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Understanding Scarification : Origins, Modern Practices, and Safe Healing

  1. Introduction

    1. What is Scarification?

      Scarification is a type of body modification in which deliberate controlled cuts or incisions are made on the surface of the skin resulting in controlled scarring.

      This procedure is often done for various cultural, ritualistic, or personal reasons.(1) They hold significant or symbolic meanings and are different from accidental and unintentional scarring.

      A scarification artist uses a scalpel, heated tools, or electric current to make cuts, burns, or brand a design into the skin.(2) It should be done under sterile conditions to minimize health risks and complications.

    2. Historical Significance and Cultural Context of Scarification

      Traditionally people have been using scarification to represent membership of a tribe or a religious group.

      According to an article published in 2017, scarification is performed for the following reasons:(1)

      • To prepare children emotionally and physically to meet the demands of adulthood.
      • To enhance the strength of physical and intellectual development.
      • As an initiation into a tribal community after giving birth to a child or after a hunting success.
      • As a symbol of dignity and social status.
      • For the treatment of certain medical ailments such as epilepsy and headache or as a traditional remedy. 

      People with darker skin choose scarification over tattoos as scarring appears more visible on darker skin tones as compared to the lighter ones.

      Scarification is also a type of body modification that is a way to label criminals, convicts, and enslaved people.

      Scarification has a rich historical legacy in various parts of the world. It serves as a tangible expression of identity, belonging, and passage through important stages of life. It is also essential to recognize the diverse meanings and practices associated with scarification within their respective cultural contexts.

  2. What are the Modern Scarification Practices

    In Western countries, scarification is done for several reasons. Body modification includes tattoos, piercings, and body branding.

    People may decide to undergo body modification for the following reasons:(3)

    • Sense of identity
    • Self-expression
    • Beautification
    • Uniqueness or individuality
    • Connecting themselves to a specific group
    • To nonconform or go against social conventions

    Scarification may also be used by a group of people to increase the sense of community, membership, and acceptance within a group.

    People of certain subcultures may practice scarification as a spiritual, transformative, or transcendent experience.(4)

    Scarification may be used by people to reclaim their body from gender or beauty thereby releasing themselves from societal pressures. A movement called Modern Primitivism was started in the 1990s, which was a subculture where individuals chose to live simpler lives. They used scarification for spiritual experience.

    Various techniques used for scarification include: 

    • Cutting: A sharp tool such as a scalpel is used by a scarification artist to cut a design into the skin. Tattoo ink is applied to the wounds to darken the marks. A liquid or a skin adhesive is used to keep the wounds open and increase the scarring.
    • Strike Branding: In this, a heated metal is applied to brand the skin to create a design.
    • Cold Branding: A piece of metal is frozen by using liquid nitrogen to burn a design onto the skin.
    • Electrocautery: A cautery tool is heated with electric current and is used to burn a design into the skin.
    • Electrosurgical Branding: A hand-held electrical device is used to burn a design onto the skin by vaporizing the skin when it touches it.
    • Abrasion: Abrasive tools are used to apply friction to remove layers of the skin.

    Some scarification artists may use techniques to increase scarring which include scraping off the scabs or irritating the wound with a substance such as iodine, citrus juice, or toothpaste to slow wound healing. This may create a more defined design.

  3. Risks and Considerations Associated with Scarification

    Scarification is a type of body modification associated with certain risks and considerations. It is therefore important to be well-informed and approach the procedure with caution.

    The risk factors include: 

    • Infection: As scarification involves the breaking of the skin, it carries the risk of infection. It is therefore important to sterilize the tools and perform the procedure in a clean environment. This may help minimize the risk.
    • Allergic Reaction: Some individuals may be allergic to the material used in scarification such as disinfectants, inks, or metal. They can discuss any known allergies with the healthcare provider beforehand.
    • Excessive Bleeding: A person can be at risk of bleeding depending on the techniques used and individual physiology. Proper training should be provided to the practitioners to minimize the risk.
    • Nerve Damage: In scarification, there may be cutting and burning of the skin. Due to this, there may be a potential risk of damaging nerves in the area.
    • Keloid Formation: Some individuals would be at risk of developing keloid scars, which are raised and thickened scars that extend beyond the original wound.(5)
    • Pain and Discomfort: Scarification is a painful procedure and the tolerance capacity of people varies. It is therefore important to have adequate pain management and communication with the practitioner.
    • Improper healing: Sometimes scarification wounds may get infected if not taken care of properly. This may lead to complications.
    • Psychological Impact: Scarification is a permanent alteration of the body and can have psychological implications as well. Individuals should carefully consider their motivations and be prepared for potential emotional responses.
    • Legal and Cultural Considerations: In some regions, scarification may be subject to legal restrictions. Also, cultural appropriation or misunderstanding of the practices can be sensitive issues.(2)

    It is important to know that scarification should be approached with careful consideration and individuals should feel free to discuss any questions and concerns with the practitioner.

  4. Recovery and Healing in Scarification

    Scarification can be a painful process. The more scarification a person has more pain is experienced. The entire process might take a few years to complete.(6)

    Proper healing of the scars needs proper aftercare to help minimize complications, promote scar formation, and reduce the risk of infection.

    The below-mentioned steps can be followed to help with recovery and healing of scarification. 

    • The scarification site should be kept clean to prevent infection, gently wash the area with mild, fragrance-free soap and warm, water. The cloth used to clean should be clean and soft.
    • The use of any harsh chemicals, lotions, or ointments should be avoided at the scarification site. The products recommended by the healthcare professional should be used.
    • The scarification site should be kept covered and protected from sunlight. The use of sunscreen should be avoided until the wound fully heals.
    • Immersing the scarification site in water, hot tubs, or swimming pools should be avoided.
    • Specific ointments are provided by the practitioner to keep the site moist.
    • The site should be checked for signs of infection including redness, swelling, warmth, or the presence of pus. If infection is suspected the doctor should be consulted immediately.
    • Engaging in any activities that put a strain on the site should be avoided. These activities include heavy lifting, vigorous exercise, and any other movement that may disrupt the wound.
    • The use of tight and abrasive clothing should be limited. One should opt for loose breathable fabrics that can allow the wound to breathe.
    • Any aftercare instruction provided by the practitioner should be followed. It may include specific recommendations tailored for individual scarification.
    • Any follow-up appointment scheduled with the practitioner should be attended as they assess the healing progress and provide further guidance if needed.
    • Scarification is a gradual process and full healing may need several weeks. It is important to be patient with the recovery process. The healing can be tracked by taking photographs as they can be useful for both the individual and the practitioner.
  5. Conclusion

    Scarification can be cutting, burning, or branding the skin to create scars in a set pattern. It has been in use by some indigenous cultures for centuries. It has also been used in Western practices as a body modification method for aesthetic or self-expression.

    Scarification includes the risk of scars, infection, and inconsistent results. It is therefore important to approach scarification with careful consideration. Safety, sanitation, and consent of the individual should be prioritized by the practitioner and the individual as well.

    Whether rooted in ancient tradition or emerging as a contemporary form of art, scarification serves as a powerful reminder of the diverse ways in which humans choose to adorn and define themselves. With understanding and respecting this practice the rich tapestry of human expression can be honored.

Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:October 4, 2023

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