Like any other night, I go to the bathroom and begin my skincare routine. Next thing I know, I’m leaning over the sink with my face up against the mirror, picking and prodding my face, not realizing that 30 minutes have passed. As soon as I break my trance-like state and see my red, splotchy skin, the shame sets in. Because the thing is, my skin is generally good. I mean, I get a few blemishes around my period, when I eat poorly, or if I’m stressed (and 2020 has been stressful, people!), but I’m the one who makes matters worse by squeezing the tiny bumps that no one can see, turning them into big red marks that can last for weeks to months and are always worse than the damn blemish itself. "Picking at acne scabs will make them worse and delay healing," says Michele Farber, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC. "It results in a cyclical process that causes progression of marks or scars."
Now, I know there’s no magic wand that can fix a scar or spot overnight, but there are a few things you can do immediately after a skin-picking episode: “I recommend that patients very gently clean their skin to remove any surface bacteria and decrease the chance of infection and then apply a very small amount of hydrocortisone cream followed by a layer of a petroleum ointment such as Aquaphor or Vaseline,” explains Rachel Nazarian, MD, FAAD, at Mount Sinai's Department of Dermatology. “This combination decreases the chance of infection, decreases inflammation, and accelerates wound healing.” Another tip, “Try using ice or cold compresses for a few minutes on the inflamed spot to calm down the swelling and inflammation,” says Yunyoung Claire Chang, MD, at Union Square Laser Dermatology.
For long-term damage control, there are specific ingredients to look for in products that can help treat, prevent, lighten, and brighten marks over the course of time. And since I’ve dealt with some form of skin picking since I was a teenager, I’ve got a handful of personal and expert-recommended products in my arsenal.
Cleansers for Treating Marks and Preventing Breakouts
Finding a good cleanser is something I admittedly overlooked for years, but this one has honestly changed my skin. It uses a combination of bio-nutrients, antioxidants, and mild resurfacing ingredients (salicylic acid!) that just make your skin feel really, really clean and never tight or dry. The silky gel texture lathers up nicely and removes all the makeup and grime build-up from the day.
If you want to prevent future scars, you need to have a good defense in place, and this is my favorite drugstore pick. It contains salicylic acid, which exfoliates the skin and can help soften bumps, but it also does a great job of unclogging pores. The fewer unclogged pores you have, the fewer blemishes you’ll get, and those are the precursors to scars.
I love this cleanser. Honestly, I love anything from SkinCeuticals, but this, in particular, combines glycolic acid and glycerin to remove excess oil and debris while hydrating the skin, leaving it feeling refreshed and looking brighter.
Citrus extracts are also a great ingredient to help combat dark marks, and this creamy foam cleanser is made with grapefruit extract, which visibly smooths skin’s texture, while ginkgo biloba extract supports radiance.
Serums for Brightening Skin and Lightening Dark Marks
When it comes to skincare ingredients, retinoids are the gold standard for treating dark spots, fine lines, and preventing future breakouts. Retinols contain a lower concentration of the active retinoic-acid ingredient, which means they’re readily available over the counter while retinoids have a much higher concentration and usually require a prescription. Both do exactly the same thing, but you’ll see results quicker with a retinoid than retinol. But that’s okay because retinol is generally easier on the skin, and such is the case with this gem of a serum. It delivers a 6.5% solution of stabilized-retinoid blends and botanical retinol-alternative extracts to the skin. Basically, you get the same results without the drawbacks of a typical retinol. It’s also made with CoQ10, which can help improve the appearance of aging or UV-exposed skin.
This stuff is pricey, but damn, it’s so worth it. It’s a patented formula (hence the price tag) with a blend of 15% pure vitamin C, which brightens skin; 1% vitamin E, which replenishes skin lipids; and 0.5% ferulic acid, which is a plant-based antioxidant that basically enhances the benefits of vitamins C and E. "It's a consistent favorite because it has a high concentration of vitamin C in a stable form," shares Farber. I apply four drops to my skin after cleansing in the morning by pressing it into my skin versus rubbing, then let it do its thing for a few minutes before following up with any other product. I’m telling you, your entire face will be brighter and more glowy.
When this first came out, it sold out within a few hours and there was a massive waiting list. I’m so happy I got my hands on a bottle because it’s done nothing but good things for my skin. It’s made with 20.5% pure vitamin C and 72% black chokeberry, which is a special ingredient that stabilizes the vitamin C. It really does help lighten brown spots and acne scars. Nothing but good things to say about it!
Chang also suggests this from SkinCeuticals. “It contains a combination of phloretin, pure vitamin C, and ferulic acid to help neutralize damaging free radicals and improve the overall appearance of skin tone and discoloration.”
Masks and Treatments for Stubborn Dark Marks
“The best way to improve scars at home is with the use of a topical retinoid,” says Nazarian. This over-the-counter (OTC) one actually has a lot of medical backing that shows it increases collagen levels in the skin and improve scars over time.
I’ve used these since I was a teenager and love how gentle they are. They’re basically toner pads, and I’ll use 'em after cleansing my face. The pads are soaked with lactic and glycolic acids to exfoliate, tone, and brighten skin, and they really do work!
I love this cleansing bar so much. It basically does it all: removes dirt and grime, doubles as a spot treatment, and exfoliates the skin. It’s made with two of the best skin brighteners—kojic acid and niacinamide—and really helps combat annoying dark marks.
This is one of my favorite overnight masks. This lactic- and glycolic-acid peel renews your complexion by breaking down dead skin cells while exfoliating, brightening, and hydrating the skin. Slather this stuff on before bed and wake up with a seriously brighter complexion.
This is the first prescription-strength retinoid that became available OTC. It affects cell turnover faster than retinol but is gentler than other prescription-grade retinoids. If I have a particularly bad blemish, I like to use this, but it’s also great for lightening existing marks. Spot-test it first, though, because it can irritate the skin.
If you’d rather not use Differin, try this—I'm a big fan. Hydroquinone is an effective lightening agent that’s great for reducing the appearance of acne marks. “Hydroquinone decreases the formation of melanin pigment in the skin and can be used for various pigment conditions including dark marks,” says Chang. This specific cream includes 2% of hydroquinone, which is the highest concentration allowed in an OTC product. It also contains soy and vitamin E, which can treat pigmentation. I usually use this on specific spots rather than all over my face.
I was introduced to this years ago, and when I started to use it regularly, I got so many compliments on my skin. Man, do I love it. The price is a downer, but it’s worth it, IMHO. It’s made with a bunch of grade-A ingredients, like purified lactic acid, which hydrates and exfoliates the surface of the skin; licorice and lemongrass, which brighten the appearance of dark spots and discolorations; and prickly pear extract, which soothes the appearance of redness and supports a more even-toned complexion. Be patient and consistent, and you’ll notice a huge improvement in your skin.
This mask is dreamy. It suggests using it daily, but I only use it a few times a week. The key ingredient in this is L-ascorbic acid 10%, which is basically pure vitamin C that instantly brightens skin and protects it against environmental aggressors. Once applied, the gel turns into a cream, activated by your skin's moisture, and after 15 minutes, you can wash it off.
Spot Treatments for Lightening Dark Marks
With spot treatments, you want to be careful to not cause more skin irritation. This product contains a low percentage of benzoyl peroxide (2.5%) and really helps reduce acne inflammation and kill acne-causing bacteria, thereby preventing acne scarring.
To be clear, I wouldn’t use these over the other treatments and serums I’ve mentioned. I like to have these when I travel because they’re easy. Similar to pimple patches, these oil-free dots help lighten the appearance of dark spots and even and brighten skin tone with a blend of niacinamide, licorice extract, and tranexamic acid. I usually will pop one on after cleansing before going to bed.
While I haven’t personally used this, Chang recommends it as a great spot corrector for treating and improving the appearance of age spots, freckles, and hyperpigmentation. It contains a mix of 2% hydroquinone, 1% kojic acid, and glycolic acid to help even out skin tone.
Here's another dermatologist-recommended product. "Benzoyl peroxide is a great spot treatment but can be drying," explains Farber. "This is less irritating because it also has glycerin to hydrate."
Moisturizers for Lightening Dark Marks
In terms of moisturizers, you want to make sure that there is some sort of natural skin brightener in the ingredients, like kojic acid. This one also has licorice extract, bearberry, and sophora root, which basically makes this the best sort of skin cocktail for fading acne marks.
My favorite drugstore moisturizer. Not only does it have SPF 30, but it’s also made with vitamin B3, which is a known ingredient for helping reduce the appearance of skin discoloration. Nothing fussy—just a good, standard moisturizer that’s really affordable.
Farber recommends keeping moisturizers simple when dealing with acne. "Oil-free, lighter moisturizers are best to prevent dryness from other acne treatments and breakouts." This is a great acne-friendly option.
SPFs for Protecting and Preventing the Worsening of Dark Marks
The sun is basically your enemy when you’re trying to heal scars, so you need to wear proper protection to decrease the chances of the scars getting darker. This is hands down the best sunscreen I’ve ever used. It's made with clean ingredients (aka, doesn't make you break out!) and really smoothes and preps skin in a way that's perfect for makeup application.
If you have pimples that have been recently picked, try and stay out of the sun to decrease the risk of pigment changes in the skin. “Ultraviolet radiation from the sun increases redness and increases pigmentation, both of which are worse following acne breakouts, and being exposed to the sun will only increase the length of time it takes for these areas to fade,” says Nazarian. Look for sunscreens with daily topical antioxidants that combat pigmentary alteration and accelerate wound healing and recovery from acne, like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide and pre-tocopheryl.
Aside from containing zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, and a bunch of antioxidants like vitamin C that can help brighten the skin, this sunscreen comes in a tinted formula to cover up existing brown spots. It’s a win-win.
Tools for Improving Dark Marks
I have an at-home derma roller that I absolutely love and try and use once a week, but Nazarian says that expectations need to be managed. While it can stimulate collagen over time, it’s a very slow process and doesn’t produce dramatic or immediate improvement.
LED light therapy has been around for decades and can help treat acne, stimulate collagen and elastin, and reduce redness, wrinkles, and the appearance of dark spots. "While not as strong as in-office treatments, at-home LED lights, particularly red ones, can help with discoloration," says Farber. LED masks are a pretty safe bet because you can’t really mess up (while other wand-type devices have more room for error). This one comes with seven different colors that focus on specific concerns, like killing acne and tightening skin, smoothing skin, reducing redness, and increasing blood flow and collagen production, among others.
Aside from masks, I haven’t dabbled much in light therapy. I've had my eye on this because of all the good things I’ve heard. There’s a built-in three-minute timer that you turn on when you put the wand on a section of your face and hold it in place until the timer beeps. It’s obviously more of an arm workout than just slapping on a face mask, but I’ve heard it really helps existing acne and preventing future flare-ups.
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