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Guide to Treating Acne Scars and Skin Damage

By Ayren Jackson-Cannady
WebMD Feature

The good news is that the zit that took up residency on your chin for the last three days is finally gone. But the bad news is that the breakout left its mark in the form of a scar.

“Even without picking, acne lesions, particularly cysts, can lead to scarring because of the intense, collagen-damaging skin inflammation with which they are associated,” says Tina Alster, MD, a clinical professor of dermatology at Georgetown University Medical Center. Luckily, you don’t have to grin and bear the telltale signs of a breakout forever. Read on for dermatologists’ top strategies for healing acne scars and keeping new ones at bay.

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What Does an Acne Scar Look Like?

Acne scars develop in areas where former cystic blemish lesions have been present. Acne scars come in three varieties, says Hayes Gladstone, MD, a professor of dermatology at Stanford University.

  • Atrophic, which are mostly shallow
  • Boxcar-shaped
  • Ice pick-shaped, which are narrow and deeper.

People with deeper skin tones may also notice darkening (or hyperpigmentation) within the scars, while people with lighter skin tones may show redness (or erythema) within the scars, says Alster. 

What Makes Acne Worse?

Sun

Exposing scars to the sun can cause them to darken and slow the healing process, says Alster. How? Ultraviolet rays stimulate melanocytes (pigment-producing cells), leading to further discoloration. Your safest bet: Before heading outdoors, slather on a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher that contains the ingredient zinc oxide. Reapply after swimming, sweating, or after more than 2 hours in the sun. Also, limit your time in the sun, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and wearing protective clothing, such as a long-sleeved shirt, pants, and a wide-brimmed hat, are also recommended.

Picking and Squeezing

Scars, which are made mainly of collagen (a protein fiber normally found in the skin's second layer), are the body's way of repairing itself. Acne scars are typically indented because of collagen loss from intense inflammation, says Alster. Picking leads to further inflammation and injury of the skin, which adds to the skin’s discoloration and scarring. Squeezing or trying to pop a pimple causes pus and bacteria to filter deeper into the skin, resulting in more collagen damage, notes Ron Moy, MD, professor of dermatology at UCLA.  

Vitamin E

You may have heard that applying topical vitamin E to a scar will help it heal faster. But according to a study from researchers at the University of Miami, applying the nutrient directly onto a scar can actually hinder its healing. In the study, vitamin E had no effect (or made matters worse) for 90% of the patients, and 33% who used topical vitamin E developed a contact dermatitis.

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