First came the
acne. Then the onslaught of salicylic acid cleansers, retinoids, and benzoyl peroxide creams. Now all that remains are the ghosts of pimples past: acne scars, and no one warned us that they'd be harder to get rid of than the actual spots that got us to this place. Here's the hard truth: Nothing you can buy over-the-counter will be as effective for deep-seated scarring as a derm-recommended prescription or in-office procedure — especially when it comes to deep, ice-pick scars. But the good news is that there are plenty of at-home skin-care products that can do a damn good job of fading dark spots. Ahead, the best scar-lightening serums, peels, toners, and more that can help get you one step closer to the even-toned complexion you had before that massive breakout. Consider those ghosts busted. At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.
This resurfacing serum is gentle enough that it shouldn't leave any redness or irritation in its wake, yet it's tough on uneven tone and texture — two major characteristics of acne scarring.
Honeymoon Glow AHA Resurfacing Night Serum, $, available at
This potent serum is packed with AHAs and bakuchiol to speed up cellular renewal and lighten dark spots, resulting in a brighter complexion.
Allies Of Skin
Mandelic Pigmentation Corrector Night Serum, $, available at
Don't be fooled by the packaging. This sweet-looking pink bottle is packed with a highly concentrated form of
— L-ascorbic acid, to be specific — which works to not only brighten the skin, but eliminate redness. As with most Dr. Loretta products, which are all created by a dermatologist with more than 40 years of experience, the moisturizer also protects the skin from environmental free radicals and damage.
Intense Brightening Cream, $, available at
These pre-soaked pads are a much more sophisticated,
gentler version of the medicated Oxy pads you probably scrubbed your face with growing up. It's loaded with salicylic and glycolic acids, plus a blend of antioxidants to clear pores and even out your skin tone — in just 60 seconds.
M-61 Powerglow® Peel, $, available at
This acne spot-fading gel does exactly what it says it will. It won't make a huge difference on existing zits — you'll need Rouleau's other
for that — but it's specifically formulated to treat leftover dark spots straight away.
Post-Breakout Fading Gel, $, available at
Renée Rouleau More
Vitamin C is best known for its brightening abilities, and this serum features 20% of the stuff, so it works lightning-fast at fading discoloration.
Peter Thomas Roth
Potent-C Power Serum, $, available at
Ulta Beauty More
Because breaking up pigmentation with papaya and pineapple fruit enzymes and reducing overall discoloration with a potent brightening blend of vitamins and extracts wasn't enough, this lightweight serum goes one step further with a probiotic-balancing complex that maintains the integrity of the skin's pH.
Bright Biotic Dark Spot Minimizing Serum, $, available at
A retinoid that's gentle enough for sensitive skin, this serum targets spots over time thanks to the addition of lactic acid and niacinamide.
Texture Reform Gentle Resurfacing Serum, $, available at
Best known for their unparalleled ability to fight fine lines and acne in record time, retinoids also flex their muscle in the presence of acne scars. This one's gentle enough for sensitive types, and features vitamin C — the perfect package deal.
Citrus-C Healthy Complexion, $, available at
MD Complete More
This incredibly effective new moisturizer was made for brightening, but it goes above and beyond the call of duty with smoothing glycolic and lactic acids, exfoliating fruit enzymes, and naturally-hydrating squalane. It's basically a one-and-done for all your dark spot-fading, dullness-fighting needs.
ExfoliKate Glow Moisturizer, $, available at
Ulta Beauty More
A powerful acne-scar fighter that comes in toner form? Believe it. This one is infused with a peony extract, vitamin C, and licorice root extract to visibly brighten, plump, and hydrate.
Peony Brightening Moisturizing Facial Toner, $, available at
This cult-favorite product — which contains a potent mix of vitamin C, ferulic acid, and phloretin — really brings the big guns: It protects against free radicals, evens out the skin tone, and diminishes both dullness and dark spots.
Phloretin CF Gel, $, available at
Disregard the name; this isn't a skin-bleaching product. But, the kojic acid and licorice root in this mask
fade acne scars and age spots in record time.
Whitening Mask, $, available at
Saks Fifth Avenue More
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This Kiehl's dark-spot corrector is a super-light serum that helps to both zap acne scars and even out your skin tone. It uses activated vitamin C, which has been proven to combat discoloration effortlessly.
Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Solution, $49.50, available at
Hydroquinone is effective at fading dark scars and other post-breakout marks. It's a common active ingredient in skin-lightening formulas, including this gel from derm-created line Murad.
A few things to know: Apply it to
the affected area (or it could lighten the rest of your complexion, too)
washing your face and
applying your moisturizer. Also, most derms will warn you about "rebound pigmentation" when using hydroquinone, which means that if you use it for too long (more than six weeks is a common estimate) it could start making the area darker instead of lighter. Stick to a six-week run on each scar for the best results — and always wear SPF!
Post-Acne Spot Lightening Gel, $65, available at
Another power pigment eradicator is glycolic acid. Less sticky and irritating on sensitive skin than salicylic, glycolic purges pores of blackheads, exfoliates the dead skin that can lead to clogged pores in the first place, and lightens existing pigmentation.
T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum, $90, available at
Kypris' Moonlight Catalyst also employs exfoliating acids like punkin enzymes and alpha-hydroxy acids to fight acne and lighten hyper-pigmentation. It also contains rosehip and sea buckthorn extract to hydrate the skin.
Moonlight Catalyst, $72, available at
One of the big issues with acne-scar treatments is that you have to do some serious sleuthing to find the right products — very few brands mention "acne scars" on their labels. Most use ambiguous descriptions and names that hint at brightening, evening the skin tone, or addressing hyperpigmentation.
One of the few exceptions is this straight-to-the-point tube from Clean & Clear. It uses a known acne-fighting ingredient — salicylic acid — to help treat pimples and lessen post-breakout marks. A two-for-one deal, for the price of a coffee and a croissant from that fancy spot down the block — you can't beat that.
Clean & Clear
Advantage Mark Treatment, $7.06, available at
This overnight treatment not only targets active acne, but reduces the redness and appearance of leftover acne scars as well. With the help of a potent glycolic acid formula (over 20%), the swab works while you sleep for an at-home peel that won't leave your skin stripped dry.
Peter Thomas Roth
20% Glycolic Solutions Jumbo Peel Swab, $48, available at
I've written the beauty equivalent of a Jane Austen romance about
this sheet mask
. I can't stop shouting its name from the rooftops, because it is
What makes it so special is that it provides instant relief. Slap on this sucker for 20 minutes before bedtime, then remove it. Let the serum sink in, then fish around in the packet for some extra serum and press that into the skin for a double layer of goodness. Your marks will look much less prominent after you initially remove the mask, but I've found that the next morning you'll see an even more amazing skin transformation.
If I'm feeling thrifty (read: always), I'll save the leftover serum and use it the next evening and the subsequent few evenings, depending on how long it lasts. If you're feeling REALLY crafty, you can also save that excess serum to make another mask by applying it to the skin and then layering peeled-apart cotton pads on top —
. Talk about getting your money's worth.
Purifying Bio Enzymes Mask, $12 for 1, available at
Okay, okay: This one is on the pricier end of the spectrum. However, it's one of the few products that I think is worthy of its $100 price tag. Again, not the most obvious scar treatment — but "illuminating" and "skin-perfecting" are just fancy marketing terms that mean it treats bumpy, blotchy, marked-up skin.
I particularly like how soft it makes my skin feel, as well as the pleasant, subtle scent of rose — not at all overwhelming or perfume-y. I use it at night and wake up to what those marketers would call glowy, dewy, perfected skin.
Cellularose Brightening Serum, $117, available at
This cult classic proudly boasts on its box that it can diminish scars, stretch marks, and uneven skin tone, as well as signs of aging and dehydrated skin. Pretty lofty claims to live up to.
While I can't personally attest to the whole stretch-marks thing — which is what it's best known for — I can tell you it's one of the most effective hyperpigmentation healers on the market. Ignore the '70s packaging, because cheesy as it may look this stuff is more effective than many products twice its price tag.
Specialist Skincare, $15.99, available at
As you know from our
constant musings on the subject
, retinol has long been praised for its ability to both keep skin clear and gradually even skin tone. (Plus, a whole lot more.) There are countless options to try, but we have a fondness for Hollywood aesthetician
's formula. It doesn't dry out skin, even though it's packed with 5% retinol and 5% lactic acid.
Pro tip: Apply in the evening, after cleansing, while skin is still damp — and allow it to fully soak in (about 15 minutes) before topping with anything else.
Resurface by Shani Darden
Retinol Reform, $95, available at
Shani Darden Skin Care
In just four weeks, this vitamin B3 and C cream promises to fade light scarring left from your past blemishes.
Correcting Cream Clarant B3 Dark Spot Normal to Oily Skin, $8.19, available at
Lemon and salicylic acid fight your spots... and the applicator's rollerball cools you off in the process.Win-win!
On Your Mark Blemish Mark Fader, $7.99, available at
The retinol in this night oil will help reduce the visibility of your dark spots over time while also working to help erase the acne you've already got.
Luna Sleeping Night Oil, $105, available at
This serum is one of our favorite tools to battle acne scars. It targets dark spots, but doesn't change your natural skin tone in any way. It's a great nighttime moisturizer, but you can use it in both the a.m. and p.m. — just remember to use sunscreen during the day.
Mission Perfection Serum, $72, available at
Products labeled as "brightening"
sometimes get a bad rap
. But they're the best mode of treatment for pesky acne scars. This mask from GlamGlow isn't necessarily one you should use every day, but you can whip it out weekly in addition to other healing treatments.
Flashmud Brightening Treatment, $69, available at
This one comes with a hefty price tag, but it's well worth the money. The serum targets spots fast and leaves your face with an immediate glow.
White Lucent MicroTargeting Spot Corrector, $130, available at
This more-natural dark spot treatment is ideal for sensitive skin that also suffers from acne spots and irritation. This serum features daisy extract, which naturally brightens skin and helps to fade discoloration.
Brightening Dark Spot Corrector, $19.99, available at
PTR's overnight mask uses camu camu berry, which the brand claims has 30 times the vitamin C of an orange. I don't know about that (must have forgotten my vitamin-level detector at home), but I do know I have never used a vitamin C product this effective at treating acne scars.
One night of wearing this, and a severe cheek breakout (screw you, hormones) was significantly less noticeable the next morning. I used it five nights in a row and kept seeing even better results.
It plateaued after that, so I've been switching it up with the By Terry serum for a twice-weekly treatment. My skin future has never looked brighter.
Peter Thomas Roth
Camu Camu Power C x 30 Vitamin C Brightening Sleeping Mask, $62, available at
Clinique markets this dark-spot corrector as "even better," and we're inclined to agree. Although its main purpose is to treat sun damage and age spots, in clinical trials it also showed a significant improvement of acne scars. Use it twice a day (be sure to wear sunscreen!), and you can expect to see results after four to 12 weeks.
Even Better Clinical Dark Spot Corrector, $49.50, available at
Or, for a drugstore serum with a hit of retinol, we like this formula from Neutrogena. It has the powerful ingredient, plus hyaluronic acid to help keep skin hydrated.
Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum, $22.99, available at
Modeled after the most popular treatment in aesthetician-to-the-stars Kate Somerville's Beverly Hills clinic, the original DermalQuench Liquid Lift has the bonus, unadvertised side effect of minimizing the duration and healing time of zits.
The latest iteration has the added benefit of retinol. While it's touted as a wonder anti-wrinkle ingredient, it's also less commonly noted for its hyperpigmentation-disappearing powers. The lightweight texture and unique delivery system also make it kind of fun to apply.
DermalQuench Liquid Lift + Retinol, $98, available at
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