Have you ever dealt with a pimple that took weeks to disappear, only for it to leave you with a mark or scar that lasts for months, maybe even years? If your answer’s yes, I bet you know how frustrating this can be.

Whether your pimples left you with acne marks vs acne scars, chances are both won’t be gone in just a few days.

If you want to stand a chance at getting rid of marks and scars, the first step is to know their difference (Yes, they’re different!), and which types your pimples left you with.

And that’s exactly what we’re going to cover today, along with what you can do to treat those marks and scars.

Acne Marks vs Acne Scars: What’s the difference?

It’s easy to lump all the flaws you see after acne as “scars.” But in reality, acne marks and acne scars are very different. Their biggest difference? They look very different.

acne marks vs acne scars

Acne marks are discoloration left by acne, appearing flat and either red or brown. These marks are common and usually harmless. They go away on their own, though it can take months of waiting. 

Acne scars are either raised or indented marks. These scars create irregularities on our skin texture. And sadly, they’re usually permanent. Acting on them too late will leave you with a tough job of removing them.

What Causes Acne Marks?

The culprit for your acne marks is inflammation [1].

When acne bacteria multiply in our pores or hair follicles, our white blood cells arrive to the scene via the bloodstream to fight the infection. The increased blood flow is also why inflamed acne blemishes appear red.

acne marks vs acne scars

But our dear protector cells don’t come alone to the fight. Melanocytes tag along with them to the fight.

Melanocytes are the special cells in the skin that produces melanin—the pigment that gives color to our skin. Too much melanin in one area creates a patch of skin that’s darker than the surrounding skin.

And with that, more inflammation will give you a more obvious area of discoloration—both in size and color.

Types of Acne Marks

Your acne mark can appear as Post Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation (PIH) or Post Inflammatory Erythema (PIE).

Increased production of melanin is the root cause of PIH [1]. It appears flat and brown to grayish on the skin.

Meanwhile, the root cause for PIE is residual erythema. This happens when we damage our capillaries [2]. It appears flat and pink to red on the skin. When not treated, PIE can eventually turn into PIH.

Both PIH and PIE are temporary. So, over time, usually within 6 to 12 months, you’ll see them fade [3].

Darker skin types are more prone to having PIH. While fair skin types will get more PIE. But since acne just love to play with us, anyone can have both PIH and PIE.

Both PIH and PIE can be worsened by sun exposure, which stops them from fading faster. So, you best be applying your sunscreen!

What Causes Acne Scars?

Acne scars form when skin underneath the healed acne is unable to regenerate or regenerates too much skin tissue [4].

Wounds need to go deep enough to damage the inner layers of our skin, the dermis. This is why deep, painful acne blemishes called nodules and cysts are the ones that often leave behind scars [5].

And this is also a good reminder not to pick at your acne blemishes!

acne marks vs acne scars

If you do, you might push the contents of your pimple deeper into the skin. That will increase your inflammation [5]. Popping your pimple can also open the wound and deepen the damage. So, not only will your acne become more noticeable. It will also be more likely to leave a mark and a scar after healing.

When we damage our dermis, we urge our skin to produce collage to repair the wound. The repair is hastily done, so the collagen produced is thicker and more flexible than the rest of our skin. That thick and flexible tissue is a scar [6].

Types of Acne Scars

Acne scars can either be: depressed or elevated

Depressed scars, medically called atrophic scars, are the most common type of scars that follow acne [3]. As the name suggests, these scars appear depressed or indented and sunken. This is what happens when the skin regenerates not enough skin tissue.

Depending on the size, shape, and depth of the scar, we can refer to them as:

  • Ice pick scars—narrow, punctiform, and deep scars, as if the skin has been pierced by an ice pick
  • Rolling scars—appear wider than deeper
  • Boxcar scars—round, oval, or irregular scars with sharp vertical edges, appearing punched out and may be shallow or deep
  • Linear scars—appear as thin lines or broad linear scars
  • Lipoatrophic scars—severe depressed scars, almost like a gaping hole

Elevated scars are less common after acne. Hypertrophic scars and keloids are elevated scars. They form when there’s the skin regenerates too much skin tissue [4]. Hypertrophic scars appear pink, raised, and firm. While keloids reddish-purple bumps that can spread outward from the wound it originated.

How are Acne Marks and Acne Scars Treated?

With how different acne marks and acne scars are, they need different treatments. Let’s take a look at what we can do to treat them.

Treating Acne Marks

Though acne marks are temporary, they can take so long to completely fade. Thankfully, we can turn to some reliable methods of fast-forwarding the process.

Acids like glycolic acid, azelaic acid, and salicylic acid are known to help hasten the fading process of PIH [1]. PIE is a little trickier. But anecdotal experiences tell us that niacinamide, vitamin C, and azelaic acid can help fade PIE before they turn into PIH.

Those acids can come in a wide range of concentrations. At low concentrations, they are mild enough to be used daily. Though 3 times a week at most is better for dry and sensitive skin types. These are what we call chemical exfoliants.

At higher concentrations, they become what we call chemical peels. Some chemical peels are available for at-home use. But you need to be very knowledgeable in using them. Peels are very strong and can potentially damage your skin when used improperly. High concentration chemical peels often need the help of certified dermatologists and aestheticians.

Treating Acne Scars

The older the acne scars, the harder they are to treat. That’s why for acne scars (and marks too), prevention is better than cure.

But when you’ve already got them, you’ll want to know how you can finally get rid of them.

For products you can apply to your skin, the choice is pretty limited in treating acne scars. Chemical peels and retinoids have shown some promise [4]. But they often only help with newer, shallower scars.

With that, laser treatments are often the most effective option for acne scars [4]. Laser treatments involve zapping areas with high-energy light. Mild treatments work on the skin’s surface layer. While intense ones can penetrate the deepest layers of the skin. It is highly effective, but quite pricey.

You can also look into microneedling. Studies show it can be as effective as some laser treatments [7]. They can also be a bit more affordable compared to lasers.


Before you focus on treating scars and marks, it’s generally advised to first deal with your active acne. Even if you get rid of the marks and scars, they’ll just be back when your active acne decides to leave them behind.

Plus, some treatments for scars and marks tend to aggravate acne. So, you’re less likely to get the results you want from your scars or marks treatments if you still have active acne.

With that, thanks for reading and I hope we meet again soon!

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