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If past breakouts have left you with pitted acne scars (or what dermatologist Jeannette Graf says are formally called atrophic scars), and you’re looking to fade them, there is an abundance of in-office treatments your dermatologist can offer you. But if you're hoping to tackle unwanted acne scarring at home, serums — with their highly concentrated formulas — are a solid place to start. The best serums for pitted acne scars contain ingredients that will increase your skin's production of collagen, says Dr. Graf. "Because pitted scars are resulting from a lack of collagen, serums that can boost your skin's collagen could help minimize the appearance of the scars," explains Dr. Graf, who names vitamin C, retinoids, hyaluronic acid, and azelaic acid as the top ingredients to look for. You'll want to incorporate your serum of choice into your skin care routine once or twice each day, though Dr. Graf says not to expect results right away. "Because the serums work differently on every person's skin, it might take three weeks to two months to start seeing results or a change in your skin's texture and appearance."
Dr. Jeannette Graf, M.D., is a board-certified, clinical and research dermatologist with a private practice in Great Neck, New York. Dr. Graf serves as an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. She has created her own skin care line, Dr. Jeannette Graf, M.D., and has contributed her expertise across television, radio, print, and digital publications.
What Exactly Are These Pitted Acne Scars?
Dr. Graf explains that pitted (aka atrophic) scars are the most common form of acne scarring, and can be broken down into several types. "Pitted scars are deep and very narrow as though a pin punctured the skin," Dr. Graf says, adding that they include icepick scars, boxcar scars, and rolling scars. "Icepick scars are triangular, chiseled indents in the skin — usually on the upper cheeks," she says. "Boxcar scars are deep indents with clearly defined edges, and rolling scars are pitted scars with uneven and sloping edges that make the skin look textured."
How To Prevent Atrophic Acne Scars
As Dr. Graf explains, this type of scarring is caused by severe inflammatory acne, and so the best way to prevent it is to try and prevent acne in the first place (I know, easier said than done). If the usual exfoliating cleansers and over-the-counter topicals aren't working, Dr. Graf recommends visiting a dermatologist to create a personalized skin care regimen. But there is one major piece of advice for minimizing the likelihood and severity of acne scarring: "To prevent any kind of scarring, it is essential never to pick or squeeze your skin," Dr. Graf stresses.
What If At-Home Products Don't Work?
In addition to a daily serum, Dr. Graf suggests trying an at-home chemical peel. "A chemical peel once or twice a week [will] exfoliate, expose fresh skin tissue, and promote collagen production," she says, adding that chemical peels also help to eliminate the buildup of dead skin and acne-causing bacteria. If you've been diligent with your at-home routine for several months and you're not seeing an improvement, Dr. Graf says that your scarring may require the help of a professional. "In-office treatments performed by a dermatologist can more fully remove the pitted scars, and they include lasers, radiofrequency, microneedling, and subcision."
Shop The Best Serums For Pitted Acne Scars
In a hurry? Here are the best serums for pitted acne scars:
1. Best Retinol Serum: ROC Retinol Correxion Line Smoothing Night Serum Capsules
2. Best Retinol Serum With Hyaluronic Acid: CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum
3. Best Vitamin C Serum: Neutrogena Rapid Tone Repair 20% Vitamin C Serum Capsules
4. Best Vitamin C Serum With Hyaluronic Acid: La Roche-Posay 10% Pure Vitamin C Serum
5. Best Azelaic Acid Serum: Naturium Azelaic Topical Acid 10%
6. Best Serum Booster: Paula's Choice Azelaic Acid Booster
1. Best Retinol Serum
If you're trying to treat current breakouts and post-acne scarring at the same time, Dr. Graf says that retinoids can help prevent blocked pores and stimulate collagen production. While retinoids are typically available via prescription only, their over-the-counter counterpart, retinol, can be found in tons of serums. ROC's Retinol Correxion Night Serum Capsules contain a concentrated retinol serum in the form of a single-use capsule, which makes it easy to ensure you're using the right amount of product (plus, they're great while traveling). The vegetable-based capsules are 100% biodegradable, and each one includes a serum formulated with the brand's own stabilized retinol. Ceramides have been added to help minimize irritation, but because retinol poses the risk of causing side effects like dryness, redness, and stinging at first, you'll want to start by applying this serum just a couple of nights a week and increasing your usage as your skin adjusts to it.
Relevant Review: "[...] I have been using [the serum] for two weeks and notice an amazing difference already. It's smoothing out some acne scars that I have due to wearing my mask all day at work, my pores look almost nonexistent [...] It causes some very slight peeling, but that is revealing new, beautiful skin. If that happens, pull back to only using this every other day, and work up to daily [use]. [...]"
Active Ingredients: Retinol, Ceramides Size: 30 Capsules
2. Best Retinol Serum With Hyaluronic Acid
Since CeraVe’s Resurfacing Retinol Serum contains lots of soothing, strengthening, and hydrating ingredients, it may be a better choice for those with dry or sensitive skin. (It’s also an Amazon favorite with more than 18,000 five-star ratings.) Specifically developed to help even out post-acne scars and hyperpigmentation, the serum combines retinol with licorice root extract and niacinamide to speed up skin cell turnover and promote a brighter complexion. CeraVe also included three essential ceramides and hyaluronic acid in the formula, which Dr. Graf says can further help with scarring as it plumps up skin. Because retinol makes your skin more sensitive to the sun, you'll only want to use this serum (and any retinol product) at night — and be sure to slather on the SPF in the morning.
Relevant Review: "Love this product! I've tried a few other acne scar creams that didn't yield any results. This product definitely helped my red marks and acne scars along with the texture of my [skin]. My face is noticeably smoother and has a more even skin tone. [I'm] fairly sensitive, and this product doesn't bother [me] either. I use this product and the cerave moisturizing wash and I love both. Game changers.”
Active Ingredients: Retinol, Niacinamide, Ceramides, Hyaluronic Acid, Licorice Root Extract Size: 1 oz.
3. Best Vitamin C Serum
Another way to boost collagen production and smooth unwanted scars over time is with a daily vitamin C serum. Neutrogena's Vitamin C Serum Capsules contain 20% vitamin C in the form of ascorbic acid, and the potent formula is oil-free, fragrance-free, and noncomedogenic. In addition to boosting collagen, vitamin C can help brighten your skin and fade unwanted hyperpigmentation (another common side effect of acne). Plus, vitamin C is an antioxidant-rich ingredient that helps protect skin against sun damage. The biodegradable, seaweed-derived capsules, with their dark bronze color, prevent the serum from oxidizing, and they provide you with one single-use dose of the serum.
Relevant Review: "I’ve only used it for a few days and wow my skin is really soft and healing from acne scars! I’m excited to see the results in a few weeks!! [...]
Active Ingredients: Vitamin C Size: 30 Capsules
4. Best Vitamin C Serum With Hyaluronic Acid
If you want to pair your vitamin C with other active ingredients, there's La Roche-Posay’s 10% Pure Vitamin C Serum. The noncomedogenic and oil-free serum combines 10% vitamin C with salicylic acid to clear out clogged pores, as well as hyaluronic acid to attract moisture to your skin for a more plumped-up appearance. To further moisturize and soothe, the serum was also formulated with glycerin, vitamin E, and La Roche-Posay's own thermal spring water.
Relevant Review: "I have super-sensitive skin with acne scars and dark spots. This serum made a huge difference. It helped make my skin look clearer and more even, and [it] brightened it up quite a bit. The scent was very mild, the serum absorbed super-quickly, and [it] didn't leave any feelings of unwanted residue. I would highly recommend.”
Active Ingredients: Vitamin C, Salicylic Acid, Hyaluronic Acid Size: 1 oz.
5. Best Azelaic Acid Serum
Azelaic acid is another great ingredient for treating past, present, and future breakouts, as Dr. Graf points out that it's both exfoliating and brightening. Naturium’s Azelaic Acid Serum uses 10% azelaic acid to gently exfoliate and balance excess oil. Versatile ingredients like vitamin C and niacinamide are included in here, too, to promote a more even skin tone and reduce unwanted hyperpigmentation. It's also a cruelty-free and vegan serum.
Relevant Review: "I’ve been using this for over a month and I can definitely tell a difference in my acne scarring and dark spots all over my face. They are fading with every use! This serum is not super thick but it does have a nice luxurious feel and it absorbs really well into the skin and it doesn’t smell bad at all! It doesn’t make my face oily since I’m acne prone I really appreciate that.I WILL never run out of this!”
Active Ingredients: Azelaic Acid, Vitamin C, Niacinamide, Hyaluronic Acid Size: 1 oz.
7. You May Also Like: Best Serum Booster
You can use Paula's Choice Azelaic Acid Booster on its own or mix it in with your current favorite serum (or moisturizer) for its scar-fading benefits. It combines 10% azelaic acid with multiple skin-soothing ingredients, as well as 0.5% salicylic acid to unclog congested pores. Though not technically a serum, the booster is oil-free and has a lightweight texture that absorbs into skin quickly and readily.
Relevant Review: "I was recommended this product by my derm. It takes awhile (2/3 way in of the product tube) to show results. Layers beautifully with moisturizer, sunscreen, and a full face of makeup. I purchased this for the second time, and it has become a staple. I wish it were a bit cheaper, but it has faded my cystic acne scars like no other product. It is on my auto-subscribed list on amazon!”
Active Ingredients: Azelaic Acid, Salicylic Acid, Licorice Root Extract, Allantoin, Bisabolol Size: 1 oz.
Dr. Jeannette Graf, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.