Can Exfoliating Make Acne Scars Worse? (Things To Know Plus Tips)

Exfoliation is one of the most effective skincare practices. It gives you that radiant skin, which in turn boosts your self-esteem. It also prevents comedones. In case you didn’t know, comedones are the leading causes of acne.

But can exfoliating make acne scars worse? Yes, it can if you do it wrong. Depending on your exfoliating routine, you may achieve the worst result just as much as you may achieve the best. In other words, it all depends on how you exfoliate.

Once you get to know the type of scar you will also know whether exfoliating will make acne scars worse. As you can see the answer to our question is very subjective. But we can get to it by understanding a few things about acne scars...

How Does Exfoliating Help With Acne Scars?

If you exfoliate regularly and properly, you can prevent acne in the first place. However, if you already had acne before, the marks are not guaranteed to fade away easily. You may experience hyperpigmentation in areas where the acne was.

Discoloration is another concern for previous victims of acne. These two leave behind acne scars. Other contributors include the building up of scar tissues and pockmarks.

You do not want your reflection in the mirror to be a constant reminder of the acne experience. If done right and with the use of appropriate products, exfoliating will help fade acne scars in the following ways:

It Soothes The Skin

When you exfoliate, you get rid of dead skin cells that normally hang around the skin. These dead cells often trap dirt, sebum (oils from the skin) and all forms of toxins from the atmosphere. 

The toxins irritate the skin causing an itchy feeling. Now when you scratch an acne scar, it causes further inflammation which then prolongs healing. To avoid this itchy feeling, exfoliation is highly recommended.

Exfoliating Hastens Cell Turnover

Cell turnover is when old and dead cells of the skin are removed to allow new ones to come to the surface. These new cells fasten the repair of scars which came about from acne breakouts. 

In addition, the new cells replace damaged tissue, healing of fade marks and blemishes. In time, your skin will be left looking radiant.

It Aids Lymphatic Drainage For Speedy Healing

There is what is called a lymphatic system underneath our skin. It is a network of vessels carrying lymph fluid. This fluid is responsible for draining toxic matter into the bloodstream for detoxification. 

The toxic matter is what prolongs the healing of acne scars. So if you’re asking yourself, “can exfoliating make acne scars worse?” the answer here is no. If done gently, the pressure applied to your skin during exfoliation stimulates your lymphatic system. 

Subsequently, the toxins which hinder the healing of the acne scar are drained faster. In no time, you will be rewarded with a glowing skin tone.

It Accelerates Healing By Boosting Blood Circulation

The motion and gentle pressure applied during exfoliation accelerate blood circulation through the vessels.

The nutrients, along with oxygen that is carried to the acne scars are crucial for the healing process. This is because in blood you find white blood cells.

The white blood cells are responsible for healing and general body immunity. So if your worry is that exfoliation might do more damage to the already unpleasant acne scars, worry not. Provided you do your exfoliation tenderly.

Exfoliation Unclogs Skin Pores

When skin pores are clogged, bacteria and purse from the acne scars remain trapped underneath the skin. Other toxic matter such as dead skin cells and oils also get stuck on hair follicles.

This blockage slows down the healing of acne scars because it prevents cell multiplication. The gentle pressure applied during exfoliation melts the sebum that holds this blockage of pores.

This melting enables purse, bacteria, dead skin cells and other toxins to fall off from the skin. This way, new cells replace the old and dead cells. Healing of acne scars is fostered this way.

Exfoliation Loosens Dead Cells’ Bonds

Dead cells are usually bonded together on the skin. Chemical exfoliants weaken these bonds and eventually dissolve them completely. When these dead cells are done away with, new ones are given a chance to come to the surface. The new cells then heal the scars left by the acne lesion. The final result is skin that is smoother than a baby’s bottom.

Chemical exfoliants are classified into various groups. The common classifications include:

  • Topical Retinoids – Under this group, you will find retinol and Retin–A
  • Beta Hydroxy Acids – In this category, you have Salicylic acid
  • Alpha Hydroxy Acids – Here, you have glycolic acid and tartaric acid and many others.

NOTE: You may be allergic to some exfoliant chemicals or their ingredients. It is important that you check the chemical composition of your exfoliation product before applying it.

Related Post: Does Dermarolling Get Rid Of Pitted Acne Scars?: Microneedling Tips

Possible Ways Exfoliating Could Make It Worse

Every good thing is capable of harm if used wrongly. Exfoliation as a technique is no exception. There are things to keep in mind when you’re considering exfoliation as a method of removing acne scars. Let’s look at some of the ways in which exfoliation can cause more harm than good.

Exfoliating Dry Skin Can Cause Skin Irritation 

This is especially true if your method of exfoliation is manual (we will later look at manual/mechanical and chemical exfoliation in detail). Most physical exfoliants eliminate dead skin cells through the use of abrasive tools. 

These may include rough-surfaced cleaning pads, gritty brushes, and facial scrubs. These can cause further inflammation of the acne scars. To prevent inflammation and irritation that comes with it, it is important to moisturize the skin with clean water first. 

After your exfoliation session, it is also crucial that you moisturize your skin with clean, cold water and hydrating cream. This will ease the sensitivity that follows skin scabbing. It will also prevent abrasions and redness of the acne scars.

You May Be Allergic To Some Chemical Exfoliants

As earlier mentioned, chemical exfoliation is another technique. You may find some compounds in these products repellant to your skin. Not only that, you may be under acne medication such as isotretinoin.

A mixture of the compounds in your medication and the chemical exfoliant may react with your skin. The result could exacerbate the irritability of your acne scars.

It could also manifest itself in other ways such as itchy skin. I advise that you consult your dermatologist before applying a chemical exfoliant.

The Wrong Exfoliation Technique Can Bring Harm

As mentioned earlier, acne scars vary in shapes and sizes. Here are examples of types of acne scars and the right exfoliation technique for each.

  • Atrophic Scars – These appear hilly/bumpy on the skin. With atrophic scars, mechanical exfoliation may further prick the spots because the abrasive part of the implement is in direct contact with the “peak” of the scar. With this, you may consider chemical exfoliants such as lactic acid.
  • Ice Pick Scars – These manifest as deep and narrow pores of around 2mm wide. Mechanical exfoliants like facial scrubs can work perfectly with these. They don’t get immediate contact with the exfoliant’s bristles and therefore, there is no risk of pricking.
  • Boxcar Scars – Similar to craters, these scars are rectangular in shape. They don’t pop above the skin. They are safe with mechanical exfoliants.


Exfoliating excessively may worsen the acne scars. Signs of over-exfoliation include puffy skin, reflecting forehead and abrasive skin. There is no prescription for exfoliating because skins vary in sensitivity. The common go – about is to let your skin recuperate. You can feel recuperation when skin hypersensitivity subsides.

Things to Avoid When Exfoliating Acne Scars

To get the most out of your exfoliating experience, there are things you need to avoid. These are the areas you need to look out for in order to prevent worsening your acne scars:

Having An Underlying Skin Condition

Besides acne scars, there are other diseases that affect the skin. Conditions such as warts and herpes simplex cause skin bumps. These bumps get filled with fluid and may burst open when the skin is exfoliated. The bursting may cause further skin infection on top of the acne scars.

Having The Wrong Product For Your Skin Type

To understand the right exfoliation product, consult your dermatologist. For example, people with highly sensitive skin may not respond well to chemical peels and products containing retinol.

If you have sensitive skin, mechanical tools such as a DIY scrub is recommended. This is because you are able to monitor the sensation that the scrub has on your skin. With that, you will easily regulate the intensity of your scrubbing.

Unhygienic Implements

Dirty exfoliation tools carry germs. An unclean sponge, for instance, maybe hazardous because it embodies germs and bacteria which may react with the chemicals in your exfoliating cream.

The same goes for an exfoliating scrub. Once these germs get into contact with your acne scars, they may cause further infections to your skin or other body parts.

Exfoliating Sunburned Skin

Sunburns increase skin sensitivity. Exfoliating sensitive skin will further irritate the acne scars. I would recommend keeping UV light if you are under exfoliation therapy.

Best Exfoliating Methods For Acne Scars

As you have probably noticed, there are two main ways of exfoliating acne scars. These are manual/mechanical exfoliation and chemical exfoliation. Did I mention that you can apply both methods simultaneously? Here’s how...

1.) Manual Exfoliating Method for Acne Scars

Because we are talking about acne-scarred skin, we need an implement that won’t prick the scars and cause bleeding. This is especially true for atrophic scars that form bumps on the skin. 

Pricking the bumpy scars can be a painful experience. This is why you might consider an object that is not extremely rough and bristled as most scrubs are. So which one do you go for?

An Exfoliation Sponge: These are best suited for all types of scars mentioned above. They are a gentler approach that won’t cause further damage to your atrophic acne scars. 

In addition, you can adjust the intensity of your rubbing to suit the sensitivity of your skin. Intensity can mostly increase with ice pick scars and boxcar scars which don’t protrude above the skin surface.

2.) Chemical Exfoliating for Acne Scars

When it comes to chemical exfoliators, it is wise to consult your dermatologist before applying any. More caution is needed when the product is an OTC (over the counter chemical).

The rule of thumb is that always check the chemical composition of the product before applying. This will help avoid allergic reactions.

Also, if you are under another medication, it is crucial that you consult a certified dermatologist to prevent reactions of the chemical compounds in the different medicines. Now, which is the safest and most effective chemical exfoliator for acne scars?

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs): This has been tested and proven to be the most effective chemical exfoliators. They work by dissolving the bonds that glue the dead skin cells together. When these bonds are broken, the skin exfoliates naturally and easily.

In addition to that, they are the least reactive exfoliation chemicals for acne scars. Look at lactic acid for example. It falls under this category and it is a chemical that you probably consume each day. That’s right. It’s there in the milk that you can’t go a day without drinking.

3.) Using a Combination of Both Manual and Chemical

Who said you can’t enjoy the best of both worlds? When it comes to skin exfoliation for acne scars, you can apply both manual and chemical techniques.

For example, you could apply your Ultraceuticals Serum on your skin in the morning. Later in the evening, you can rub the same skin with a sponge, water and antiseptic.

Something to keep in mind: when combining chemical exfoliants with a manual tool, consider a gentle rubbing. The most effective manual tool for this is a sponge. This prevents chemicals from finding their way into the bloodstream and intoxicating other body parts.

Related Post: Can Rosehip Oil Help With Pitted Acne Scars?

How To Exfoliate Acne Scars Without Making It Worse

Another reason why exfoliating can make acne scars worse is if you don’t take the right precautions. Here is a list of things to consider to prevent your acne scars from worsening after exfoliating.

  • Exfoliate Moderately – Over-exfoliation causes stinging of the acne scars.
  • Do Not Exfoliate Sunburns – This will cause an abrasive skin especially on the scarred spots.
  • Switch Your Scrubs – This should be done according to skin sensitivity. During summer, the skin may be highly sensitive. Switch to a softer scrub.
  • Use a Chemical You Are Compatible With – A chemical reaction may harm the scars more.
  • Do Not Exfoliate With Underlying Skin Conditions – Diseases such as warts cause fluid-filled pimples on the skin. Exfoliation may burst open these pimples and cause further infection.
  • Always Sterilize Your Exfoliating Equipment – An unhygienic DIY scrub carries bacteria which may lead to further infections.
  • Moisturize Your Skin Before and After Exfoliation – A dry skin will cause friction when exfoliated.
  • Switch Your Tools – You might consider switching regularly from scrubs to sponges and even chemicals.
  • Understand Your Skin – A dermatologist can help you understand your skin composition, texture, and sensitivity. This will guide your exfoliation choices to heal your acne scars.
  • Understand Your Chemicals’ Strength – Some skin tones require stronger chemicals for effective acne scar removal.

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