Almost every single day I receive emails asking me how to get rid of acne scars? What to do about the marks left behind after pimples heal? What about discolouration or hyperpigmentation from previous breakouts? Or the build up of scar tissue, or the reverse, ice pick or pockmarks?
I know it’s hard enough having to deal with acne and breakouts, even worse is dealing with the scars and marks they leave behind.
I’ve also been asked if I have scarring from when I previously had acne and breakouts. And the answer is yes, but luckily over the years most of my skin healed, discolouration from breakouts faded, and on some parts of my face, my skin is now very smooth and even. I do have some permanents scars, mostly ice pick/pockmarks near my temples, and below my mouth around my chin (in the jowl area).
There’s many factors that come into play with how well your skin will heal, some of it is in your control, some of it not (let’s be real). But in general, if you want to improve the odds of fading acne scars and completely healing your skin – you need to focus on what you can do, what’s in your control.
3 Most Important Steps To Healing Acne Scars
My approach to effectively healing scars and hyperpigmentation from breakouts and acne is in 3 steps:
- Healthy diet & balanced lifestyle
- Being super gentle with your skin when healing blemishes and breakouts
- Regular exfoliation to fade scars and marks left behind from pimples and breakouts ONLY AFTER your skin has healed and cleared up (never ever exfoliate your skin when you have active breakouts, skin irritation, and open or inflamed pimples)
If you want clear, even, smooth skin – you must follow all 3 of these steps. If you do one without the other, you won’t get results.
Step 1: Your skin heals better when you are super healthy
There’s so much focus on skincare and skincare products, but if you really want glowing blemish-free skin, you’ve got to work on the health of your entire body.
I can’t emphasize this enough – if you’re not making your health a priority by eating a balanced diet, getting good rest, exercising, and keeping stress to a minimum – your skin won’t heal as good it could.
We see this all the time. For example, if you are rundown and not taking care of your health, you are more prone to getting illness and infections. The more run down you are, the longer it takes for your body to heal from anything.
The same with your skin.
If you’re not at your optimal health and don’t have a balanced lifestyle, it’s much harder for your skin to heal breakouts and blemishes, and more likely to leave scars and marks.
So if you want to heal acne scars, and prevent ever getting them – make your health a priority by:
- eating a healthy whole food diet
- staying away from processed food, fast food, and sugar (all of which makes your skin inflamed, red, and decreases collagen production)
- avoid alcohol and coffee (both are terrible for your skin)
- don’t smoke
- get good sleep (yes “beauty sleep” is real!)
- exercise daily (this improves blood flow and circulation, all of which helps your skin heal, and glow!)
- de-stress your life (stress is terrible for your immune system, and if your immune system is weak, it will be much more difficult for your skin to heal and repair itself).
Step 2: Avoid hurting or damaging your skin when you have active pimples or acne
Along with being super healthy, proper skin care is integral for your skin to heal properly and efficiently.
This is a biggie, because if you get this wrong, you’re setting yourself up for an increased chance of scarring and marks being left behind permanently after pimples and acne heal (and this happens more often than you think).
How you take care of your skin when you have active pimples determines everything
When you have active blemishes and breakouts – you NEVER want to use any product that is going to hurt, irritate, or dry out your skin. Because, all you’re doing is damaging your skin more and making it harder for your body to heal the breakouts and pimples.
When you have active pimples, breakouts or acne – you want to be super gentle with your fragile skin. The products you use on your skin should be nourishing, soothing, and soft- not causing your skin to get red, irritated, dry, tight, cracked, or scabbed (and if this describes the state of your skin right now – you need to change your skincare routine and the products you are using).
By using products that sooth and nourish your skin when you have active pimples and breakouts, this sets your skin up to heal much better from pimples and blemishes, and can even prevent scars and marks.
One thing I have learned over the years is the best thing you can do for pimples is leave them alone and let them shrink up and disappear on their own. The likelihood of pimples leaving scars or marks behind is much less than if your were to pick, squeeze, or put layer after layer of harsh acne treatment products on them.
Anytime you do something to a pimple that causes it to form a scab (like squeezing it or drying it out with harsh acne products) – you’re setting your skin up to scar and discolour.
You don’t want that!
You don’t want to do anything to your pimples to make them open up, ooze, bruise, flake, or scab – because that’s putting your skin on the road to scarring.
Instead, you want to support the health of your skin by cleansing it with the gentlest cleanser you can find, use a soothing oil or moisturizer if your skin needs more moisture/hydration, and letting your skin heal on it’s own.
When you have active pimples, the less you are touching and applying to the pimples, the better. Your skin needs to settle down, balance out, and heal.
When you have active pimples and breakouts, I don’t recommend using any scrubs, exfoliants, harsh ingredients, facial brushes or tools, or even most facial masks. Your skin needs to heal, it doesn’t need all that extra stuff. It needs to be left alone.
Whatever you do put on your skin needs to be soothing. That’s it.
And if you are wondering what is the gentlest, most soothing way to heal breakouts and acne, CLICK HERE to read these guidelines!
I know you may be be wondering: but what about getting rid of those acne scars and marks?
Well, if you’re in the middle of a breakouts or you have active pimples – then, that needs to be healed first. You don’t want to be trying to resurface your skin or fade acne scars while you have active pimples, because your skin is just too sensitive and fragile, and anything you do or use to fade acne scars can be too strong and could aggravate your pimples more.
So first deal with the pimples and allow them to heal.
Once you don’t have any active or inflamed breakouts or pimples on your skin and everything is healing nicely, then you can start working on fading the scars and any hyperpigmentation. And, this is what you can do…
Step 3: Exfoliation is key for fading scars and marks left behind from pimples and breakouts
Whenever I’m asked what the best way to get rid of acne scars and marks, my answer is always exfoliation!
I know it sounds simple, and ya it is, but it works!
When done regularly and with the right products compatible with your skin, exfoliation will not only help fade acne scars and marks, but it will brighten your skin, make it softer and smoother, shrink the appearance of enlarged pores, and even help prevent breakouts.
What is exfoliation?
New skin cells are constantly being born, while simultaneously old ones are continually dying off and shedding. This is what we call “cell turnover.”
Gently exfoliating your skin regularly can help speed up cell turnover, which will remove the build up of old and dead skin cells, and bring the newer ones to the surface. Over time, this will help to speed up the repair of damaged tissue, fade marks and scars from breakouts and blemishes, and keep your skin looking fresh and bright.
Different types of exfoliation
Besides your body’s own natural ability to turn over and shed old and dead skin cells, there’s two types of exfoliation methods that you can use to assist and speed up this process: physical exfoliation or chemical exfoliation (or a mixture of both).
Physical exfoliation is a manual exfoliation using a textured product, brush, or facial scrub. You are pretty much sloughing off dead skin cells off the surface of your skin.
Luckily now a days there’s a lot more gentler facials scrubs available, but in general, if you have sensitive skin, active pimples or breakouts, any redness, irritation or inflammation of the skin, you would be a lot better off avoiding most physical exfoliants.
If you don’t have any breakouts or any skin issues and want to start exfoliating your skin to fade acne scars and marks, manually exfoliating your skin with a scrub 1 or 2 times/week can be a great addition to your skin care routine.
Recommended Facial Scrubs
This gentle cleansing powder is designed to fade acne marks and scars and it works. You activate the powder with a drop of water to make an exfoliating paste. Not only does it fade marks and hyperpigmentation, but the oat in the formula is extremely soothing and softening, helping to even out skin tone and reduce redness. Left on for a few minutes, it can be used as a deep cleansing mask. It’s gentle enough to use daily, won’t dry out your skin, and will also help improve overall skin clarity and decongest clogged pores and blackheads.
CLICK TO SHOP: Leahlani Kalima Coconut Cream Cleansing Powder
TATA HARPER Regenerating Cleanser
This is a gentle facial scrub that can be used quite regularly. Suitable for most skin types, it contains clays, enzymes, and oils – so it will thoroughly polish, soften, and gently exfoliate your skin without stripping it. What I like most about this exfoliant is how soothing it is – if you’re prone to skin irritation, uneven skin tone, or dry patches – this is a great one!
OSKIA Micro Exfoliating Balm
I love this exfoliant, but the texture can be quite coarse. This exfoliating face polish is a balm and facial scrub all in one, so it exfoliates your skin and deeply moisturizes it all at the same time. In just one use, your skin will be bright, super smooth and supple. This is an especially good scrub to balance out dry or combination skin, and good for cold or dry climates where your skin needs extra moisture. This exfoliant is made with MSM (sulphur) which is a known mineral to help in tissue repair and regeneration. I’ve been using Oskia products containing MSM for many years now, and I have noticed a significant reduction in the appearance of acne scars and marks, and even fading sun spots and sun damage. This product is best suited for normal, combination, and dry skin types (not suitable for sensitive skin, and it might be too rich for very oily skin).
DIY facial scrub
You can buy a physical exfoliant/facial scrub, or you can make your own.
If you do make your own facial scrub, I always recommend using ingredients that are very soft in texture. Never use coarse, jagged, or sharp ingredients like sugar, salt, sand, crushed shells, or rough organic materials unless you have ground them down into a much finer powder (which you would do by using a blender, food processor, or coffee grinder). You never want to use ingredients that are rough or coarse in texture because they can irritate and hurt your skin, and even cause micro tears.
Honey & Bentonite Clay Facial Scrub
1 Tbsp Smooth Raw Honey
1 tsp Bentonite Clay
1 drop Jojoba Oil (optional)
- Mix all the ingredients
- Dampen your clean skin with warm water
- Gently apply the honey clay scrub to your face and neck using a light circular motion
- Rinse off with warm water or with a damp wash cloth
What about facial brushes (electric or manual) and rough exfoliating cloths or sponges?
In general, I’m not the biggest fan of exfoliating facial brushes and rough exfoliating cloths/sponges, especially not for acne prone skin.
The first reason is because a lot of these tools can harbour bacteria, and for anyone with acne prone skin, bad bacteria isn’t your friend! In fact, if you’re using tools or materials that are harbouring bacteria, it can cause infections, skin irritation or allergic reactions, and even slow down your body’s ability to repair and heal your skin (which goes against what you’re trying to do).
Also, these types of tools can be way too rough and abrasive for your skin, even over-exfoliating, or over-cleansing your skin leaving it dry, dehydrated, red, irritated, and inflamed.
Healing acne scars and marks is about repairing and resurfacing damaged tissue. Using rough brushes and coarse materials could be damaging the tissue even more.
So if you’re wondering if you can use your Clarisonic on your face to exfoliate – NO! (especially not if you’re using a harsh, soapy, or exfoliating scrubs with the Clarisonic – that’s like rubbing sand paper on your skin!). The only time it might be ok to use Clarisonic on your skin would be to use it dry (on clean dry skin) or with an oil once every week or two, but even so, I would be very careful. (and if you are using a Clarisonic brush, I don’t recommend any other form of exfoliation while using it).
Along with physical exfoliation, there is also chemical exfoliation.
A lot of people get scared of the idea of chemical exfoliation, or using acids to exfoliate the skin – but let me reassure you the name is much scarier than what it really is, and in many ways, chemical exfoliation can be a lot gentler than using physical exfoliants like facial scrubs.
Chemical exfoliation is pretty much using a product that contains an exfoliating acid (like AHAs or BHAs), or enzymes that will break-up and dissolve the build up of dead skin cells.
A physical exfoliants (like a facial scrub) tends to work on the surface of the skin, whereas chemical exfoliants (like a product containing AHAs, BHAs, or enzymes) can get a little deeper into the skin and pores, breaking up and dissolving dead skin cells and the bonds holding them together.
Using products containing exfoliating acids and enzymes can be especially effective at fading acne scars and marks, brightening and resurfacing the skin, and helping break down and repair damaged tissue from pimples and acne.
I personally find using products containing exfoliating acids and enzymes to be a lot gentler on my skin than using a coarse scrub, especially nowadays products containing exfoliating acids aren’t as harsh as they used to be, some are even great for sensitive skin, and can being quite hydrating and soothing as well.
Like physical exfoliants, you have to use a product that works well for your skin, and you can’t just use it once and expect miraculous results. It’s really something you have to use properly and consistently over the long term to get results and benefits.
Exfoliating acids for fading acne scars
As I mentioned, there’s two different types of exfoliating acids: AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acid) and BHAs (Beta Hydroxy Acid).
Common examples of AHA is:
- glycolic acid
- lactic acid
- mandelic acid
- malic acid
These acids are not only found in speciality skincare products like exfoliating serums and masks, but these acids are naturally occurring in food like yogurt (lactic acid) and strawberries (glycolic acid). You hear of people putting yogurt on their face or having milk baths because they are skin softening and brightening – now you know why!
AHAs are also water soluble, so along with exfoliating, brightening and resurfacing your skin, they act as a humectant, drawing water to the skin, which makes them beneficial for all skin types (especially dry and maturing skin).
Recommended product containing AHAs:
OSKIA Renaissance Mask
This is one of my most favourite masks. Skin softening, smoothing, exfoliating, and super gentle all in one. Suitable for all skin types, this mask will helps fade scars and marks left behind from blemishes and breakouts, and give your skin a plumped glow.
Another type of exfoliating acids are BHAs, which are oil soluble, and can penetrate the skin and pores more deeply than AHAs. This can be especially beneficial for oily and congested skin, because not only will it exfoliate and resurface the skin, but it can help prevent pores from getting clogged with oil and debris.
Common example of BHA is:
- salicylic acid
If you like using natural skincare products (like I do!) and want to use a product containing salicylic acid, look for products containing willow bark extract, which is a natural source of salicylic acid/salicin. I find this to be a lot gentler than products containing synthetic salicylic acid.
Recommended product containing BHA
TATA HARPER Resurfacing Mask
A super gentle exfoliating and clarifying mask. I highly recommend it for acne prone skin – not only will it exfoliate your skin without irritation or dryness, but it works great at decongesting clogged pores and reducing the appearance of blackheads and enlarged pores.
Occasionally (like once every week or two), if you want a more deep exfoliating treatment, try applying Tata Harper Resurfacing Mask on top of their Regenerating Cleanser (when you apply the Regenerating Cleanser on your skin, don’t rinse it off, just put a layer of the Resurfacing Mask ontop of it), and leave everything on your skin for 30 minutes, and then rinse off. I rarely recommend using a scrub with a chemical exfoliant at the same time, or even on the same day – but these two products are so super gentle and work great together. This is not something you would do all the time, but on occasion for a deeper treatment.
Using a combination of both AHAs & BHAs
There’s also a lot of exfoliating serums, masks and products that contain both AHAs and BHAs, which I find can be extremely beneficial for fading acne scars and marks, and keeping your skin clear of congestion and breakouts.
As you know, AHAs are water soluble and work on the surface of the skin dissolving dead skin cells, and BHAs are oil soluble and can penetrate the skin more deeply breaking up the glue-like bonds that hold dead skin cells together.
Using products containing both types of acids aren’t necessarily stronger (which could increase the risk of irritation), but instead a lot more multi-tasking, and can therefore speed up cell turnover and results. These types of products I find are especially good for acne prone skin because they help your skin regenerate and repair, plus prevent breakouts and clogged pores.
Recommend AHA & BHA product
DRUNK ELEPHANT T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum
A mixture of AHAs and BHAs this gel serum delivers! Great for fading acne scars, sun damage, and hyperpigmentation. When used consistently, this serum can really help to prevent breakouts and clogged pores, and keep your overall complexion clear and blemish-free.
Along with exfoliating acids, there’s also exfoliating enzymes. I’m a particular fan of exfoliating enzymes because they are incredibly effective, and super gentle. In fact, some products containing naturally occurring exfoliating enzymes can be so gentle, you can even use them when you have active breakouts to help your skin heal quicker and prevent scars and mark from forming. Two great examples are smooth raw honey and fresh aloe vera gel from the plant. Both of these have live active enzymes that eat away at your dead skin cells, exfoliating your skin while soothing and repairing it.
Other effective enzymes include those from pumpkin, papaya, and pineapple. These enzymes are regularly used in exfoliating products in conjunction with AHAs and/or BHAs.
Based on my experience, I do find using live enzymes (like those found in raw smooth honey or fresh aloe vera gel from the plant) to be a lot more reliable and effective than a lot of packaged skincare products with added enzymes. This is because if you get the aloe vera gel straight from a plant or use a raw smooth honey, those enzymes are still alive and active, whereas using products containing a processed aloe vera juice or enzyme extract, it might not have the same enzymatic activity.
But there are always exceptions.
Back when I was in university, my best friend had severe acne. One day she started using a papaya enzyme mask from the health food store and it was crazy how much it transformed her skin. Not only did it reduce inflammation and redness, and her breakouts were clearing up, but the texture of her skin was becoming a lot more smooth and scars were fading. As I said, her acne was severe, the only two things that ever worked for her was when she did a round of Accutane, and at other times using the green papaya enzyme mask!
And if you’re wondering what the product was, unfortunately the company that made it was sold to another company over a decade ago, and the product was reformulated (and it doesn’t work like the first one). Based on my friend’s results from this one product, over the years I’ve always been on the look out for good quality and effective products contain exfoliating enzymes, and I have to say, it’s definitely touch and go, some are great, some are useless!
Recommended product containing exfoliating enzymes
VERDURA NATURALTERNATIVES Fruit Complex Facial Mask
Made with colloidal oat, this fruit enzyme mask is super gentle, exfoliating, and hydrating. With just one use, this mask will leave your skin bright and silky smooth. Ideal for all skin types, especially good for acne prone skin, and skin types that don’t tolerate oils very well (this mask is oil-free, in powder form, just add water to activate it).
DIY Exfoliating Facial Mask
Along with buying skincare products that contain exfoliating acids or enzymes, you can also make your own!
For those of you that are already washing your face with smooth honey, that itself is gently exfoliating your skin every day (and that’s why I recommend it for acne prone skin).
And remember, to get results, exfoliation does NOT have to be rough or harsh. Gently exfoliating your skin can actually yield the best results over the long term. Below is a recipe for a very soothing, brightening, and gentle exfoliating mask that you can use once or twice a week.
Honey Yogurt Exfoliating Mask
2 tbsps Plain Yogurt
1 tsp Smooth Raw Honey
1 large Strawberry (mashed with a fork)
- Mix all the ingredients
- Dampen your clean skin with warm water
- Gently apply the mask to your face and neck using a light circular motion
- Leave on your skin for 15-20 minutes
- Rinse off with warm water or with a damp wash cloth
Now that you know all about the different types of exfoliation methods and your options, you’re probably wondering, “ok great, how do I get started?”
My suggestion is to choose one exfoliation method or product to get started with. This might be buying or making your own face scrub, or buying an exfoliating mask or serum.
In general, if you have:
You are better off using a mask containing an exfoliating acid or enzyme, and not using any facial scrubs. Most leave-on serums and acid toners containing AHAs & BHAs might be too strong, so a mask is better because you leave it on for 20 minutes and then rinse it off.
All other skin types:
You can use either a facial scrub or a product containing exfoliating acids or enzymes.
Frequency of use – Beware of over-exfoliation
When you start incorporating exfoliation into your skincare routine, it’s really important to go slow. As I said before, exfoliation doesn’t need to be harsh or over-done to get results, and in fact the gentler you are with your skin, the better.
I recommend for the first 1-2 months to only exfoliate your skin once a week, and always only exfoliate at night (you are sloughing off dead skin cells which can make your skin more prone to photosensitivity and sun damage. Exfoliating at night allows your skin to have at least 8-10 hours without sunlight to repair itself – NEVER exfoliate your skin in the morning or during strong sunlight hours).
After a month or two of exfoliating your skin once a week you’ll be able to gauge how your skin is responding to the exfoliating product you are using.
For some of you, exfoliating just once a week might be enough, and you can continue doing that. But for others, you might be able to increase the frequency to exfoliating twice or even 3 times a week, depending on the product you are using and how your skin is responding.
Here’s my general guideline for maximum frequency of use:
Facial scrubs: Maximum 1 – 2 times a week (never use facial scrubs two days in a row or every day. Make sure you space out application with at least 3 days (or more) in between applications)
Exfoliating Acids/Enzymes: Always read the instruction on the product because some products/formulas are super strong and should only be used once a week, whereas others can be formulated to be used more frequently. In general, I would never use an exfoliating acid every day (even if the instructions say you can), always allow at least one rest day in between applications.
Smooth Raw Honey or Fresh Aloe Vera Gel: Can be used daily.
You never want to over-exfoliate your skin. How you’d know if the product and frequency is good for your skin is immediately after exfoliating, your skin should always appear balanced with an even skin tone, and it should feel soft, smooth, supple, more bright. Your skin should look better immediately after exfoliating, not worse!
If your skin is red, flushed, irritated, sensitive, dry or weakened after exfoliating, the product might be too harsh or you’re exfoliating your skin too often. In such cases, it’s best to stop exfoliating your skin for at least a week or two until your skin balances out, and then either try a different product or exfoliate your skin less frequently.
What about using more than one type of exfoliating product?
In the beginning I suggest starting with just one product, either a scrub or exfoliating acid to see how your skin responds. You might notice that a scrub feels too harsh and decide to switch to an exfoliating acid (or vice versa), or you might try a product and immediately see fabulous results and want to continue with it – that’s all good.
I recommend in the first month or two to stick with one product or method, once a week.
Once your skin adapts to the exfoliation, you can certainly add another product or increase frequency.
If you were to use an exfoliating scrub and exfoliating acid, NEVER do so on the same day, or even the following day. For example, if you were to use a facial scrub on a Sunday, I recommend waiting until Tuesday or Wednesday to use an exfoliating acid. You want to be careful, and as I said you never want to over-exfoliate your skin (which can cause more harm than good!).
Anything else you should be careful with?
To fade acne scars and marks with regular exfoliation there are a few things you have be very careful with:
- Never exfoliate your skin in the morning or during strong sunlight hours. ONLY exfoliate at night (so you allow 8-10 hours without sunlight for your skin to repair, which will make it less prone to photosensitivity or sun damage).
- If you are going to exfoliate your skin regularly, you must protect your skin from the sun (wear sunscreen, protective clothing and hats, no sunbathing).
- If you are going to the beach, on a boat, or going to spend prolonged periods of time in the hot sun – stop all exfoliation at least 1 week before the outing (using honey to wash your face or fresh aloe vera gel on your skin is fine to continue doing, but please don’t use a facial scrub or exfoliating acid for at least a week before going on a big outing on the beach, boat, or spending a long day under the hot sun).
- If you’re going to start exfoliating your skin with a facial scrub or acid, stop using a Clarisonic brush completely (or any other similar tools). It’s too much. You either use a Clarisonic brush once in a while, or use a facial scrub or acid – not both!
- Whenever you get a pimple, breakout or any skin irritation, stop exfoliating until it has completely healed.
- There might be times where your skin is particularly sensitive (like around your menstrual period, during pregnancy, after a long haul flight, if you have a cold, flu, or seasonal allergies, etc). Whenever you skin is particularly sensitive, its always best to take a break from exfoliation until your skin is back to normal.
What results should you expect?
Acne scars and marks are not going to fade over night. And they’re not going to fade in one week or one month either.
You need to be patient and consistent.
What’s important is following these guideline consistently:
1- Get super healthy! The more healthy you are the easier it will be for your body to heal and repair your skin (so eat a healthy diet, get good rest, stay away from processed food and alcohol, exercise, reduce stress, etc.)
2- Don’t mess with your pimples and breakouts (don’t squeeze, pop, dry out, or irritate your pimples and breakouts – sooth and nourish your skin and allow it to heal on their own which can help to prevent/minimize scarring and discolouration).
3- When your skin is clear, and you don’t have active pimples or breakouts, work on exfoliating your skin. This is what will resurface your skin and fade acne scars and marks.
If you’re regularly exfoliating your skin, you will see over time your skin will get better and better. It can take up to 3-6 months or more to start seeing results, but you will see the texture of your skin become much smoother, marks will fade, damaged tissue will repair, and overall your skin will become more and more bright, even, and glowing.
It’s certainly worth the time and effort, and patience is key!