The Basic Facts

When you cut yourself, red blood cells and protective white blood cells in the dermis (skin's second layer), rush to the site, creating a blood clot. Cells called fibroblasts migrate there and produce collagen (skin's multipurpose protein) to repair skin. At the same time, new capillaries form to aid healing. During the next 12 months, as new skin develops, collagen and extra capillaries shrink back, and the scar fades. Sometimes, too much collagen is created; this excess is visible scar tissue.

What To Look For

Infection can impede the healing process and make scarring more likely. Call your doctor's office if you notice:

>Increasing redness, or yellow discharge.

>Pain or swelling 48 hours after the wound occurred.

>Your cut hasn't healed after 10 days.

Simple Solutions

These steps will help ensure healthy healing:

>Immediately wash a cut with soap and water, and then cover it with antibiotic ointment and a bandage (a moist wound heals twice as fast as a dry one). Repeat daily for a week.

>Use plain petroleum jelly as a covering for the second week. It will prevent hard scabs from forming (which delay healing). Silicone gel sheeting or bandages work similarly; plus the gentle pressure they exert may signal the skin to stop collagen production. Try Curad Scar Therapy Clear Pads ($20; at drugstores), which are discreet adhesive pads.

>Apply onion extract, which may have antibacterial benefits. And, though no studies prove it, it may also help reduce scars by inhibiting fibroblast function. Find it in Mederma Gel ($15; at drugstores). Apply after the wound has closed and use two to three times daily for several weeks.

EXPERT STRATEGY Dermatologists have several tools for minimizing existing scars, like cortisone shots to flatten raised scars, or fillers such as Restylane to lift sunken ones. Lasers can help both types, and are used to remove excess color that can occur on olive or darker skin. Pale scars are difficult to treat. A procedure called flip-top pigment transplantation may help: Melanin cells from healthy skin are transplanted into scars to restore color. > The bottom line "Scars shrink and lighten on their own," says Leffell, "so wait a year before seeking any professional treatment."