While emotional scars can be just as permanent as physical blemishes, the lasting impact of elementary school picture day isn't as regularly visible as those marks from last year's ACL surgery. Know that if you have a scar (or multiple) you can totally let 'er shine in all its glory (after all that C-section scar proves you're a badass parent!), but it's also perfectly acceptable if you want to take steps to lessen their appearance. As with everything having to do with your body, whether or not you choose to embrace your "badges" ala Amy Schumer or smear it with one of the best scar creams is up to you.
If you're looking for tips to reduce the appearance or texture of scars, over-the-counter options such as scar creams, silicone scar gels, and gel sheets, can help make your marks flatter and less visible. But first, you need to give the area time to heal. How much time, exactly? That depends on the size, location, and type of injury as well as the individual (among many other factors). For example, it might take longer for the skin to grow over a wound (thereby forming a scar) caused by surgery than it would for more surface-level injury from acne. Once the scar has formed and there are no "open wounds" (i.e. any stitches have been removed, new skin has formed, etc.), then you can start to consider treatment options, says Sandy Skotnicki, M.D., a dermatologist and author of Beyond Soap. Silicone sheets, for example, help as the scar is healing to prevent thickness and redness, she says.
You also want to make sure to cautious when it comes to sun protection, especially in the first year after you get the scar, says Suzan Obagi, M.D., associate professor of dermatology and plastic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "Sun exposure soon after the injury can result in additional discoloration that can last for about 18 months," she explains.
But if you didn't stick to an OTC scar-reducing regimen or weren't able to reduce sun exposure, the scar might still heal with significant discoloration and thickness, as some scars are exceptionally challenging to treat. In this case, you might have more success with an in-office treatment, such as dermastamping, Fraxel laser, or intense pulsed light (IPL) treatments, says Dr. Skotnicki. (Here's a more in-depth look at in-office treatments commonly used for treating scars.)
If you do want to try treating your marks at home, you can easily score a scar cream or gel at your local drugstore. Not sure what to look for? "Most of the science for scar recovery points to silicone," says Dr. Skotnicki. (ICYDK, silicones are a type of material that can act as an emollient (think: seal in moisture) as well as a lubricant when it comes to cosmetics.) Many studies have shown silicone gel to significantly reduce the pigmentation and height of scars. And while there are multiple theories as to why silicones might be so effective in making a scar less noticeable, a likely explanation is that they help to create an occlusive barrier over the wound, preventing moisture loss, according to an article in Advances In Wound Care.
This moisture barrier is so important for scar healing because no matter the cause of the wound — be it a burn or a blemish — the uppermost layer of your skin becomes compromised, allowing for an abnormally high amount of moisture loss. The dehydration in the area triggers cells called keratinocytes to signal to other cells (fibroblasts) to create and release collagen. This natural process is responsible for the way that scars look — collagen production is a good thing, but when it comes to healing deep wounds, your body's instinct is to work quickly. Those fibroblasts arrange collagen fibers parallel to each other rather than in a lattice formation as in healthy skin, and this creates stiff, weak tissue. The application of silicone gels might help prevent the moisture loss that sets off this excess collagen formation that ultimately results in more noticeable scarring, often keloid scars.
You may want to try a silicone gel or sheet rather than a scar cream, says Dr. Obagi. In general, gels penetrate better into scar tissue than creams, she says. Dr. Obagi notes that a month in, you can also start to incorporate a retinoid nightly to help make your scar less noticeable. Retinoids can be useful in helping to fade the discoloration that accompanies scarring. For those who want to incorporate a retinoid product, Dr. Obagi tends to recommend going with cream-based retinol instead of a gel formula to avoid irritation. These products won't necessarily be labeled as "scar creams" since a lot of people use retinoids with other intended outcomes, such as preventing blemishes or minimizing the appearance of wrinkles.
No matter what avenue you choose for your scar care, know that "nothing can completely get rid of a scar," says Dr. Skotnicki. "If you cut into the deeper layers of the skin (into the dermis) you will have a permanent result. The best you can hope for is a thin white scar, but it will always be there." (Related: What's a Keloid Scar and How Do You Get Rid of One?)
Not sure which product to pick for your wound? Here, a roundup of the best scar creams and gels, according to Drs. Obagi and Skotnicki.
Featuring a roller applicator for smooth smearing, this affordable scar gel contains silicones and nothing else. It's intended for use on old or new scars, meaning you can start using it soon after injury or years later. It works on marks from surgeries, cosmetic procedures, injuries, burns, or acne and should be applied daily for up to 90 days. (Related: This Photographer Is Destigmatizing Scars By Sharing the Stories Behind Them)
The same brand also makes silicone scar sheets. To use one, wash and dry the scar area then stick a sheet on your body just like a bandaid. (Pro tip: Cut a piece of the silicone sheet to best fit your scar to avoid wasting product.) These silicone scar sheets are meant to be worn for at least 12 hours each day over the course of 60 to 90 days for best results, water-resistant, and reusable for seven to 10 uses.
This scar gel from SkinMedica contains dimethicone (a silicone) and centelline, which comes from the herb Centella asiatica, says Dr. Skotnicki. "Several studies have shown the topical application can result in a decrease in stretch marks and aid in scar recovery by limiting inflammation and promoting collagen production." The role of inflammation in wound healing is under debate, but some research has associated minimal inflammation with minimal scar formation, according to an article in Advances In Wound Care. This scar gel is meant to be used on red or pink scars (this tends to be newer scars) twice a day, continuing use until the scar appears flat and sans redness.
Want to try adding a retinoid product to your scar care routine? Your derm might recommend a prescription retinoid or suggest starting with one of the many OTC versions. For the latter, Dr. Obagi suggests the RETIVANCE Skin Rejuvenating Complex from her own line. It incorporates retinaldehyde, an ingredient that's gentler than other retinoids, she notes. (See also: The Best Retinol Products for Every Skin Type, According to Top Derms)