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A Strategy for Scars

You may think they're unsightly, but scars serve a purpose. They show that your body has repaired a wound. But while you're healing, you can help lessen scarring.

Scars form after an injury, surgery, or lengthy chronic disease such as acne. "Many people develop scars as part of the normal healing process," says Diane Madfes, M.D., a dermatologist in New York and a member of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).

Sealing a wound

Scars begin to form when your body makes extra collagen to seal a wound. Fibers of the protein collagen normally strengthen the layer of skin that lies just beneath the surface. But the extra collagen at a wound is thicker than usual, and that thickness causes the scar.

Over time, the body replaces the thick collagen with normal collagen, so the scar may fade and even vanish. Usually, though, some scarring remains.

To reduce scarring, AAD member Christopher Harmon, M.D., a dermatology instructor at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, suggests you:

  • Massage the area for three to four weeks after your injury or surgery, four times a day for five minutes. Wait until new skin has grown across the wound. "This will break up the collagen being formed and help accelerate healing," Dr. Harmon says.

  • Keep the scar out of the sun. Ultraviolet rays can darken your scar, making it more noticeable.

Studies show silicone gel sheets taped around a scar greatly decrease the chances the scar will thicken, Dr. Harmon adds. Even old scars may soften after using the sheets. You can buy these sheets at drugstores without a prescription. You also can try topical gels with a silicone base.

Keloids keep growing

One type of scar, called a keloid, "continues to grow and expands beyond the initial boundaries of the wound," Dr. Harmon says. Keloids are more common in African Americans and Asians.

If a scar troubles you, ask your doctor about removal options that include surgical and nonsurgical treatments.

Treatments offered in a doctor's office include deep chemical peels, dermabrasion and laser surgery. Dr. Harmon estimates the average cost for scar removal is $500. Since such treatment is usually considered cosmetic, health insurance and Medicare don't cover it.

"Keep in mind that no scar can be removed entirely," says Dr. Madfes. "The goal of scar removal treatment is to improve the appearance of the scar."