How Long Does it Take for Topical Scar Creams to Actually Work?

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Welcome to Ask a Beauty Editor, our new column in which Sarah Jacoby, SELF’s senior health and beauty editor, goes on the hunt to find the science-backed answers to all of your skin-care questions. You can ask Sarah a question at askabeautyeditor@self.com.

How long would it take for topical scar creams to actually make a difference in the appearance of scars? I have a lot on my legs from being active outside, but it seems like creams either barely help OR I get so frustrated with the process that I give up on the regimen too quickly.

—Kenny

Depending on how you look at it, a scar can be a physical sign that you made it through something intense—or an annoying mark that you’d prefer to slather creams on until it disappears into the void. Either way, though, it helps to know a little bit more about scars before attempting to deal with them on your own.

The first thing to know about scars is that they aren’t always what they seem. What we colloquially refer to as acne scars, for instance, aren’t always considered true scars. Those dark spots that appear after your pimples have healed are actually pigmentation changes to the skin related to inflammation (technical term: post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation), Shari Lipner, M.D., Ph.D., dermatologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, tells SELF. No topical scar treatment will really work on them because, well, they aren’t scars.

But it sounds like you’re asking specifically about scars due to injuries, which are almost certainly the real deal. In which case, I have some bad news: You’re not imagining it—those over-the-counter topical scar creams containing things like vitamin E or onion extract really don’t have much evidence behind them, Dr. Lipner says. “I don’t recommend them,” she adds.

However, she does recommend that her patients with scars use an ointment or petrolatum-based moisturizer on the area two or three times a day for months at a time (either right after it forms or whenever you start using them) as well as practice pristine sun safety (by either covering the area or using sunscreen) to avoid darkening the scar any more.

Your dermatologist can also use things like laser treatments or corticosteroid injections to help the healing process along, which are especially useful in the case of keloid scars. They might also prescribe a topical steroid or retinoid to reduce the appearance of your scars.

With scars, though, it’s essential to give them enough time to heal, which may be longer than you realize. In fact, it could take months to years for scars to look less noticeable, Dr. Lipner says. Just as with so many other things about your skin, how quickly and effectively your scars heal will vary a lot from person to person. It depends on how severe the initial injury was, how you cared for the area at the time, and the normal pigmentation of your skin (those with darker skin tend to have a harder time with hyperpigmentation).

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That said, if the scar is healed (let’s say it’s been a few years) and you’ve been using OTC scar creams for months with no luck, it might be time to try something new.

If you’re frustrated with trying to treat your scars at home, your dermatologist can help you assess how realistic your expectations are for your personal constellation of scars and the best way to fulfill them. “If you have waited a good amount of time and you’re not happy with your scars, there’s a lot we can do,” Dr. Lipner says, including laser and prescription steroid treatments.

Related:

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