Can Retinoids Help Get Rid Of Acne Scars? It's Complicated

Acne is often viewed as an unfortunate part of growing up, as it typically makes its debut during puberty. But this skin condition can last well into adulthood. If you've always assumed that you were alone in this camp, you might feel better knowing that acne can occur at any stage of life — in fact, the American Academy of Dermatology states that acne is becoming more prevalent in adults, impacting up to 15% of women. With these unsightly blemishes occasionally come scars, which can be difficult to hide. If you've tried to get rid of acne scars to no avail, you may have heard retinoids described as a solution. But do they really work?

A 2015 study published in the Indian Dermatology Online Journal looked at how retinoic acid could improve the appearance of acne scars. After a 12 week treatment period, there was an observable improvement in the scars of participants who used topical retinoic acid. But does this mean it can work for you? There's no short answer regarding whether or not retinoids are the one-size-fits-all solution you've dreamt of for your acne scars. While some research, such as this study, suggests that they can have an impact, results may differ due to your specific scars. "There are many benefits to using a retinoid, but it's important to understand that they can't do everything," board-certified dermatologist Dr. Dustin Portela told Marie Claire. What does this mean for you? We're here to find out.

Why retinoids may not work on your acne scars

To understand what may or may not reduce the appearance of acne scars, it can be helpful to define these scars. In fact, knowing your specific type of acne scarring can be key to helping you find the right treatment. "Acne scars are changes in the skin's texture following acne lesions," Dr. Dustin Portela told Marie Claire. "They occur when the acne lesion is deep enough, or the inflammatory response is great enough, to disrupt collagen in the dermis." Acne scars are usually categorized as either atrophic (indented) or hypertrophic (raised). A dermatologist can help you identify other characteristics of your scars based on their size and depth.

Retinoids have grown in popularity as a form of acne scar treatment because they can encourage cell turnover in the skin. As an added bonus, they can also encourage the skin to rebuild collagen, which has the potential to dull the appearance of scars — but Dr. Portela notes that this is usually only the case with shallow scars. "Deeper ice-pick scars, or broad boxcar style scars probably won't show much improvement even with continued use of retinoids," the dermatologist told the publication. You don't have to rule out this treatment altogether, however, if you're willing to discuss your options with a doctor. Depending on your scars, a prescription-grade treatment might be more ideal.

Why your acne scars may require prescription-grade retinoids

If you're dedicated to trying retinoids as a form of treatment for your acne scars, but you believe over-the-counter products may be ineffective, a prescription might be necessary. However, you'll need to speak to a dermatologist who can examine your scars and explain the risks to you prior to providing a prescription. A prescription-grade retinoid typically has a more concentrated amount of retinol than what you may find over-the-counter. It gets to work as soon as it touches your skin, while gentler over-the-counter products with less concentrated active ingredients can take some time to make an impact.

Whether you decide to use a prescription-strength retinoid product or an over-the-counter treatment on your acne scars, it's worth noting that there may be side effects. Your dermatologist can explain them to you in-depth, but some of the most common include dryness, irritation, itchiness, and redness. Retinoids can also make your skin more sensitive to the sun, meaning you'll need to cover up while outdoors if you experience any side effects and be diligent about sunscreen.

The side effects associated with retinoid usage typically subside once your skin gets used to the ingredient. This can take anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks, but contact your dermatologist if you have any concerns while trying this treatment.