Clearing up breakouts is one thing, but it’s yet another to minimize any unwanted scarring that breakouts leave in their wake — to clean up the after party after the party, as I like to think of it. One way to do that (which is just a preference, by the way, not at all a necessity), is to pick up one of the best exfoliators for acne scars. All these products contain chemical exfoliants that “slough away dead skin cells, boost cellular turnover, and stimulate cellular renewal,” Dr. Mona Vand, Doctor of Pharmacy and Consulting Beauty & Wellness Expert for Bliss, tells Elite Daily. That all results in a clearer, more even-looking complexion overall.
In particular, both Dr. Vand and board certified dermatologist Dr. Loretta Ciraldo, M.D. F.A.A.D., with whom I also spoke for this article, recommend glycolic acid for reducing superficial acne scarring. This AHA has the smallest molecules of all the major acids [source], so it can easily penetrate your pores and break down the “glue” between your skin cells that contributes to hyperpigmentation. On the downside, both glycolic and other acids — like lactic acid, a fellow AHA; and salicylic acid, a BHA — can cause some irritation, redness, and dryness [prob should source this too], especially if you have sensitive skin. So look for products that also contain soothing and moisturizing ingredients like aloe, glycerin, hyaluronic acid, and plant-based oils.
Some other words of advice (for exfoliating, but also applies to life): Take it slow, and be extra kind. Dr. Vand suggests starting out with a chemical exfoliant two or three times per week until your skin acclimates, and Dr. Ciraldo warns against mixing these products with other aggressive topicals, like benzoyl peroxide and more than 5% L-ascorbic acid. It should go without saying, too, that you shouldn’t use all these recommended products at the same time. Stick with one, and see how your skin fares.
Scroll on to shop eight of the best exfoliators for acne scars, from a “miracle” liquid to a luxurious toner to a surprisingly soothing overnight treatment and more.
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1. Best Peel Pads
Peel pads are probably the easiest, quickest, most hassle-free route to fading unwanted acne scarring — and softening your skin in the process. And while all peel pads are acid-forward, these Nip + Fab pads feature an impressive mix: glycolic acid and salicylic acid give your pores a deep, thorough clear-out, while mandelic and lactic acids provide gentle exfoliation. Niacinamide also helps promote a brighter, more even complexion [source I think], and soothing glycerin and hyaluronic acid offer a welcome reprieve from all those acids.
If you’re willing to splurge a bit more, Dr. Ciraldo recommends her Micro Peel Peptide Pads. These lightly textured pads are soaked in a balanced solution of 10% glycolic acid, “anti-irritant herbal extracts, and hydrating peptides to minimize irritation as you get maximum microscopic exfoliation,” she says.
Whichever peel pads you go for, Dr. Ciraldo suggests using them several times per week to prevent acne from cropping up in the first place, in addition to reducing scarring leftover from past breakouts.
2. Best Liquid Exfoliant
The formula of this “miracle in a bottle” liquid exfoliant from Paula’s Choice is super simple. 2% salicylic acid and green tea extract, an antioxidant and skin-soother, are the headlining ingredients — so it works as a catch-all for almost any skin condition that can benefit from exfoliation, like blackheads, whiteheads, rosacea, hormonal acne, and keratosis pilaris (in addition to unwanted acne scarring). It’s fairly intense, so don’t be alarmed if your skin starts to purge when you first use it. Be patient, pray to the gods of exfoliation (kidding, you’ll be fine), and wait until your skin transforms to its clearest, tightest-pored version of itself.
3. Best Mask
This Andalou Naturals mask contains everything you could possibly want in a single product to help minimize discoloration/scarring, but my favorite thing in here is Manuka honey — not an exfoliant, but the ingredient that revolutionized my own breakout-recovery routine. This also features pumpkin puree as its marquee ingredient, which is rich in vitamin A [source]: Yet another ingredient that skin-brightening dreams (and, relatedly, retinol) is made of. Plant-derived AHAs and glycolic acid do the exfoliating work, while botanicals like aloe and sunflower oil keep your skin soothed and hydrated. Lots of the ingredients in here are certified organic, as an added bonus, which is tough to find in a face mask.
4. Best Toner
REN’s Ready Steady Glow Tonic is one of the less intensive (but no less effective) products on this list. On the brightening front, it’s packed with lactic acid, salicin (a BHA derived from willow bark), and azelaic acid, another naturally derived acid that’s known to fight acne and the evidence it leaves behind [source]. This is another of my personal favorites — it never leaves my sensitive, dehydrated skin feeling stripped or irritated, even when I use it daily. Instead, my skin feels tighter and plumper to the touch, and it looks more even, naturally radiant, and basically happier. Nothing not to love here.
5. Best Serum
A perennial fan-favorite, this L’Oreal Revitalift serum contains 10% glycolic acid, which is an impressive concentration for a drugstore serum. (For reference, in-office chemical peels use a minimum of 20% glycolic acid.) The shortlist of ingredients features aloe, glycerin, and hyaluronic acid as well, but it’ll probably still feel a bit tingly-to-burn-y. Stick to a once or twice weekly application, at night, until your skin builds up tolerance to this supercharged serum. And Dr. Ciraldo says to be diligent about applying and reapplying sunscreen the following day, since acids can make your skin more photosensitive [don’t need a source here since the doctor is saying it, but still might be good to have anyway].
6. Best Cleanser
This SkinMedica cleanser deploys a combination of chemical exfoliation, courtesy of BHAs and AHAs (including glycolic acid, our hero ingredient), plus physical exfoliation via nourishing jojoba beads. Even though it’s so powerful, it won’t strip or irritate your skin: One Amazon reviewer said their skin felt super-soft and well-moisturized after using it. Like all the products on this list, this is an effective treatment for active breakouts, too. But lots of reviewers report a visible change in their complexion’s clarity, evenness, and brightness, as well.
7. Best For Sensitive Skin
This Acure glycolic treatment does indeed contain glycolic acid, but it’s padded in a nice, cozy bed of nourishing ingredients: avocado oil, apricot kernel oil, sweet almond oil, jojoba oil, and olive oil work to soften and moisturize your skin, while hemp seed oil helps soothe redness and irritation. But there’s enough glycolic acid in here, as well as lactic acid, to effectively reduce unwanted scarring and/or hyperpigmentation. Also, unicorn root and quartz encourage [wow I have never heard of these ingredients before used in skin care — maybe link out to an article/study/botanical index for each one?] even more radiance, and maybe even a belief in magic. (Or the magic of magical-sounding ingredients.) Apply this overnight mask as the final step in your nighttime skin care routine.
8. Pro Pick
Dr. Vand likes this Bliss Clear Genius Clarifying Toner + Serum, a two-in-one that purifies, brightens, and plumps your skin all in one swipe. In addition clarifying salicylic acid, it contains some of Dr. Vand’s favorite ingredients to complement exfoliation, like “witch hazel (to calm and soothe) and zinc PCA (to calm skin, reduce redness, and hydrate), which makes it gentle enough to use daily,” she says. Cica also helps to restore moisture and repair the skin barrier [source], which is crucial when you’re exfoliating and/or using harsh acne treatments.
Dr. Mona Vand, Doctor of Pharmacy and Consulting Beauty & Wellness Expert for Bliss
Dr. Loretta Ciraldo, M.D. F.A.A.D., Miami-based board certified dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta Skin Care