Skin grafts and skin flaps

A skin graft or a skin flap is when skin is taken from another part of the body to cover the area where the skin cancer was removed.

About skin grafts and skin flaps for skin cancer

If the skin cancer is large or has spread, a larger area of skin may need to be removed. You may need skin graft surgery or, less commonly, skin flap surgery to cover the wound.

What is a skin graft?

A skin graft is a healthy layer of skin that is taken from another part of the body. The layer of skin is then placed over the area where the skin cancer was removed. The place where the skin is taken from is called the donor site. The place where it is moved to is called the grafted area. The amount of skin that is taken depends on the size of the area to be covered. Your doctor or specialist nurse will tell you more about this.

The donor site

You will have a dressing on the donor site to protect it from infection. How long the site takes to heal will vary. It can depend on how much skin was removed and where it was taken from. 

It may take up to 2 weeks to heal, but it can take longer. Your surgeon will discuss this with you. 

The donor site can often feel more uncomfortable than the grafted area. You may need to take regular pain relief for a while.

The grafted area

The graft may be stapled, stitched or glued in place. Sometimes it may simply be laid onto the area. Your surgeon will discuss this with you. 

You will have a dressing over the area. This will be left in place while the graft heals. As the skin graft heals, it will connect to the surrounding blood supply. This usually takes 5 to 7 days. The area will look red and swollen to begin with. But eventually it will fully heal, and the redness will fade.

After skin graft surgery

After a skin graft, you can usually go home on the same day. But some people need to have a short stay in hospital. This depends on where the graft is on the body and how big it is.

Try to rest for the first couple of weeks after surgery. You will need to allow time for the graft to heal properly. The grafted area will be quite fragile to begin with. It is important not to put pressure on it or rub or brush against it. You may need to take some time off work until it has healed. If you have young children or are a carer, you may need some extra help at home until you feel able to do the things you normally do.

You may need to have your stitches removed 5 to 14 days after your operation. But you may have stitches that dissolve and do not need to be removed.

Both the grafted and donor areas will develop scars. These should gradually fade. The grafted skin may also look different from the surrounding skin. This will improve over time. Your hospital team can tell you more about what to expect.

What is a skin flap?

A skin flap is when a slightly thicker layer of skin is used. The skin is usually taken from an area very close to where the cancer has been removed. The flap is cut away but left partly connected so it still has a blood supply. It is moved to cover the wound and stitched in place. You may need to stay in hospital for a few days after skin flap surgery. The time it takes for the area to heal can vary. If you need a skin flap, your doctor can tell you more about it.

Skin flap surgery is very specialised. You may have to travel to a hospital that specialises in doing it.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our skin cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) NICE pathways: Skin Cancer Treatment overview. (updated 2020) 

    Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Sunlight exposure: risks and benefits. NICE guideline [NG34] Published:2016.

    British Journal of Dermatology. British Association of Dermatologists guidelines for the management of people with cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma. 2020.

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) Cemiplimab for treating metastatic or locally advanced cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma [TA592] Published: 07 August 2019. 

    BMJ Best Practice. Overview of Skin Cancer. (updated 2019)

    British Association of Dermatologists. Service Guidance and Standards for Mohs Micrographic Surgery (MMS). 2020.


  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Professor James Larkin, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

The language we use

We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We try to make sure our information is as clear as possible. We use plain English, avoid jargon, explain any medical words, use illustrations to explain text, and make sure important points are highlighted clearly.

We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected. Our aims are for our information to be as clear and relevant as possible for everyone.

You can read more about how we produce our information here.