Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 9/4/2021
Acne breakouts can be a seemingly limitless source of stress and frustration, especially when they leave behind unsightly, unwanted scarring.
Acne scars are a common issue for people with moderate and severe acne. If you’re prone to breakouts, you may notice that as your pimples clear up, they leave behind dark spots, raised scars and rough patches on your skin.
Like acne itself, acne scars are treatable, although it often requires a lot of time to completely get rid of them.
Below, we’ve covered how and why acne scars develop, as well as the different types of acne scars you may notice if you’re prone to acne breakouts.
We’ve also explained how long it takes to get rid of acne scarring, as well as the specific steps that you can take to treat acne scars and stop them from developing in the future.
Acne develops when your hair follicles, or pores, become clogged due to a buildup of sebum (a type of natural oil produced by your sebaceous glands) and dead skin cells.
Some forms of acne, such as blackheads and whiteheads, are small, mild and relatively easy to treat. However, other forms of acne can become inflamed and painful when bacteria make their way into your skin and multiply.
Acne scars form when there’s a net gain or loss of collagen in your skin. When more collagen is supplied than what’s needed to repair the affected skin, a raised scar, or hypertrophic scar, may develop on your skin.
When less collagen is produced, a depressed scar, or atrophic scar, may form, giving your skin a rougher, less even texture in the area that was previously affected by acne.
Several different types of scars can form on your skin after an acne breakout clears up. If you’re prone to acne scars, you may notice one or several of the following scars on your skin:
Icepick scars. These are very narrow scars that penetrate deep into your skin.
They’re called icepick scars because they look like the deep cut that’s left behind from the sharp tip of an ice pick.
Boxcar scars. These are large, shallow, round and oval-shaped scars that have clearly defined edges.
Although they’re wider than icepick scars, they rarely penetrate deeply into your skin.
Rolling scars. These are wide, smooth scars that have an M-shaped appearance, like the shape of the letter “M.”
Areas of skin affected by rolling scars often have a wavy or uneven look.
Hypertrophic scars. These scars have a raised appearance and pink color. They form when excess collagen is deposited to repair skin after an acne breakout.
Hypertrophic scars often form on the trunk and are more common in people with skin of color.
In addition to acne scarring, acne breakouts can leave behind dark patches on your skin. This is referred to as postinflammatory hyperpigmentation, or PIH.
PIH develops when your skin produces more melanin than normal in specific areas. It can affect all skin types, but it’s most common in people with skin of color.
You can learn more about postinflammatory hyperpigmentation, its causes and the best ways to treat it in our guide to acne dark spots.
Since acne scars can vary dramatically in type and severity, there’s no set amount of time that you’ll be able to wait for them to fade.
If you have mild discoloration after acne breakouts — for example, acne dark spots — you may notice your skin gradually returning to its normal tone over a few months or years.
When it comes to atrophic or hypertrophic acne scars, on the other hand, many never heal on their own.
In fact, many acne scars actually become more visible with age as the skin naturally loses collagen, increasing the difference in texture between scars and surrounding skin.
The good news is that although some acne scars won’t fade on their own, most can be removed with the right treatment.
Treatment for acne scars ranges from over-the-counter products to procedures such as surgery, chemical peeling and skin resurfacing.
We’ve listed the most effective methods for treating acne scars below, along with more information on how each treatment option works.
Mild acne scars usually improve with products available over the counter from drug stores and pharmacies.
Generally, the most effective over-the-counter products for removing acne scars are cleansers, serums and other topical treatments that contain alpha-hydroxy or beta-hydroxy acids (referred to as AHAs and BHAs).
These ingredients gently dissolve the cells that make up the outer layer of your skin, stimulating the production of newer, unscarred skin in its place.
Most AHAs and BHAs available over the counter only penetrate into the outermost layer of your skin, called the epidermis.
The most popular AHAs and BHAs include citric acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid, tartaric acid and salicylic acid.
In addition to treating acne scarring, most AHAs and BHAs can improve the appearance of age spots, wrinkles and other common signs of skin aging.
Most over-the-counter products are ideal for treating light, mild scars that affect the outer layers of your skin.
However, if you have deep acne scars, you may want to look into prescription medications that can penetrate deeper into your skin and improve its texture.
One popular prescription medication for treating acne scars is tretinoin, a topical retinoid that’s also used to treat acne and for anti-aging.
Several studies have found that tretinoin can improve acne scarring. In one, researchers found that tretinoin-iontophoresis reduced the depth of atrophic acne scars in 94 percent of the study participants.
Tretinoin is available as a topical cream or gel. It’s one of several ingredients in our Anti-Aging Cream, which is formulated to smooth fine lines and improve uneven skin texture.
You can learn more about using tretinoin to treat scars and other skin blemishes in our guide to tretinoin for acne scarring.
Acne scar surgery involves surgically lifting a scar or modifying the tissue around it to reduce its visibility.
Dermatologists and plastic surgeons use several techniques to surgically fix acne scars. One is to physically lift a scar by moving it closer to the surface of the skin.
Another is to break up the scar tissue to make the scar better match the texture of the skin around it.
In some cases, a dermatologist or plastic surgeon may completely remove a scar using a punch excision technique, then replace the affected skin with a skin graft.
Dermal fillers are injected into the skin to provide additional volume. If you have atrophic acne scars, a dermatologist or plastic surgeon may use fillers to plump the affected area and help it match the texture of the surrounding skin.
Several different fillers are used to treat acne scarring, including artificial fillers and permanent options such as fat grafting.
If your acne scars are deep, or if you’d simply prefer to get them treated by an expert, you may benefit from chemical peeling.
A chemical peel is a type of minimally invasive procedure offered by dermatologists and plastic surgeons.
It involves using a chemical solution to remove the layers of your skin with scars and other imperfections.
Most chemical peels use stronger versions of the ingredients used in home exfoliants, such as glycolic acid, lactic acid, salicylic acid and maleic acid.
Others, such as deep peels that penetrate further into your skin, use stronger ingredients, such as phenol (carbolic acid).
Your healthcare provider will let you know which type of chemical peel procedure is best suited to your skin type and needs.
As well as treating acne scarring, chemical peels can also improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, sun damage, rough skin, acne and irregular pigmentation.
In addition to chemical peeling, other treatments are also used to improve the skin’s texture and promote the growth of new skin cells. These include:
Microneedling. Also known as collagen induction therapy, this procedure involves the use of small, sterilized needles to puncture the surface layers of the skin and stimulate the production of new collagen and elastin.
Microdermabrasion. This procedure involves carefully sanding the skin with a special surgical instrument. It’s used to promote the growth of new skin cells and reduce scars, fine lines, wrinkles and other common skin blemishes.
Laser resurfacing. This procedure involves removing damaged, irregular skin using a surgical laser. It can treat scars from acne and chickenpox, as well as warts, age spots, fine lines, wrinkles and other common signs of skin aging.
Your dermatologist or plastic surgeon will inform you about which type of procedure is the best option for you based on your skin type, the severity of your acne scars and other factors.
The best way to get rid of acne scars is to prevent them from forming in the first place. Use the following tips to deal with acne quickly and stop scars, dark spots and other skin problems from developing:
Treat inflamed acne as soon as it develops. Scarring develops when inflamed acne damages your skin. To prevent scarring, make sure to actively treat acne as soon as it starts to appear. Our guide to the best acne treatments shares science-based options that can get rid of breakouts and prevent acne from coming back.
Avoid squeezing or popping pimples. Popping pimples can push the contents deeper into your skin, increasing the severity of your acne. It can also spread bacteria into your acne and cause it to become infected, inflamed and more likely to leave scars. If you have large or severe pimples, apply a spot treatment or contact a dermatologist to have them extracted professionally.
If you have acne, wash your skin gently. Apply a gentle cleanser that doesn’t contain irritating ingredients such as alcohol. Avoid scrubbing your skin with a washcloth, as this can cause irritation and may worsen your acne breakouts. Our guide to washing your face explains how to clean acne-prone skin without causing it to become inflamed or irritated.
Protect your skin from the sun. Spending time outside in direct sunlight exposes your skin to UV radiation, which can make the dark spots left behind by acne breakouts more visible.
When you spend time outdoors, keep your skin protected by applying a broad-spectrum, SPF 30+ sunscreen.
Although dark spots and other minor imperfections from acne will usually gradually fade on their own, moderate to severe acne scars often require active treatment.
Depending on the depth and age of your acne scarring, this could mean using over-the-counter products or undergoing a cosmetic procedure from a dermatologist or plastic surgeon.
You can learn more about treating acne, protecting your skin and stopping acne breakouts from coming back in our detailed guide to the best acne treatments.