A skin graft surgery is the removal and transplantation of healthy skin from one area of the body to another area. It is done to replace the skin in an area where the skin has been severely damaged. The source (donor site) most commonly used for skin grafts include the lateral thigh, buttocks, below the collarbone, in front of and behind the ear, and the upper arm.

The use of your own skin as the source area is called an autograft. If there is not enough skin on the body to provide graft coverage, skin may be harvested from outside sources. These alternate sources are only meant for temporary use until your own skin grows back. Three common options are:

  1. Allograft—skin taken from another human source, such as a cadaver
  2. Xenograft—skin taken from an animal source
  3. Synthetic tissue

Reasons for Procedure

Skin grafts are done to:

  • Promote healing of:
  • Reconstruct skin removed during surgery, such as following skin cancer or tumor removal, or for a serious skin infection

A successful skin graft will result in transplanted skin adhering and growing into the recipient area. Cosmetic results may vary, based on factors such as the type of skin graft used and the recipient site.

Possible Complications

Problems from the procedure are rare, but all procedures have some risk. Your doctor will review potential problems, like:

  • Bleeding
  • Graft failure
  • Infection at either the donor or recipient site
  • Poor healing
  • Increased or decreased sensation at the recipient site
  • Hair may not grow on recipient site
  • Graft tissue contracts, interfering with limb movement
  • Scarring
  • A collection of blood outside of a vessel, known as a hematoma
  • Differences in skin coloration

Factors that may increase the risk of complications include:

  • Age—newborns, infants, or adults aged 60 years and older
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Poor overall health
  • Use of certain medications

What to Expect

Prior to Procedure

The wound will be cleaned with an antiseptic.


Depending on the surgery, you may receive:

  • Local anesthesia—the immediate area is numbed
  • Regional anesthesia—a large area of your body will be numbed, but you will be awake
  • General anesthesia—you will be asleep

Description of Procedure

The wound will be measured. A pattern of the wound will be traced and outlined over the donor site. The donor tissue will be removed with a scalpel or special harvesting machine.

There are 3 main types of skin graft techniques:

  1. Split-thickness graft—This is the removal of the top layer of skin (epidermis) and part of the middle layer (dermis). This type of graft allows the source site to heal more quickly. The graft is more fragile. There may be color differences. This type of graft may be meshed. Multiple controlled holes are placed in the graft, giving it a mesh appearance. The mesh allows fluid to leak out from the underlying tissue bed. The meshed skin will be able to spread out over a much larger area of injury.
  2. Full-thickness graft—This is the removal and transfer of the entire thickness of the skin (epidermis and dermis). Although this type of graft requires stitches to heal the donor site, the final outcome is usually better. Full-thickness grafts are usually recommended for areas where cosmetic appearance is important, such as the face. Because of the need to close the donor site with stitches, the use of full-thickness skin grafts is limited by size and source site.
  3. Composite grafts—This is a combination of skin and fat, skin and cartilage, or the middle layer of skin and fat. It is used in areas that require three-dimensionality, such as the nose. Composite grafts are often removed from the ear.

The graft will be placed on the damaged site. It will be fastened with stitches or staples.

A pressure bandage will be applied over the area. A wound vacuum-assisted closure (VAC) may be placed for the first 3-5 days. This device has suction and is used to control drainage. Initially, the graft will survive on oxygen and nutrients from the underlying tissue. Within 48 hours, new blood vessels begin to grow. New cells will grow from the graft to cover the damaged area with new skin.

Skin Graft
A split-thickness graft is fastened to the damaged site.
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How Long Will It Take?

This varies, depending on the size of the graft and extent and severity of the injury.

How Much Will It Hurt?

Harvesting skin grafts can be painful. Anesthesia will prevent pain during surgery. Pain and discomfort after the procedure can be managed with medications.

Average Hospital Stay

This varies depending on the reason for the graft, the size of the graft, as well as other care that is needed. For example, recovery from a burn or accident may take longer.

Postoperative Care

When you get home, you will need to:

  • Keep the recipient site clean and dry.
  • Avoid all trauma to the recipient site.
  • Keep the recipient site from periods of prolonged sunlight.
  • Inspect the site for healing and good circulation, as shown by healthy pink coloration.
  • Follow instructions given for bandaging the grafted area. This will provide the area with appropriate support during the healing process. It will also help to prevent contractures that cause intense tightening even after healing is complete.

Call Your Doctor

It is important for you to monitor your recovery after you leave the hospital. Alert your doctor to any problems right away. If any of the following occur, call your doctor:

  • Signs of infection, including fever and chills
  • Redness, swelling, increasing pain, excessive bleeding, or discharge from the wounds
  • Headache, muscle aches, lightheadedness, or general ill feeling
  • Cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, or severe nausea or vomiting
  • New or unexpected symptoms

If you think you have an emergency, call for emergency medical services right away.

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