Acne Marks vs Acne Scars: How to Identify & Treat Both Marks & Scars

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Around 80% of the population will experience acne at some point in their lives [1]. For some, these light and sporadic breakouts aren’t a huge deal. However, for 20% of acne sufferers, breakouts are severe.

They result in acne scars and marks being left behind, which can affect both skin tone and skin texture.

Chances are, whether you’re dealing with acne scars or acne marks, you want those blemishes to be gone as soon as possible.

However, treatment options for the two vary significantly – the only way to get your clear complexion back once again is to understand the difference between acne marks vs acne scars.

Once you know which you’re dealing with, life becomes much simpler.

What’s the Difference Between Acne Marks vs Acne Scars?

Skin magnifying glass

You can usually tell whether you have acne scars or acne marks simply by taking a closer look at your face.

Acne marks are flat, discolored areas of skin, usually brown or red in color.

This discoloration is temporary – it’ll likely fade on its own in a few months, although there are steps that you can take to speed this process up.

On the other hand, acne scars cause irregularities in your skin’s texture. Rather than being flat like acne marks are, acne scars are usually either indented or raised.

Acne scars also don’t fade away on their own – acne scarring tends to be permanent, unless you do something about it.

Not only do they look different, but acne marks and acne scars are also caused by different things.

Yes, acne is to blame for both, but it’s what happens after a breakout that determines whether you end up with acne marks, acne scars, or a clear and even skin tone.

What Causes Acne Marks?

Acne marks are also known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) or dark spots.

When acne lesions appear on your skin, your body produces more white blood cells. This increases blood flow in the skin, which helps with the healing process.

However, in addition to sending through more white blood cells, your body also sends melanocytes to the affected area of skin. These are the cells responsible for melanin production, which is the skin pigmentation that gives your skin its color.

All of this extra melanin production causes darker skin in affected areas.

To make things even more complicated, there’s more than one type of melanin, and the type that your skin produces during the healing process is what determines the color of your acne marks.

In general, those with fair skin end up with red marks, whereas those with darker skin tones develop brown acne marks. It’s also worth noting that the melanin produced by fair skin increases a person’s chance of developing skin cancer.

What Causes Acne Scars?

Just like with acne marks, skin inflammation is what causes acne scars. Inflammation is partly how the skin heals – it triggers your body into sending more blood cells and collagen to the affected area of skin.

There’s nothing wrong with this, at least until your skin ends up damaged again during the healing process.

This can occur for a number of reasons, whether it’s because you’ve been picking at your acne lesions or because severe acne causes another breakout before your skin has healed from the previous one.

Woman with skin marks

As a result, the skin can end up with atrophic scars, which are depressed scars that are caused when collagen is destroyed during the healing process. Most acne scarring tends to be atrophic.

That said, hypertrophic scars (also known as keloid scarring) could also develop. A hypertrophic scar is a raised scar that’s caused by excess collagen production, and they’re more common in darker skin types [2].

Either way, acne scars affect the skin’s texture in a big way.

The Different Types of Acne Scars

We’ve already discussed the two main types of acne scars; atrophic scars (depressed scars) and hypertrophic scars (raised scars). However, atrophic skin scars are diverse, which is why they can be further broken down into one of the following acne scar categories:

  • Ice pick scars – the majority of acne scars are icepick scars. These acne scars tend to be v-shaped and narrow – they’re deep rather than wide
  • Boxcar scars – these skin scars are round and wide. They’re very rarely deeper than ice pick scars
  • Rolling scars – although not quite as common as the above two acne scar types, rolling scars are the widest of acne scars – they look almost like a ripple in the skin

How to Treat Acne Marks

Now, back to acne marks. Whether you have brown acne marks or red acne marks, these can be treated just like dark spots. While they’ll fade on their own over time, here are a few treatment options that’ll help to speed that process up:

Chemical Peels

A chemical peel is just like chemical exfoliation, only more intense. Chemical peels make use of a combination of alpha and beta hydroxy acids (such as glycolic acid and salicylic acid) to remove dead skin cells, revealing the fresh and unblemished skin cells beneath.

Chemical peeling of the skin

Chemical peels are available in different concentrations. Light peels can be purchased over the counter, whereas the most powerful glycolic acid peels can only be carried out by a professional.

Skin-Lightening Ingredients

There are several skin-lightening ingredients out there that will target post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and dark spots, helping to treat acne marks. Some of the most effective are:

  • Vitamin C – this is one of the best brightening ingredients out there, and is effective on darker skin tones too
  • Azelaic Acid – a naturally occurring acid in plants, azelaic acid prevents excess melanin production to lighten dark spots. Azelaic acid will also remove dead skin cells, which helps with skin texture
  • Glycolic acid – the most popular of alpha hydroxy acids, glycolic acid not only lightens acne marks and dark spots, but also improves the texture and appearance of surrounding skin
  • Retinol – this vitamin A derivative boosts cell turnover, creating fresh new cells to replace dark skin cells
  • Hydroquinone – although effective at fading dark spots and reducing melanin production, this is a harsh ingredient with numerous side effects, and it doesn’t work well on darker skin types. Try to save it as a last resort
  • Alpha Arbutin – a natural extract that is converted into hydroquinone once in the body. However, it doesn’t have the same side effects, making it suitable for all skin types

How to Treat Acne Scars

You have several options when treating acne scars. The method/s you choose should depend on the types of acne scars you have, as well as their severity and your skin tone.

Laser Treatments

There are a few different laser resurfacing treatments that can be used to treat acne scars:

Facial acne treatment

Ablative Laser Treatments

Ablative lasers are extremely effective at treating acne scars. However, this laser treatment comes with the risk of numerous side effects, including dark spots and skin infections. They can also sometimes make acne scars even worse.

Vascular Laser Treatments

A vascular laser treatment will stimulate collagen remodelling in specific areas of skin, while leaving the surrounding skin untouched. This laser treatment is especially beneficial for atrophic scars and icepick acne scars, especially if you go with a pulsed dye laser, also known as an IPL treatment.

Non-Ablative Lasers

These also stimulate collagen remodelling and work well on boxcar scars and rolling scars.

However, they’re not suitable for anyone currently experiencing an active inflammatory acne or cystic acne breakout – they’ll only make this worse, increasing your chances of developing more acne scars.

Radiofrequency Treatments

Radiofrequency treatments send heat into the skin to boost collagen production, which helps to treat scars.

If icepick scars are what you’re dealing with, look into fractional radiofrequency treatments. These use tiny needles to deliver heat even deeper into the skin, making them even more effective at reducing acne scarring.

Silicone Patches and Sheets

Woman using scraper massager

Designed to be placed over scarred tissue for a certain period of time each day, silicone sheets are becoming an increasingly popular acne scar treatment.

They’re most effective on raised scars, with studies showing improvements in acne scar texture, redness, and height [3].

This is because they work by reducing, rather than increasing, collagen production.

They help to regulate and normalize this in scarred tissue, which goes a long way in treating raised scars.

Silicone patches are also great for hydrating the skin, which in itself can greatly improve the appearance of an acne scar.

Even better, they’re just as effective on darker skin types as they are on fair.


Cosmetic dermatology studies show that microneedling can improve acne scars just as well as non-ablative lasers [4].

However, you’ll need about five sessions before you’ll really start to see a difference in your acne scarring.

Preventing Acne Scarring and Marks

Whether you have inflammatory acne or cystic acne, treating scars that are already on your face isn’t enough – you need to also be preventing new acne scars from forming.

Find an Effective Acne Treatment

This is easier said than done, but finding a way to reduce acne inflammation as quickly as possible will help to prevent acne scars and acne marks from developing.

Fortunately, there are plenty of acne treatment options out there. Make sure that you’re incorporating both beta and alpha hydroxy acids into your skin care routine, along with a variety of anti-inflammatory ingredients.

Since inflammation leads to both acne marks and acne scars, keeping skin inflammation to a minimum is a key prevention technique.

Make Use of Retinoids

Not only is vitamin A a good way to treat acne marks, but it can be used to prevent both acne marks and acne scars too. All forms of vitamin A are effective, but speak to a dermatologic surgery about a prescription retinoid if you have severe or moderate acne.


Do acne marks go away?

Yes, both brown and red acne marks go away on their own, but acne scars are permanent.

How long does it take for acne marks to fade?

It usually takes 3-6 months for acne marks to fade.

Are acne scars dead skin cells?

No, acne scars are irregularities in the skin’s texture that are caused by either too much or not enough collagen during the skin’s healing process.


As you can see, the best methods to treat acne scars are very different from those used to treat acne marks, making it important for you to be able to distinguish between the two.

However, once you’ve decided on the best treatment options, make sure that you turn your attention to prevention – after all, you don’t want to put all that time, effort, and money into treating scars and marks, only to have new ones appear in their place.



Avatar for Megan Foley

Megan has been a freelance writer and editor since 2016. In that time, she’s penned a diverse collection of articles for online publication, with a focus on skincare and beauty. From in-depth product reviews to concise marketing content, Megan is passionate about developing content that informs, entertains, and inspires.