Acne, one of the most stubborn and difficult skin conditions to treat, is also one of the most common. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 85 percent of people suffer from breakouts at some point in their lives. To add insult to injury, those pesky pimples often leave scars.
Dr. Eric Schweiger, a dermatologist and founder of the Clear Clinic acne treatment centers in NYC, estimates that around 50% of acne sufferers end up with some level of scarring. Why? Because people insist on picking! Each professional we spoke with repeatedly stressed the importance of refraining from bathroom surgery. Picking and popping is oh-so-tempting, but it’s the best way to guarantee inflammation and a higher risk of scarring. Of course, even if a blemish disappears on its own, it can leave residual redness or hyperpigmentation. People often mistake this condition for scarring, but while it can linger for months, hyperpigmentation doeseventually go away. True scarring, which causes pitting or raised skin, does not; it’s permanent and it’s a bear to treat. Don’t despair—there are options.
Three very different practitioners, a clinical dermatologist, a holistic healer, and an aesthetician, explain how they treat acne scars, below.
Zap: Dr. Schweiger primarily uses lasers to treat both hyperpigmentation and true scarring. For the latter, his office uses a two-step approach. First, Focal Acne Scar Treatment (FAST), in which a high intensity CO2 laser is targeted just at the scarring. Second, a standard Fraxel laser treatment over the entire face. Laser works because it pokes microscopic holes in the skin, signaling your immune system to build new collagen, which fills in and thus repairs the scars. Expect 4-5 days of crusty oozing after the FAST procedure, and some light peeling after the Fraxel. The cost ranges from $2,000 to $4,000 and you can typically see 30% to 70% improvement after just one treatment.
Patch in Some Platelets: Dr. Schweiger’s office also uses platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy to promote collagen remodeling. (PRP was made infamous via Kim Kardashian’s bloody “vampire facial” video.) A machine spins platelets out of the patient’s blood and a derm injects them into the scars. Add an extra $1,250 to your tab.
Needles: Dr. Cybele Fishman, an NYC-based integrative dermatologist, straddles the line between traditional medicine and complementary therapy in her practice. She acknowledges that laser is the gold standard and the quickest way to repair scars, but prefers a more low-tech approach: microneedling. The therapy has been used successfully for years in Europe. The practitioner runs a needle-covered device all over the face, which essentially pokes tiny holes in the skin to promote collagen remodeling, like a laser treatment. It costs less, but it requires more treatments (though it isn’t as painful as it sounds.
Celebrity aesthetician Joanna Vargas (Emma Stone and Julianne Moore are clients), treats a lot of hyperpigmentation and acne scarring.
Power Peel: In the salon, Vargas performs microdermabrasion—which promotes cell regeneration thorough exfoliation—using a diamond-coated wand that can be adjusted based on skin sensitivity. After microdermabrasion, she follows up with a fruit acid peel. “It assists with resurfacing and evening out pigment,” Vargas says. (You can try her Joanna Vargas Exfoliating Mask for at-home resurfacing.) This kind of mild procedure works best for hyperpigmentation, but can be one step in a scar-removing regimen.
Light It Up: For more intense scar treatment, Vargas also offers LED light therapy. “It grows collagen in quantifiable percentages and corrects damage to the surface of the skin,” she explains. The average person needs between 12 and 20 weekly sessions to see results and Vargas charges $1,650 for 12 treatments (each includes microdermabrasion).
THE HOLISTIC HEALER:
While there aren’t any magical topical treatments to cure acne scars, there are definitely some natural alternatives you can use as part of a scar-crushing regimen. Antonia Balfour is an herbalist and acupuncturist who specializes in Chinese medicine.
Herbs: After initial inflammation and hyperpigmentation are under control (which requires a customized “prescription” of 8-16 herbs), Balfour focuses on adding topical scar minimizers. Both safflower oil and helichrysum oil can potentially diminish scars. She recommends blending these essential oils into a skin-friendly carrier oil like argan or coconut—never apply essential oils directly to skin.
Ancient Chinese Remedy: For centuries an herb called hei bu yao has been used to treat scarring. Balfour describes it as a black tarry substance that you leave on overnight for several weeks. Unfortunately it’s not easy to buy, but if you seek out a Chinese herbal practitioner, they should be able to source it for you and teach you how to use it.
PREVENTION: All the professionals unanimously said that the best way to treat scars is to prevent them from forming in the first place. Picking and popping are oh-so-tempting, but refrain from doing bathroom surgery. It only causes more inflammation and a higher risk of scarring.