From retinol serums to azelaic and exfoliating acids, these top picks can help with the appearance of marks that linger long after your spots are gone

We’re all striving towards loving our skin no matter our skin concerns, but it's natural to want to get rid of blemishes and these can sometimes be caused by acne. You may be left with a range of marks, from ice pick scars to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (or simply ‘dark spots').

So, how do you help with the appearance of acne scars once they’ve formed? What actually causes each kind of acne scar in the first place? And what skincare products can you use to help reduce their appearance? If you’re wondering what the answers are to any of these questions, hopefully our guide can provide a helping hand.

What causes acne scars?

“Acne scars are caused by inflammation and damage to the hair follicle and its associated oil-producing gland,” says Dr Derrick Phillips, consultant dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic in London. “As the inflammation settles, the skin produces collagen to help repair the tissue damage.

“This response can be over-exuberant and lead to elevated scars or depressed scars, known as ice pick scars that can tend to have a pitted appearance. In skin of colour, dark marks may also develop as the inflammation resolves. This is known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and can be more problematic than the acne itself.”

How can you prevent acne scars?

“The best way to prevent scars is by ensuring the acne is appropriately treated,” says Dr Phillips.

But treating acne isn’t always easy! If you’ve tried a variety of treatments without success, it could be worth talking to your GP or a dermatologist. You might also want to visit Boots’ Online Doctor Acne Treatment Service, a new private health service that is all about giving you convenient and confidential access to professional advice from the comfort of your own home (charges and eligibility criteria apply).

If you’ve noticed scarring starting to form from previous spots though, there are a wide range of skincare products and active ingredients – from retinol serums to various acids – available to help whatever your skin type.

Read more about acne here.

What can help fade the appearance of acne scars?

If you’re concerned about inflammation and dark marks, Dr Philips recommends niacinamide and azelaic acid. You can read all about niacinamide here, but azelaic acid basically acts as a mild exfoliant that refines the skin’s surface. By minimising the appearance of acne scars, it can help to give you a more even skin tone overall. 

“Alpha and beta hydroxy acids also fade dark marks through gentle exfoliation,” says Dr Phillips. “Topical retinoids encourage shedding of the outer layer of skin, in addition to stimulating new collagen formation. These actions can help to improve the appearance of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and reduce the appearance of depressed scars,” he continues. “Medical-grade retinoids require a prescription, however retinol is available without prescription.”

If you found this useful, you may also find our guide to the best face washes for acne-prone skin helpful too.

What are the best products for acne scars?

The best products for acne scars contain the ingredients just mentioned by Dr Phillips, but what exactly are they? Here are some excellent options – from peeling solutions for people already accustomed to using acids to gentle serums and an excellent facial SPF – that will help you massively whether you’ve been left with post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation or ice pick scars, whatever your skin type.


Try: The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution (£6.30)

• Size: 30ml

As Dr Barbara Kubicka, an aesthetic doctor with her own clinic in London, notes, “Alpha hydroxy acids also help with skin unevenness, making them excellent at reducing the appearance of all types of acne scars.” The beta hydroxy acid (salicylic acid) in this peeling solution also supports clear skin. And we love the fact that this contains a Tasmanian pepperberry derivative to help reduce the irritation often caused by acids.

Try: The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution (£6.80)

• Size: 240ml

Glycolic acid in particular is a great alpha hydroxy acid to use on acne scars. This toning solution could make your complexion look more radiant after your first few uses and, over time, there’s a good chance that you may also see an improvement in skin texture. The aloe vera in it also soothes skin, a massive plus when using acids.

Try: Olay Retinol24 Night Serum With Retinol & Vitamin B3 (£34.99)

• Size: 40ml

Given what Dr Phillips says about the wonder of retinol, you might want to incorporate a retinol serum into your skincare routine if you have acne scars. This pick comes with the added benefit of containing vitamin B3 (aka niacinamide), another ingredient celebrated by Dr Phillips for how it improves the appearance of acne scars.

Try: The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10% (£5.50)

• Size: 30ml

Expect a brighter complexion, less pronounced blemishes and markedly improved skin texture upon introducing azelaic acid into your skincare routine. And this suspension lets you do so without breaking the bank!

Try: La Roche-Posay Anthelios Anti-Imperfections SPF50+ (£20)

• Size: 50ml

Given all the acids that are recommended to reduce acne scars, it would be foolish not to incorporate SPF into your morning routine as an absolute necessity to avoid awful sunburn. 

“Sun exposure is also an important consideration as it can cause hyperpigmentation of scars and darkening of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation,” says Dr Phillips. Therefore, a broad-spectrum sunscreen is an essential part of your skincare routine. We love this one for the fact that it contains salicylic acid and niacinamide to help tackle the appearance of existing blemishes.

Try: La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo+ Blemish Treatment (£17)

• Size: 40ml

When it comes to avoiding acne scars, Dr Kubicka says, “The most important step is prevention.” And we’d say a formula containing salicylic acid was a pretty good way of helping stop a spot in its tracks and prevent the formation of red and brown coloured marks. “Just remember that picking is detrimental to the healing process and will invariably make scars worse,” Dr Phillips tells us. So it’s best to resist the urge and leave the job to your skincare, no matter how tempting it may be!

Try: Boots Ingredients Lactic Acid Serum (£5)

• Size: 30ml

Opting for a serum with naturally derived lactic acid helps reduce the appearance of an uneven skin tone. Leaving your skin feeling softer, it will bring a radiant glow to your nightly routine.

Try: Boots Rescue Skin Oil (£5)

• Size: 50ml

• Non-comedogenic

Specially formulated to help improve the appearance of scars, stretch marks and uneven skin tone, this oil contains vitamin E and leaves skin feeling hydrated.

All prices correct on date of publication