When a large area of skin is too damaged to heal, a skin graft may be used to protect the tissue underneath and reduce scarring. A layer of healthy skin is taken and moved to the injured area, where it is fixed in place. Skin grafts are used to treat burns, infections, large wounds, ulcers, and other significant problems that affect the skin.
There are several different types of skin graft, depending on where the donor skin is taken from:
- Autografts, where healthy skin is taken from another place on the patient’s body
- Allografts, where the donor skin is taken from another person or cadaver
- Xenografts, which are harvested from animals and are used temporarily like a dressing to cover a wound
- Synthetic grafts, which are made from non-biological materials, like silicone
In all cases, the skin graft may either be full-thickness or partial-thickness. While thicker grafts make recovery more difficult for the donor site, they heal more easily than thinner grafts.
Before skin graft surgery, you are given anesthesia so you cannot feel any pain. If using an autograft, the surgeon carefully measures and removes the skin from the donor site. Sometimes the graft is cut in a mesh-like pattern, to allow a small piece of donated skin to stretch and cover a larger area. This also helps oxygen pass through the graft. The site where the skin graft will go is cleaned well to remove any dirt, bacteria, or dead skin cells. Then the skin graft is placed and attached with stitches or staples. It is often covered with antibacterial ointment and supportive bandages for the first few days.
As the skin graft heals into its new position, new blood vessels grow to reach and support the skin. Depending on the thickness of the graft, oil glands, sweat glands, and hair follicles may also regrow. Recovery time depends on the thickness of the graft and the overall health of the skin in the grafted area, but it generally takes from two to four weeks.