What is a scar?
A scar is a natural part of the healing process. Skin scars occur when the deep, thick layer of skin (the dermis) is damaged. The worse the damage is, the worse the scar will be. Most skin scars are flat, pale and leave a trace of the original injury that caused them. The redness that often follows an injury to the skin is not a scar, and is generally not permanent. The time it takes for it to go away may, however, range from a few days to, in some serious and rare cases, a few years. Various treatments can speed up the process in serious cases.
Scars form differently based on the location of the injury on the body and the age of the person who was injured. To mend the damage, the body has to lay down new collagen fibers (a naturally occurring protein that is produced by the body). Recent research has implicated the gene osteopontin in scarring. Because the body cannot re-build the tissue exactly as it was, the new scar tissue will have a different texture and quality than the surrounding normal tissue. An injury does not become a scar until the wound has completely healed.
Two types of scars are the result of the body overproducing collagen, which causes the scar to be raised above the surrounding skin. Hypertrophic scars take the form of a red raised lump on the skin, but do not grow beyond the boundaries of the original wound, and they often improve in appearance after a few years. Keloid scars are a more serious form of scarring, because they can carry on growing indefinitely into a large, tumorous (although benign) growth.
Keloid scars can occur on anyone, but they are most common in dark-skinned people. Keloid scars can be caused by surgery, an accident, by acne or, sometimes, from body piercings. In some people, keloid scars form spontaneously. Although they can be a cosmetic problem, keloid scars are only inert masses of collagen and therefore completely harmless and non-contagious. However, they can be itchy or painful in some individuals. They tend to be most common on the shoulders and chest.
Alternately, a scar can take the form of a sunken recess in the skin, which has a pitted appearance. These are caused when underlying structures supporting the skin, such as fat or muscle, are lost. This type of scarring is commonly associated with acne, but can be caused by chickenpox, surgery or an accident.
Scars can also take the form of stretched skin. These are called striae and are caused when the skin is stretched rapidly (for instance during pregnancy, significant weight gain or adolescent growth spurts), or when skin is put under tension during the healing process, (usually near joints). This type of scar usually improves in appearance after a few years. There are many treatment options for scarring.