Acne Scar vs. Hyperpigmentation

“Understanding the difference between acne scars and hyperpigmentation can help you fade your dark spots faster.”

  • Shani Darden, Esthetician

Whether I hear the question online or in my studio, I’m often asked if there is a difference between acne scarring and hyperpigmentation. Today, I’ll explain the difference, what causes both, and what you can do about them. 

I’ll also talk about what you can do to prevent both and give you some recommendations for skincare that will help protect your skin and increase its radiance. 

What’s the Difference Between Acne Scars and Hyperpigmentation?

First, let’s talk about the difference between acne scars and hyperpigmentation. Acne scars affect the texture and tone of your skin. This means the smooth, supple texture of your skin is disrupted and likely has a slightly darker shade than the rest of your face. 

Hyperpigmentation doesn’t usually affect skin texture, but it does interfere with skin tone. Hyperpigmentation refers to flat spots or areas on the skin that are darker than the rest of your skin. 

Bottom line: acne scars can disrupt skin texture and tone, while hyperpigmentation generally only disrupts skin tone. Both can make you feel uncomfortable or unhappy with your own skin. 

What Should I Know About Acne Scars?

It’s bad enough to deal with blemishes, but once you get rid of them, you can sometimes be left with a permanent reminder of what it was like to live with breakouts. Acne scars can range from small indentations in the skin to entire areas covered with deep pockmarks. 

What Are Acne Scars?

Acne scars are permanent changes in the skin’s texture left behind after a particularly bad breakout. I see the most acne scars in people who have dealt with inflammatory, cystic acne or acne that has gone untreated for a long time. 

These can look like divots, pockmarks, or swollen, flesh-colored bumps. Sometimes they also appear darker than the rest of the surrounding skin.

What Causes Acne Scars?

The scars that remain after a blemish is gone are caused by inflammation underneath the skin's surface. Your body responds to a cystic bump like a threat, and that creates trauma to the skin. 

It probably goes without saying that picking, popping, and squeezing will only cause more trauma and make a potential scar bigger, so don’t do it. If you have a large blemish, an esthetician can use high-frequency and blue LED light to help shrink it. 

However, just avoiding touching your skin may not prevent the scar from forming on its own. If the blemish is big enough, a scar may be inevitable. 

Can You Prevent Acne Scars?

You can take measures to clear your skin and prevent acne, but it may not be possible to prevent a scar, especially if you have cystic acne. However, I have several recommendations for getting your skin in the best possible shape to avoid getting a scar. 

  • Cleanse gently. I always remind my clients that blemish-prone skin is usually sensitive skin. Avoid using harsh cleansers that can strip your skin of its natural moisture and interfere with its pH balance. 

Instead, use cleansers that contain a mild exfoliating agent, like salicylic acid, and soothing ingredients, like aloe). I also love a cleanser that includes a probiotic, like lactococcus ferment, to help re-establish a strong skin barrier. I always recommend my Cleansing Serum to start out your morning and evening skincare routine.

  • Treat. Clearing your skin is a two-part process with one-part products and two parts patience. Two of the most effective skin-clarifying ingredients are retinol, salicylic acid, and lactic acid. I love how these ingredients work together to support cell turnover and gently exfoliate dead skin cells, eliminating congested pores. 

  • Use an oil-free moisturizer, but use a moisturizer. So many people with blemish-prone skin avoid moisturizer on the premise it could cause a breakout. Dehydrated skin often leads to higher levels of sebum production, which can cause even more breakouts

The best practice is to use an oil-free, non-comedogenic moisturizer with hyaluronic acid to keep skin hydrated without clogging pores

Be patient and give your products time to work. If you notice skin purging (a few breakouts after you begin using certain skincare products), that can be normal and should go away quickly. 

How Can I Get Rid of Acne Scars?

Getting rid of acne scars depends on the severity of the scar and how quickly you want results. While over-the-counter treatments can definitely help diminish their appearance, some people may want more immediate results for deep, defined pockmark-type scars.

For at-home treatment of uneven skin tone, I use LED light therapy in my studio, but you can also use this powerful solution at home with my Déesse PRO LED Light Mask. Red, blue, and near-infrared light help reduce breakouts and also stimulates a cellular response to further increase cell turnover. It’s a powerful, non-invasive way to get results.

For severe scars and pockmarks, I always suggest a combination of skincare and in-studio treatments, which will provide faster results.

What Should I Know About Hyperpigmentation?

Dark spots on your skin can come from numerous different sources, all of which are some type of hyperpigmentation. Hyperpigmentation just means that the melanin in your skin (which gives it its color) has collected and concentrated in one area, forming a darker color than the skin around it. 

What Is Hyperpigmentation?

The melanin in your skin gives it its color and tone, but it also acts as the first line of defense when something threatens it. An example of this is how the skin tans and burns in the sun. The skin, sensing a threat (the sun), increases melanin production to protect it. 

Dark spots can look like individual, irregularly shaped, flat spots or entire areas that are discolored. 

What Types of Hyperpigmentation Are There?

There are three main types of hyperpigmentation: melasma, sun spots, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation


These spots often appear on the face and chest and are very common during pregnancy. Changes in hormones are thought to be the cause of melasma, and sometimes, the skin returns to normal (i.e. the spot goes away) once the hormonal shift is over. 

A good example of melasma is the “pregnancy mask.” Pregnant women sometimes get dark patches of skin on the cheeks, forehead, and chest during pregnancy, but it usually goes away once their babies are born. 

Another factor that can influence melasma is birth control. If you notice changes in your skin once you start a hormonal birth control pill, contact your doctor to find out if there are different options. 

Sun Spots

Sun spots are sometimes also called liver spots, age spots, and solar lentigines. These spots tend to appear in adulthood, although they happen due to sun exposure dating back to childhood.

When your skin is exposed to UVA and UVB rays without sunscreen, its response is to make additional melanin to protect itself. Melanin is your skin’s natural sunblock, but it’s a thin veil of coverage, which is why skin eventually burns. 

Even one sunburn can lead to sunspots. Sunspots appear in areas that have had the most sun exposure, like the face, hands, arms, legs, chest, and back. It’s crucial to have a full body scan each year to determine if any of the spots you have are precancerous. Once you’re marked safe, you can take measures to gently fade the existing spots you have and prevent new ones from forming. 

Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation

Trauma to the skin can also leave it with a darker area or spot. Burns, cuts, wounds, and acne can leave your skin with a dark spot because the trauma triggers excess melanin production. These spots usually fade on their own over time, but if the spot is more severe, you can aid in the process. 

Can You Prevent Hyperpigmentation?

You can prevent some occurrences of hyperpigmentation. Wearing hydrating sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher can prevent you from getting additional sun damage. Not picking or popping bumps on your skin can also help you avoid creating a scar from a blemish

I also recommend my clients use products that contain antioxidants. Sun damage happens because of oxidative stress in the skin. Free radicals from the sun destroy skin cells and change the way they replicate. Antioxidants, like vitamin C, act like shields that protect your cells from free radicals and reduce your likelihood of developing skin damage. 

Hormone-related hyperpigmentation can’t really be prevented, but if the dark spot remains after the hormonal shift is long past, you can take steps to fade it. 

How Can I Get Rid of Dark Spots?

Some types of pigmentation will need more extensive, in-studio therapy by an esthetician or dermatologist. It’s also important to remember that the method you use to fade dark spots should fall in line with your expectations. 

For instance, if you want to fade a sun spot on your cheek before your wedding in two months, I would suggest you opt for an in-studio treatment like a peelor light therapy sessions. If you’ve got more time, an at-home product may be able to help you fade certain spots and restore your skin tone

For at-home spot reduction, I recommend:

  • A combination of retinol and lactic acid. These two plant-based acids work together to help renew and restore skin tone. Retinol supports proper cell turnover, helping you make new skin, and lactic acid gently exfoliates dead skin on the epidermis to reveal younger, more radiant, and more balanced skin. You can find lactic acid in my Triple Acid Signature Peel alongside glycolic acid, bentonite clay, and more.

  • Antioxidants. In addition to sunscreen, using products that are loaded with quality antioxidants will help keep your skin protected and naturally brighten the skin. Vitamin C, is an excellent ingredient that brightens the skin and protects it from further damage, so you get the benefit of restoring your skin and protecting it at the same time. 

  • Light therapy. The same light therapy techniques I use in my studio can help with dark spots. I recommend daily use of my Déesse PRO LED Light Mask to help smooth, stimulate, and support your skin.

Just like with acne scars, a combination of skincare and in-studio treatment is my solution for dark spots that won’t budge or for removing them as quickly as possible. 

Your Best Skin: It’s Possible

Fading scars and spots is only the beginning. It’s entirely possible for you to have healthy, radiant, and balanced skin. The right products and routines can restore your skin’s microbiome and keep its natural moisture balance regulated. 

For more questions about skincare answered, check out my Skin Tips or ask a question on social media. 


Acne scars: What's the best treatment? | Mayo Clinic 

Will Acne Scars Fade Over Time? | Houston Methodist On Health 

The Anti-Acne Effect of Near-Infrared Low-Level Laser Therapy | PMC 

Age Spots | Mayo 

Postinflammatory Hyperpigmentation - StatPearls | NCBI Bookshelf