as well as other signs of aging.
Colorescience Total Protection Face Shield SPF 50
Colorescience makes a mineral-based sunscreen in a variety of shades to match a wide range of skin tones. The antioxidant-rich, all-mineral formula uses patented EnviroScreen Technology—which means comprehensive defense against UVA/UVB, blue light, pollution, and infrared radiation.
The best products for back and body acne
Hey, faces aren’t the only place where zits pop up; “bacne” (acne on your back) and “buttne” (yep, acne on your butt) are both very common, and breakouts can pop up pretty much anywhere on the body where oil production is high and sweat collects. The following products are designed to help wash away bacteria and grime and heal the skin in areas of the body where body acne may occur.
Dove Body Wash
For those dealing with blemish-prone skin on their back and shoulders, Dove’s gentle exfoliating wash removes dead skin, leaving skin looking brighter and smoother, overall. It contains exfoliating sea minerals and a microbiome nutrient serum to help nourish skin and its microbiome.
PanOxyl Acne Foaming Wash
A body wash containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid can be helpful when regular cleansing and exfoliation aren’t powerful enough to counteract sweat and oil. Panoxyl is a maximum-strength, antimicrobial foaming wash that kills acne-causing bacteria and helps remove dirt from pores. It can help clear existing acne, and prevent new pimples from forming.
CeraVe Body Wash with Salicylic Acid
CeraVe is known for its dermatologist-approved, ultra-gentle, sensitive-skin-friendly products for irritation-prone skin, for those who can’t risk trying anything with excessive fragrance or a laundry list of ingredients (myself included). Salicylic acid acts as a chemical exfoliant—physical exfoliants, such as loofahs and abrasive exfoliating body scrubs, can worsen acne in those with sensitive skin—plus, it contains hyaluronic acid, which helps skin retain its moisture.
Now go slather on some SPF and avoid touching that shayna punim of yours!
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