How to Treat and Prevent Skin Tears

Thin, Delicate Skin Can Tear Even While You Try to Treat It

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A skin tear is a type of avulsion (an injury in which skin is torn from the body) that affects thin and fragile skin. Skin naturally gets more dry, stiff, and thin, as you age. As your skin gets weaker over time, it becomes more likely to tear.

Unlike supple skin that stretches so it doesn't break, weak skin can rip quite easily. For some people, simply bumping into a bookshelf or removing a bandage too quickly can tear their skin.

This article covers what skin tears are and who is at risk for them. It also discusses how skin tears are treated, ways you can prevent them, and when you should see your doctor if you have one.

Medical professional wrapping an injured arm with gauze

PIXOLOGICSTUDIO / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Getty Images

Skin Tear Categories

There are three categories of skin tears and a few subcategories. The difference between them is whether or not the skin flap is still viable. Or, in other words, whether or not the skin flap can be fully reattached to the body and heal (viability).

Category 1

The skin flap is complete enough for all the edges to close. This kind of skin tear might heal if you replace the skin flap where it belongs and wrap the wound with a light dressing.

Some subcategories have to do with whether or not the skin flap is viable. Category 1a means the skin flap is pink and healthy. Category 1b means the skin flap is pale, blue, or purple, which means it probably won't heal.

Category 2

The skin flap is damaged and won't close properly. In this case, the tear will not heal correctly because the flap won't reach the edges of the wound. Like above, Category 2a means the flap is pink. Category 2b means the flap is pale or blue.

Category 3

The skin flap is completely gone. This will take the longest to heal.

More important than treatment is to prevent skin tears. Very little can be done to close skin tears, especially when the skin flap is missing. If the skin is torn, treatment will center around keeping the wound clean and protecting it from further damage.

Recap

There are three main categories of skin tears. Each category describes the viability of a torn skin flap. More specifically, how healthy the piece of skin is and how likely it is to heal after it is reattached to the wound.

Risk Factors

Skin tears become more common with age. That's because the blood vessels in your skin start to feed less moisture and nutrients to the skin tissue as the years go by.

Though skin tears can happen to anyone of any age, some people are more at risk than others. They include:

  • Elderly people, particularly those who are frail and need help moving around
  • Infants, as they are at a higher risk of falling or bumping into objects
  • People with impaired mobility, who may be more prone to falls and accidental injuries
  • People who have had skin tears before
  • Those who have a cognitive impairment or dementia, or who may be more likely to become agitated and injure themselves
  • Those who have chronically dry skin
  • People who have thin skin due to long-term use of certain medications, such as topical cortisone creams
  • Post-menopausal women, as decreased estrogen levels cause the skin to become more fragile

If one or more of these applies to you, try to find ways to prevent skin tears before they happen.

How to Treat a Skin Tear

There are three main goals of treatment: to prevent infection, protect the surrounding skin and tissues, and keep the area moist to support healing.

If the skin flap is still attached (categories 1 and 2), you want to try and preserve it. The skin flap should be placed as close to its original position as possible without it stretching too much.

Before you begin, wash your hands well with soap and put on gloves if they're available. Follow these steps:

  1. If the wound is bleeding, apply pressure and elevate it as much as possible.
  2. Rinse the skin tear with tap water or a saline solution. Be careful not to tear the skin worse. Do not use hydrogen peroxide or other products—water or saline is just fine.
  3. Either let the skin tear air dry or pat it dry very carefully. Do not rub it.
  4. If there is a flap of skin, gently lay it back in place or as close as possible. Do not stretch it too far or force it in any way.
  5. Cover the skin tear with a dressing that is appropriate for skin tears.

Some skin tears can be quite severe and may need a doctor's care. If you are uncomfortable with treating a skin tear yourself or notice signs of infection, see your doctor. If your doctor is not available, try an urgent care clinic.

The length of time that it takes for a skin tear to heal depends on the type of skin tear and your overall health. Most skin tears can resolve within four weeks. Chronic skin tears are those that do not heal within four weeks or that keep re-tearing.

Complications

Skin tears should be treated as soon as possible to prevent further problems. Untreated skin tears can get infected. In some cases, infection can progress to cellulitis, in which bacteria infects the wound. Infection that progresses to sepsis is life-threatening.

Improperly dressed skin tears may not heal as they should. As a result, they may easily re-tear or become chronic.

Recap

Infants and elderly people have a higher risk of skin tears because their skin is weaker. People who are at-risk of falling are more likely to get skin tears as well. If your skin tears, clean it well and dress it quickly to prevent infection.

Dressings

Several types of dressings work well for skin tears. These include film dressings such as Tegaderm and petroleum jelly gauze. If you have delicate skin or have had skin tears in the past, it might be a good idea to have one of these available just in case.

Film dressings are see-through, which allows you to watch for healing and infection without taking it off. This is very helpful with skin tears.

If the dressing gets dirty, remove it, clean the skin tear, and dress the wound again. If the skin tear shows any signs of infection, contact your doctor.

Be very careful when removing a film dressing. Make sure to pull it off in the same direction as the skin flap. If you pull it in the reverse direction, you could re-open the tear.

Prevention

There are several steps you can take to try and prevent skin tears. Ask your doctor for specific advice. These strategies may help:

Keep Your Skin Moist

The best thing you can do to prevent skin tears is to hydrate your skin. Avoid soaps that make your skin dry. At least twice per day, apply a quality moisturizer. If a certain area of your skin is extra fragile, cover it with barrier films or creams. You can also wrap the area in bandages.

Create a Safe Environment

Skin tears are most common among elderly people. They are often caused by casual accidents like bumping into furniture or a scratch from a wedding ring. Simple changes around the home can be of great help.

Keep walkways clear of clutter so you don't bump into things. Remove rugs or other items that you could trip over. Place pads on sharp edges around the house and be mindful of any rough fabrics on furniture that can scrape the skin.

Wear Protective Clothing

You can help prevent skin tears by wearing clothes that shield your delicate skin. This can be as simple as a single layer of your normal clothes. If you can, choose long pants and sleeves and long socks.

Just be sure to take care when changing your clothes. Be mindful of zippers, buttons, and other things that can grab your skin.

Eat a Balanced Diet

Keep in mind that dry skin has a higher risk of tearing. If you are dehydrated, your skin will be too. It's also vital to eat a healthy diet.

To keep your skin strong and promote healing if a skin tear occurs, don't forget to drink plenty of water. You should also fill your diet with lots of fruits and vegetables that contain vitamin C.

You can support collagen production in your skin by adding more high-protein foods to your diet, such as fish, eggs, and beans.

Avoid Adhesives

Try to avoid using adhesive bandages or medical tape unless you absolutely must. These sticky bandages can cause fragile skin to tear.

If you must dress a skin tear, wrap the wound in a petroleum-based gauze wrap that is non-adhesive. Then, secure the wrap with medical tape.

Recap

Accidents happen. But you can still take steps to prevent skin tears by keeping your skin hydrated, making your home safer, and covering your skin with long sleeves and bandages. If you do use bandages, opt for ones that are non-adhesive.

Summary

Skin tears happen when skin fully or partly rips away from the body. They are more likely to happen to people with dry, thin, and weak skin. This includes infants, though skin tears are most common in elderly people, as the skin gets more delicate with age.

You can prevent skin tears by wearing long sleeves, staying hydrated, and taking steps to avoid falls. If your skin does tear, you need to clean and dress it well to prevent infection. See your doctor right away if you notice any signs of infection or if the skin tear doesn't heal within four weeks.

A Word From Verywell

Skin tears can be very painful and some take more time to heal than others. The best way to protect against skin tears is to prevent them. If you know you are at risk, create a safer environment where you will be less likely to fall or bump into things. Take steps to strengthen and protect your skin as well. If an accident happens, try not to panic. With proper wound care, most skin tears can heal without infection or chronic re-tearing.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can I put Neosporin on a skin tear?

    Yes, Neosporin or another antibiotic cream can be used for a skin tear as long as you’re not allergic to the medication. However, don't use these if your wound was closed with a topical skin adhesive (skin glue) because they'll dissolve the adhesive. For mild tears with no infection, though, an antibiotic may not be necessary.

  • Why do older adults bruise so easily?

    Older adults tend to bruise easily because skin gets thinner as we age. so you lack the cushion you had when you were younger and even a slight bump can break blood vessels and cause a bruise. Medications such as aspirin, anticoagulants, antibiotics, and corticosteroids can also make you more prone to bruising.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Campbell KE, Baronoski S, Gloeckner M, et al. Skin tears: Prediction, prevention, assessment and managementNurse Prescribing. 2018;16(12):600-607. doi:10.12968/npre.2018.16.12.600

  4. LeBlanc K, Campbell KE, Wood E, Beeckman D. Best practice recommendations for prevention and management of skin tears in aged skin: An overviewJ Wound Ostomy Continence Nurs. 2018;45(6):540-542. doi:10.1097/WON.0000000000000481

  5. Bolke L, Schlippe G, Gerß J, Voss W. A collagen supplement improves skin hydration, elasticity, roughness, and density: results of a randomized, placebo-controlled, blind studyNutrients. 2019;11(10):2494. doi:10.3390/nu11102494

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By Rod Brouhard, EMT-P
Rod Brouhard is an emergency medical technician paramedic (EMT-P), journalist, educator, and advocate for emergency medical service providers and patients.