Conference Coverage

When – and how – to do a full-thickness graft repair



NEW YORK– Though flap reconstruction can provide elegant solutions with very good cosmesis after Mohs surgery and other excisional procedures, skin grafts provide another set of options.

Both split and full thickness grafts have a place in the dermatologist’s repertoire, but some tips and tricks can make a full thickness graft an attractive option in many instances, according to Marc Brown, MD, professor of dermatology and oncology at the University of Rochester (N.Y.).

Speaking at the summer meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology, Dr. Brown said that retrospective studies have shown that patients are highly satisfied with the cosmesis of full thickness skin grafting for reconstruction post Mohs surgery – if they’re asked after enough time has passed for the graft to mature and the dermatologist to perform some of the tweaks that are occasionally necessary. “It takes time to get to that point, but the overall satisfaction improves over time,” he said.

Dr. Marc Brown, professor of dermatology and oncology, University of Rochester (N.Y.) University of Rochester Medical Center

Dr. Marc Brown

Full thickness skin grafts may be a good option when flap coverage is suboptimal or infeasible, he said. Some other pros of opting for a full thickness graft are that better cosmesis can be achieved in certain cases, and the donor site can be sutured, allowing for quicker healing with less downtime. However, a full thickness graft is a thicker graft, with resulting high metabolic demand. To ensure good “take,” dermatologists must be mindful that the graft site has a good vascular supply. Also, he added, full thickness grafts often need thinning, and physicians shouldn’t be afraid of being aggressive.

Both to reduce unwanted bulk and to help with better graft take, subcutaneous fat should be stripped completely from the graft, Dr. Brown noted. “You should see nothing that looks yellow,” he said. Fine serrated scissors are an excellent defatting tool, and while expensive, “they’re worth the cost,” he added.

Areas to be considered for full thickness grafts include the nasal ala, the medial canthus of the eye, the upper eyelid, fingers, and the ear. Larger defects on the scalp or forehead may also be good candidates, and full thickness grafts can work well on the lower leg.

For smaller grafts – those less than 1 or 2 cm diameter – Dr. Brown said that the preauricular area can work well as a donor site for facial grafts, since there’s often extra tissue with little tension there. Patients who are worried about donor site cosmesis may prefer the postauricular area, though the result is usually very good in either case, he said. Other potential donor sites are the glabella, nasolabial area, and the eyelid.

When grafts of more than 2 cm diameter are needed, Dr. Brown said the lateral neck, the supraclavicular area, or the lateral chest area can provide a good match in color and texture to facial skin.

Other tips for surgical technique are to use an appropriately-sized nonadherent gauze pad as a template for exact graft sizing. Precision counts, said Dr. Brown: “Measure twice, cut once.”

A central basting suture can be used to hold the graft in place while getting started, and Dr. Brown often uses a bolster for grafts of less than 1 cm. “Bolsters are helpful to prevent bleeding and improve contact in larger grafts,” he added.

Sutures should be placed graft to skin – “up and under,” Dr. Brown noted. He uses rapid-absorbing chromic suture material, with silk on the outside for the tie-over bolster. It’s also important to avoid tension on the wound edge, and he advised always using a pressure bandage for 48-72 hours.

If there’s concern about blood supply when grafting over cartilage, Dr. Brown advises making a few 2-mm punch defects in the cartilage to boost blood supply and help with engraftment.

For larger grafts where hematoma formation might result in graft failure, he will place a few parallel incisions through the graft as a means of escape should there be significant bleeding. At about 1 week post procedure, the graft should be purplish-pink in color, and patients should be counseled about the appearance of the graft as healing progresses, he said.

Physicians can manage patient expectations by letting them know not to expect the best cosmesis right away. However, said Dr. Brown, if the graft remains thickened, there are lots of options. Intralesional triamcinolone injections can help with thinning, and can be used beginning about 3 months after the graft. Dermabrasion is another good option, but he likes to wait 4-6 months before performing this procedure.

With appropriate site selection, meticulous technique, and good patient communication, dermatologists can keep full thickness skin grafting in the repertoire of viable options for excellent cosmesis, and a valuable tool in their own right. “Skin grafts are not a failure of reconstruction,” Dr. Brown said.

Dr. Brown had no conflicts to disclose.

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