How to Deal With Acne Scars
This is a long story. I was in the Peace Corps, in Africa, where I spent two years very close to the Sahara. I was a very virtuous sunblock wearer, which is good for my non-wrinkly future old lady face, but was, at the time, in combination with dust, sand and LOTS of sweat, very bad for acne. I had terrible acne. Very terrible. I brought it under control after the first year with ample salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide and also prescription antibiotics. It was a high intensity regime.
When I returned to the U.S., my acne returned. No doubt due to the extreme reverse change in climate. I confess that I sometimes picked at them, which I know is bad. While I’ve finally brought that round of acne under control (a combination of Cetaphil moisturizer and Purity cleanser), I have little scars. Not too bad, but little red blotches, especially around my mouth, where the acne was its worst. Is there anything I can do? I have been told I’m a keloid scar former, but I’ve never noticed face scarring before. Do retinol products help? Natural remedies? Vitamin E supplements? Please help! So that my future old lady face will be both non-wrinkly and non-scarred.
Your avid fan,
Stop right there. Pick up the phone, call your dermatologist. Make an appointment, do not pass go OR the nearest Sephora. Do not attempt to treat acne scars by yourself without the advice and guidance of a doctor. For real. There are many, many, many fancy products out there that make promises about reducing facial scarring, but many, many, MANY of them are either completely useless or later found to cause more irritation.
Vitamin E, for example, despite being something we’ve all probably used at one time or another, has been proven to be somewhat worthless in actual controlled studies — some doctors still swear by it, others claim it’s actually the oil in the capsules and not the nutrient itself, others say it can do more harm than good if used on still-healing wounds, others say it’s all a big placebo effect. I’ve used it on scars, along with Mederma and other topical scar treatments, and while maaaaybe I could say they helped reddish scars fade to white a little faster, the truth is I still HAVE the scars. Nothing topical can erase scar tissue.
The good news is that your scars sound new, and they sound pretty mild. GENERALLY, those little red or brownish blotches will fade on their own. The fading process takes a long time (sometimes up to a year) and some dermatologists may prescribe a topical treatment like Retin-A in the meantime to speed thing up, or regular use of a non-prescription alpha-hydroxy peel. (I get lactic acid peels occasionally when I get facials, and have an at-home serum that I use once or twice a week. I use it mainly for deeply clogged pores and fine lines, but it’s very smoothing and penetrating without being harsh.) But of course, opinions are very mixed as to whether the topical treatments really do anything much, and that patience really is the key with low-level scarring.
And that’s the biggest reason to get to the dermatologist before trying anything: there are a LOT of different kinds of acne scarring, each with different levels of severity and recommended treatments. Microdermabrasion, chemical peels, lasers, and more. If you are prone to keloid scars, you simply MUST get thee to a dermatologist and get checked out. (Keloid scarring is “scar tissue gone wild,” raised scars that grow and extend past the original zit or injury.) Acne.org has a short article on the different scar treatments and a longer, more comprehensive FAQ about scarring and treatment in general. Definitely read them both.
Your current skincare routine sounds good, though I would recommend adding in an exfoliating treatment to aid in the healing of those red patches. You don’t need anything specifically marketed for acne scarring — just something for occasional use to get rid of dead surface cells and allow healing. The lactic acid peel I mentioned before would be good, or either of Philosophy’s peels (Microdelivery or Oxygen). I also really like Ahava’s Mud Exfoliator, particularly if you have clogged pores or still break out occasionally.
Published January 11, 2010.
Last updated April 29, 2010.