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

Have you ever had acne? If so, know that you aren’t alone – it’s extremely common. In fact, according to the NHS, most people will experience it at some point in their lives, with an estimated 80% of those aged 11 to 30 affected by the condition. 

Acne can be caused by a wide range of triggers including hormones, genetics and certain medications. Finding the root cause is the first step, but once you’ve found a plan of action to help reduce its appearance, you may find you’re left with a range of marks, from ice pick scars to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

Here, we find out what can help reduce the appearance of acne scars and round-up our top product picks that could be worth weaving into your morning and evening skincare routines.

What causes acne scars?

“Acne scars are caused by inflammation and damage to the hair follicle and its associated oil-producing gland,” explains Dr Derrick Phillips, consultant dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic in London. Any type of acne spot can cause scarring, but it tends to be more common in more serious cases of acne, when spots like nodules and cysts burst. It can also happen if you pick, pop or squeeze your spots.

“As the inflammation settles, the skin produces collagen to help repair the tissue damage,” says Dr Phillips. If the body makes too little collagen, it can result in depressed scars, or pits, to form. If too much is produced, it can lead to raised scars forming.

What are the different types of acne scars?

There are two main types of acne scar – atrophic (or depressed scars) and hypertrophic (or raised scars).

Depressed scars are the most common. These look like pits in the skin and include boxcar scars (round or oval-shaped depressions), ice-pick scars (small, deep holes) and rolling scars (an uneven appearance caused by bands of scar tissue underneath the skin). They tend to be found on the face.

The second type are raised scars (or hypertrophic), which appear more commonly on the back and chest.

The inflammation caused by acne may also result in areas of uneven skin tone. “In skin of colour, dark marks may also develop as the inflammation resolves,” explains Dr Phillips. “This is known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and can be more problematic than the acne itself in some cases.”

How can you prevent acne scars?

“The best way to prevent scars is by ensuring the acne is appropriately treated,” says Dr Phillips. The longer a person has acne, the more likely it may result in scarring.

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 convenient health service that’s all about giving you simple and confidential access to professional advice from the comfort of your own home.

So, if you’ve noticed scarring starting to form from previous spots, there are a wide range of skincare products and active ingredients – from retinol serums to various acids – available that may help reduce its appearance. On top of this, try not to pick at spots, avoid over-scrubbing your face, establish a daily skincare routine that’s not too drying and wear sun lotion to protect scars as they heal.

What are the best products for acne scars?

If you’re concerned about inflammation and dark spots, Dr Philips recommends looking for products formulated with niacinamide (have a read about niacinamide in our guide) or azelaic acid, which is a mild exfoliant that refines the surface of the skin and helps skin tone look more even. Other exfoliating acids, such as alpha or beta hydroxy acids, may also help. 

Adding a product containing a retinoid into your night-time routine is another option. “Topical retinoids encourage shedding of the outer layer of skin, in addition to stimulating new collagen formation,” explains Dr Phillips.

“These actions can help improve the appearance of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and reduce the appearance of depressed scars,” he continues. “Some retinoids can be prescribed by a doctor, but retinol is available without prescription.”

Find out how to weave retinol into your routine.

It’s a good idea to add exfoliating acids and retinol gradually into your routine. Too much, too soon may irritate skin. And always follow up with a broad-spectrum sunscreen in the morning. “Sun exposure is an important consideration as it can cause hyperpigmentation of scars and darkening of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation,” says Dr Phillips.

Products containing ingredients like retinol and alpha hydroxy acids can also make skin more sensitive to UV rays.

11 of the best products for acne scars available at Boots

From exfoliating acids to gentle serums and an excellent facial SPF – here are 11 of our top product picks that may help reduce the appearance of acne scars, whatever your skin type or budget.

Shop more top products for acne scars in our full skincare range.

For a retinol starter serum

Try: Kiehl’s Retinol Skin-Renewing Daily Micro-Dose Serum

• Size: 50ml

• Contains retinol, peptide and ceramides

Formulated to provide the benefits of retinol with minimal discomfort, this hard-working serum contains peptide and barrier-supporting ceramides to help with the appearance of skin tone and texture. Start by applying it once a week, building it up to more frequent use as skin becomes more tolerant.

For a retinol serum for congested skin

Try: CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum

• Size: 30ml

• Contains retinol, niacinamide and ceramides

Lightweight and fast-absorbing, this night serum has been created with congested skin in mind and answers a range of needs. With retinol to exfoliate, niacinamide to support the skin barrier and ceramides to moisturise, its formula helps give a smoother, brighter and more even-looking complexion.

For a retinol cream

Try: L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Laser Retinol & Niacinamide Pressed Night Cream

• Size: 50ml

• Contains retinol and niacinamide

If you prefer the feel of a cream over a serum, try this luxe number. Simply apply a pea-sized pump to the neck and chest area after cleansing and wake up to more radiant, plumper-looking skin. Use it two nights a week to start with, building it up as your skin gets used to it.

For a retinol serum for mature skin

Try: Olay Regenerist Retinol24 Night Serum

• Size: 40ml

• Contains retinol and vitamin B3

• Fragrance-free

This fragrance-free retinol serum is a great pick for smoother-looking, more glowing skin. As well as helping fade acne scars, it helps improve the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and dark spots.

For award-winning sun protection

Try: La Roche-Posay Anthelios UVMUNE 400 Invisible Fluid SPF50

• Size: 50ml

• Boots Beauty Award winner

• SPF50

If you’ve been searching high and low for a facial sunscreen that you’ll actually look forward to applying in the mornings, look no further. This superlight, non-greasy and invisible formula is one of our faves – and it turns out, one of yours too as it won Desert Island Must-Have at the Boots Beauty Awards.

For dark spots

Try: Garnier 3.5% Vitamin C Brightening Serum

• Size: 30ml

• Contains a vitamin C derivative, niacinamide and salicylic acid

• Cruelty-free

Formulated to help fade dark spots, this non-greasy serum contains a potent blend of ingredients to help exfoliate and slough off dead skin cells and brighten. Boots reviews praise it for its ability to boost luminosity and reduce the appearance of pigmentation, plus its affordable price point. Due to its range of actives, it could be a good idea to patch test it first and build up to more frequent use gradually.

For skin texture

Try: La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo+ Serum

• Size: 30ml

• Contains glycolic and salicylic acids and niacinamide

This night serum contains glycolic and salicylic acids, as well as niacinamide, to help improve the appearance of skin texture and skin tone, including marks and pigmentation. It also helps regulate sebum secretion to reduce the likelihood of clogged pores – tick and tick!

For a lactic acid serum

Try: Boots Ingredients Lactic Acid Serum

• Size: 30ml

• Vegan

Opting for a serum with naturally derived lactic acid (a type of alpha hydroxy acid) can help smooth the appearance of fine lines, hydrate, and reduce the appearance of uneven skin tone. It leaves your skin feeling softer, bringing a welcome radiance to your nightly routine.

For a glycolic acid toner

Try: The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution

• Size: 240ml

• Vegan

• Cruelty-free

Glycolic acid is another great alpha hydroxy acid to use on acne scars. This supersized exfoliating toning solution gives great glow for your buck and helps improve the appearance of skin texture, too. It also contains Tasmanian pepperberry derivative and aloe barbadensis leaf water to help reduce dryness.

For an AHA and BHA treatment

Try: Boots Ingredients AHA BHA Serum

• Size: 28ml

• Vegan

• Contains glycolic and salicylic acids

This affordable blend of alpha and beta hydroxy acids makes for a helpful way to support a more even-looking complexion. Formulated to exfoliate and help unclog pores, the serum can be used two nights a week initially to help your skin develop a level of tolerance.

For an azelaic acid treatment

Try: The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%

• Size: 30ml

• Vegan

• Cruelty-free

Expect a brighter complexion and smoother-looking skin upon introducing azelaic acid into your skincare routine. And this suspension lets you do so without breaking the bank! Glowing reviews all round.

Explore more brilliant skincare must-tries for acne scars in our full range.

*Access to prescription-only medicine is subject to an online consultation with a clinician to assess suitability. Subject to availability. Charges apply.