Scarification is the process of cutting or burning permanent artistic designs into the flesh for cosmetic purposes using scalpels, electrocautery pens or other implements. Properly performed scarification pieces can look great on anyone regardless of their skin tone. However, those with darker skin pigments may be more satisfied with the finished look of scarification designs than they would be with tattoos, since scarification pieces tend to stand out more against darker skin than tattoos.
If you're considering getting scarified or have recently undergone a scarification procedure, it's important to brush up on proper scarification aftercare to ensure your new body art heals fully and well. This scarification aftercare guide will teach you what you should know before you get scarified, how to care for your scarification piece during the healing process, possible complications that may arise and how to address them, and more.
What You Should Know Before Getting Scarified
Since scarification is a more extreme form of permanent body modification, it's a good idea to learn all you can about the process, healing, potential complications, and how to find a reputable artist before you set an appointment to get scarified. You should also pick a design that you're passionate about--one that's meaningful to you now and that you're confident you'll still love years from now.
People tend to think of scarification as being performed primarily with scalpels and other cutting instruments, but human branding and abrasion are also classified as scarification procedures. Cutting and electrosurgical branding (a.k.a. laser branding) are two of the most commonly-used scarification methods in the western world, because they tend to yield the best cosmetic results.
Not every scarification artist is well versed in all scarification methods, so if you're interested in having scarification performed a certain way, you'll have to do your homework to find a reputable artist who uses your preferred method. You can learn about each scarification method in the sections below to help you decide which method might be best for you, but you should also talk to your chosen scarification artist and be open to his or her suggestions about the best way to implement your scarification design.
- Cutting is the process of cutting designs into the skin using a scalpel or other sharp instrument. This is a cosmetic procedure that should not be confused with self-mutilation, or cutting for the purpose of self harm. Cutting may be combined with other tools to create scarification pieces. Sometimes tattoo ink is rubbed into scarification wounds to darken a design. A wound can also be filled with liquid skin adhesive to hold the wound open and encourage more significant scarring. In Africa and some other tribal cultures, cut scarification wounds are often packed with clay or ash to create significant hypertrophic scars, but the packing method is less common in western civilization due to sanitation concerns. Sometimes the skin within a cut design is peeled away to enhance the image, but skinning can result in scarification pieces with an inconsistent texture. To create larger scarification pieces or designs with varied degrees of shading, some artists use a cutting method known as hatching that's sort of like sketching, but with a scalpel.
- Strike Branding is the process of using a heated piece of metal to press a design into someone's skin with a single application, the way livestock are frequently branded. Strike branding isn't an ideal method for creating permanent body art, because it isn't as precise as other scarification methods. The design can spread greatly during the healing process, too. This option is not recommended for curvier parts of the body. If you choose this method, the results will be better if your artist uses multi-strike branding, which is the process of applying heated metal to the skin in stages to create a design rather than applying an entire design with a single strike.
- Cold Branding is the process of freezing a metal object so that it will burn a design into the skin in the same manner that strike branding would, but this method requires the use of a tool like liquid nitrogen to charge the branding iron rather than heat or flame. Hair usually grows back white over cold branded skin, and this form of branding is less likely to cause keloids to develop than strike branding is.
- Cautery Branding is the process of burning an artistic design into a person's skin using a thermal cautery tool. This method tends to yield better long-term results than single- or multi-strike branding.
- Electrosurgical Branding is the process of burning designs into the skin with a hand-held electrical device that generates electric sparks that essentially vaporize the skin on contact. This type of branding is also referred to as laser branding even though there's typically no medical laser involved in the process. Electrosurgical branding is a very precise scarification method that tends to be less damaging to surrounding tissue than traditional branding, and this method results in a quicker and less painful healing process.
- Abrasion is the process of creating a scarification design by abrading the skin with an inkless tattoo machine, sandpaper or other devices that remove skin in layers with friction.
Finding a Scarification Artist
Before getting scarified, it's important to carefully research scarification artists to find one who's experienced and has a good reputation. Since this form of body modification isn't as prevalent as tattoos and piercings are, you may have to travel a distance to see a reputable scarification artist, but it will be worth the effort if you do. Start your search by checking out local tattoo and piercing shops to see if any studios in your area employ a scarification artist or a piercer who also performs scarification. If you can't find anyone locally, expand your search to include scarification artists in your state or surrounding states. Alternatively, you can look for traveling scarification artists who might be participating in upcoming body modification shows in your area.
Once you find a few candidates, you should look through their portfolios, paying particularly close attention to pictures of fully healed scarification pieces they've done to confirm that they do quality work that heals well. You can also look for artist reviews and talk to our online community members through our forum to see if anyone recommends the artists you're considering. Narrow your choices down to the top two artists who you feel perform the best scarification work, and then talk to them before making your final decision. Choose the scarification artist whose work you like best, who comes most highly recommended, and who can speak to you about the scarification process and aftercare in an educated manner.
Amplifying Scarification Designs
There are a few different methods you and your artist can utilize to achieve the most pronounced scarification design. The scarification method used will play a roll, so talk to your artist about his or her preferred methods before s/he starts working on your scarification piece. Cutting, cautery branding and electrosurgical branding tend to yield the best results. If your chosen artist prefers a different method, be sure you like the way their healed work looks before proceeding.
Depending on the scarification method your artist uses, s/he may be able to fill your scarification design with something like DermaBond liquid skin adhesive to hold the wounds open and generate more pronounced hypertrophic scarring. You can also use an irritant like toasted sesame oil or antibiotic ointment mixed with a small amount of granulated sugar on your scarification piece at home during the first 4-10 days of the healing process to generate a more significant healed scarification design. Your artist will be able to recommend the best method for irritating your scarification piece, if s/he feels you should use one at all. If you do use an irritant at the appropriate stage, you should always work it into your scarification design in the same direction in which the cuts or burns were created to prevent uneven scarring. For the first 7-10 days after getting scarified, you should also wrap your scarification piece with plastic wrap like Precision Medical Cling Film Wrap and seal it off with medical tape after cleaning your wounds. This will trap in moisture, keep the wound deprived of oxygen, and slow down the healing process for optimal results. Read our Scarification Aftercare Tips below for additional suggestions on caring for a new scarification piece.
Warnings & Potential Complications
Since scarification is practiced by scarification artists rather than medical personnel, only a topical anesthetic can be used to dull the pain of the scarification process. If you have a low pain threshold, scarification may not be the best form of body modification for you to pursue. However, applying a topical anesthetic like Dr. Numb or Derma Numb 20-30 minutes before the scarification process and repeating applications periodically throughout the process can make it much more tolerable for those with low pain thresholds.
Scarification is a risky practice, because it damages the skin and encourages recurring trauma during the early stages of the healing process to yield the best results. It's very important to work with a scarification artist who utilizes sterile tools, wears appropriate safety gear like masks and gloves, works in a clean environment, and understands human anatomy so s/he doesn't damage your skin beyond what's necessary to create your scarification piece. If your artist were to cut you too deeply or burn your tissue for too long, it could cause unfavorable visual results and possibly be a hazard to your health. You'll also have to perform religious scarification aftercare at home to minimize your chances of developing an infection and to achieve the most even hypertrophic scarring possible.
Important Note: If you know you're prone to keloid scarring or are unsure, but know that someone in your immediate family is prone to developing keloids around wounds, give extra cautious consideration to getting scarified. The scarification process is intended to generate controlled hypertrophic (raised) scars in a set pattern. Hypertrophic scars heal as fairly skin-tone scars immediately around wounds, whereas keloid scars tend to grow out of control, forming lumpy mounds of taut, purplish-red scars that extend well beyond the area where scarring is intended. Keloid scarring can destroy a scarification design and leave you with undesirable scars that will have to be addressed by a dermatologist using treatment methods like cryotherapy to freeze off the excess scar tissue, laser therapy to burn it off, surgical removal, or corticosteroid shots to shrink the excess scar tissue. Those prone to keloids should avoid most forms of body modification, not just scarification. (Learn more about body modification scars here.)
Scarification aftercare is very involved compared to tattoo and piercing aftercare. The way you care for a scarification piece changes as you get further into the healing process, as detailed in the sections below. There are also a few things you should do before getting scarified and consistently throughout the healing process to ensure that your scarification piece heals as well as possible.
Gather up your scarification aftercare tools before you get scarified so you don't have to worry about shopping immediately after the procedure. You'll need medical gloves (use nitrile gloves if you have a latex allergy or intolerance), antibacterial soap like H2Ocean's Nothing pain-relieving foam soap or Tattoo Goo's Deep Cleansing Soap, fresh paper towels or a supply of clean cotton towels, antibiotic ointment, plastic wrap like Precision Medical Cling Film Wrap, medical tape, petroleum jelly, and whatever irritant your scarification artist recommends to use at the appropriate stage in the scarification healing process. A range of irritants can be used, including toasted sesame seed oil, but it's best to use the tool your artist thinks will work best for you, if any. Make sure to store all of your scarification aftercare tools in a clean, dry place--preferably in a sealed container where they won't be exposed to potential contaminants.
As a prophylactic measure, you may want to speak to your family doctor about getting a prescription for an antibiotic that you can take during the first 7-10 days of the scarification healing process to ensure that you don't develop an infection. You should also take measures to bolster your immune system both before and after getting scarified. Consider staring a daily regimen of vitamins that includes vitamin C, zinc and a multivitamin before getting scarified, and continue taking those vitamins throughout the healing process. Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated, try to get sufficient, quality sleep, eat nutritiously, and do your best to avoid other people's germs while your scarification piece heals. Don't let anyone touch your scarification wounds without gloved, clean hands, and don't let anyone else's bodily fluids come in contact with your wounds. Change your bed linens frequently, and wear clean clothes every day. Avoid communal water like hot tubs and pools, since these areas are typically fraught with bacteria.
Don't apply cosmetics, hair products, creams or lotions to your scarification piece as it's healing. Avoid alcohol, nicotine, excessive amounts of caffeine, aspirin, and elicit drugs, as all of these things can be detrimental to the scarification healing process. Alcohol, aspirin and too much caffeine can thin your blood, making it harder for your body to form clots. Nicotine has a systemic effect that slows down your immune system and, subsequently, your body's ability to properly heal scarification wounds. If you're a smoker, try to quit or at least cut back before getting scarified. If you can't quit entirely, consider switching to an e-cigarette filled with e-juice that has a lower nicotine content. Nicotine lozenges, gum and patches are also helpful tools to use to reduce your nicotine intake while your scarification piece heals.
During each stage of the scarification healing process, you should modify your aftercare routine slightly as detailed in the sections below to get the best results. These suggestions are intended to be used as a supplement to the scarification aftercare instructions your artist provides. If any of the suggestions below conflict with the instructions your scarification artist gives you, follow your artist's instructions instead or contact your artist to discuss which method s/he thinks is best.
Immediate Post-Scarification Aftercare
Within the first 6-12 hours of getting scarified, you'll need to change your bandages. Follow these steps when you do:
- Wash your hands thoroughly with an antibacterial soap, pat them dry with a clean paper towel, and consider putting on medical gloves before touching your bandages. If anyone else helps you, they should definitely wear gloves.
- Carefully remove your bandages and throw them away.
- Fill your palm with a dollop of antibacterial soap; something like H2Ocean's Nothing pain-relieving foam soap is ideal, because it contains a numbing agent that will lessen the discomfort of washing your scarification wounds. Add a small amount of water, rub your hands together to create a lather, and gently rub the soap into your scarification wounds in the direction the cuts or burns were created to prevent uneven scarring. Never scrub your scarification wounds with brushes or loofahs, as these things can cause uneven scarring.
- Thoroughly rinse off all the soap after lathering up your scarification wounds.
- Gently pat your skin dry with clean paper towels or a fresh cotton towel. (Never re-use cotton towels before washing them.) Make sure your skin is dry before proceeding to the next step, so your bandages will stay on properly.
- Coat your scarification wounds with a thin layer of antibiotic ointment, like A&D ointment or a triple antibiotic ointment. You should apply antibiotic ointment in the same direction in which your scars were created, as you did with the soap.
- Cover your scarification wounds with a sheet of plastic wrap, like Precision Medical Cling Film Wrap, but don't wrap it around your wounds too tightly. Seal off the edges with medical tape. Bandaging your wounds in this way will keep the area under the plastic wrap moist and delay healing.
Repeat these steps twice a day for the first three days of the healing process.
Scarification Aftercare for Days 3-10
At this stage of the scarification healing process, new tissue should be developing. It's very important to continue cleaning your scarification wounds twice a day to prevent an infection as new tissue forms. Apply antibacterial soap to your wounds by hand in the direction the wounds were created. Even at this stage, you shouldn't scrub your wounds with any kind of brush or loofah, because doing so can cause uneven scarring.
After washing and drying your scarification wounds, you can begin incorporating an irritant at this point, if your artist recommends doing so. Use of an irritant will help build additional scar tissue that will make your healed scarification design more pronounced. Toasted sesame oil is a good tool, because it breaks up healing tissue while maintaining moisture. If you use toasted sesame oil, use it in place of antibiotic ointment before wrapping your scarification wounds with plastic wrap. Alternatively, you can add a small amount of sugar to antibiotic ointment or petroleum jelly for an effect that's comparable to that of toasted sesame oil. The most important thing is to apply whatever irritant you use in the same direction that your wounds were created rather than rubbing it in against the grain; doing so will help your body generate smoother, more attractive scars.
Finish each of your twice-daily cleanings by wrapping your scarification wounds with plastic wrap and sealing it off with medical tape. Remember not to wrap your wounds too tightly, though. Sealing off your scarification wounds will force your body to produce more scar tissue rather than healthy, normal skin cells.
Scarification Care After the 1st 10 Days
Ten days after getting scarified, you should discontinue use of irritants and bandages, so your wounds can dry out and begin to form scabs. Continue cleaning your wounds, but do so carefully so that you don't disrupt the scabs that form. It's best if the scabs don't crack, so move the scabbed area of your body as little as possible, avoid bending, and do whatever else you can to prevent the scabs from breaking up. Wear loosely-fitting clothing that won't press against or otherwise irritate the scabs on your scarification piece.
Within six weeks of getting a scarification piece, your body should have produced enough scar tissue to fully cover your wounds. At this point, you can enhance the scarring by scratching your scarification wounds or irritating them by hand. If you do that, try to do it consistently across your entire scarification design so the scars continue developing as evenly as possible.
Different people will develop different degrees of scarring due in large part to genetics, but you can have a positive impact on the outcome of your healed scarification piece by following the guidelines above. Where you have a scarification design applied will also impact the final outcome. It's best to avoid having scarification pieces applied to parts of the body that move constantly, like around the knees, elbows and waistline, since it will be difficult to minimize movement in these areas sufficiently enough to prevent scabs from breaking up during the healing process.
Problems During the Scarification Healing Process
Since a scarification piece is a wound, there's always a chance of developing an infection in it. As mentioned earlier, you may want to ask your family physician for a prophylactic antibiotic to take during the early days of the scarification healing process, when you'll be at the highest risk for developing an infection. If you don't take a prophylactic antibiotic, watch out for signs of infection so you can act immediately if you suspect you're developing one. Signs of infection include discharge of thick, yellowish pus instead of just lymph (a clear fluid that wounds typically excrete that dries to a whitish crust), red streaks radiating from your scarification wounds, skin that's hot to the touch, and/or fever. If you experience any combination of these symptoms, see your family doctor right away and ask if an antibiotic is needed. If one is prescribed, take the full course. You should never take just part of an antibiotic prescription, because doing so can cause an infection to come back stronger and more resistant to antibiotic intervention.
You may also experience skin discoloration around your scarification wounds, tenderness, swelling, occasional bleeding, bruising, and/or itching throughout the healing process. These are all natural reactions to trauma and wound healing. You can minimize bruising and swelling by taking acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol) instead of ibuprofen for swelling and discomfort, and by applying cold compresses to your bandaged scarification wounds. If you use an ice pack, wrap it in a clean towel before applying it to your wounds, and don't leave it on for more than 10 minutes at a time. Try not to scratch your scarification wounds directly during the first six weeks if you experience severe itchiness, as doing so may cause uneven scarring. Scratch around your wounds or lightly slap at bandaged wounds when they itch.
If you experience any deeply concerning problems, like excessive swelling or signs of infection, speak to your scarification artist. S/he may have additional suggestions for you to try to remedy the issue, or s/he may recommend that you see your family physician for medical intervention.
Learn More About Scarification
If you'd like to learn more about scarification, read our Scarification blog post. You can also read about other people's scarification experiences in our Scarification forum section. If you want to reply to any threads or post your own scarification questions for our knowledgeable moderators and experienced community members to answer, please sign up for a Painful Pleasures account. Once logged into your account, you'll also have full access to our online photo gallery, where you can view scarification pictures. If you need help navigating the forum or gallery, check out the How to Use the Forum and How to Use the Gallery articles in our Help Center.
How Do I Care for My New Scarification Piece? Article on Russfoxx.com
Scarification Article on Wikipedia.org
Scarification Blog Post on Painfulpleasures.com
Please Share Your Scarification Experiences Forum Section on Painfulpleasures.com