Do Over-the-Counter Scar Treatments Really Work?

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With summer looming, many people are anticipating the return of skimpier, skin-baring outfits by getting back into the gym. But aside from losing winter flab, there’s another concern that comes with the start of shorts season: unsightly scars.

Many consumers turn to over-the-counter treatments — the gels, creams, oils and sheets available at the local drugstore — to try to prevent or erase their scars. But a recent review of the data on these treatments by the Los Angeles Times found that most, unfortunately, don’t work. “There are a thousand wives’ tales and a whole bunch of things you can buy, but none have scientific validity to speak of,” Dr. Terence Davidson, a professor of surgery at University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, told the L.A. Times.

Indeed, many of the elixirs on the market sounds a bit like folk medicine, promising to reduce the appearance of scars with onion extracts or vitamin oils. They’re not cheap either, the L.A. Times reports, especially since you have to use them long-term; scars take six months to two years to heal.

There are few well-designed studies examining the effectiveness of scar treatments. According to the L.A. Times‘ Cathryn Delude:

The only thing really shown to help the healing process and minimize scarring, [Dr. Joseph Sobanko, a dermatological surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania Health System] says, is keeping a wound moist and covered. Most scar products do that. But there’s little evidence that they work any better than inexpensive petroleum jelly.

Studies of products like Mederma, which uses onion extract, and vitamin E oils found that they worked no better than cheaper Vaseline (presumably, other cheap oils like coconut or olive would work similarly too), while data on antibiotic ointments found that they didn’t help healing or reduce infection. Plus, antibacterial products contribute to the rise of antibiotic resistance.

The only product that appeared to have any clinical benefit was silicone gel sheets, the kind that have been used on burn victims since the 1980s. Studies suggest that the sheets help prevent new scars and soften old ones. Reported Delude:

Silicone gel sheeting seems to be the exception. Several articles reviewing 30 years of research suggest that it can speed healing and lead to thinner, softer, less red and less painful scars, depending on the study. It’s not clear what silicone itself does. But the sheets do a better job of keeping the scar covered, and that prevents water from evaporating from the skin.

Moisture is key because it lets the skin grow back evenly, says Dr. [Jessica] Wu, a Los Angeles dermatologist. “If you slice a finger open as you’re cutting your bagel in the morning, you have two edges of the wound. The new skin grows across that gap,” she explains. “If the wound dries, a scab forms between the two edges. Now the skin has to grow down and across, like it encountered a boulder. It’s likely to lead to a depressed, pitted scar.”

For more on scar treatment — including injections and plastic surgery — the full L.A. Times article here.