Pregnancy can be one of the happiest times in a woman’s life, but the stretch marks that show up afterward are a source of frustration. The medical term for stretch marks is striae, and they look like bands or stripes on the skin.
Striae can occur in women and men, although women get them more often. When men get them, it’s usually due to gaining or losing a lot of weight over a short time. Bodybuilders are also prone to stretch marks when they gain large amounts of muscle mass quickly. Gaining muscle quickly places enough stress on the skin to cause microtears in the fabric of the skin.
What Causes Stretch Marks?
Stretch marks are the skin’s reaction to being stretched too far. They can come from an expanding belly due to pregnancy, or from a large amount of weight gain. If you stretch the skin beyond its breaking point, it forms small tears in the fibers of the skin. When the skin heals from the tears, it forms scar tissue. The scar tissue is what you see when you look at a stretch mark.
What do stretch marks look like? New stretch marks are usually red to purple in color and show up on the belly, thighs, buttocks, breasts, or upper arms. The belly is the most common site for stretch marks to appear during pregnancy. Although those nasty little marks may cause emotional distress, they’re usually not painful or a threat to health. Some women say they itch or burn slightly occasionally. As a stretch mark ages, it loses some of its red or purple pigment and turns white. Stretch marks are the easiest to treat when they’re young and still have pigment.
Pregnancy is the time when it’s easiest to develop stretch marks. Not only does skin stretch due to the growing fetus, but hormonal changes also make it easier for the skin to tear and scar. How common are stretch marks? Around 7 out of 10 women will develop stria during pregnancy. The risk is higher in women who gain a lot of weight during pregnancy or give birth to a large baby.
Certain medications also increase the risk of developing stretch marks, including corticosteroids and some birth control pills. Corticosteroids thin the skin and make it more fragile and prone to tearing. Genetics may be a factor since the tendency to develop stria often runs in families.
Are Home Treatments for Stretch Marks Effective?
You might be tempted to buy one of the many creams or lotions marketed for treating stretch marks. Studies are conflicting regarding whether home treatments for stretch marks work. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, whether a product has benefits depends on how consistent you are with using the product, how you apply it, and how early you treat the marks. You have the best odds of improvement if you use them early when the stretch mark is still purple or pink. If it has turned white, home treatment is less likely to be effective.
Unfortunately, many of the common products people use for stretch marks don’t show strong benefits in clinical trials. These include vitamin E, almond oil, and cocoa butter. However, these ingredients moisturize the skin and may temporarily make stretch marks look less obvious.
More Advanced Stretch Mark Treatments
Once you strike out with home treatments, there are other options. Topical tretinoin, a retinoid, and derivative of vitamin A, may improve the appearance of stretch marks over time. One study found that people who applied tretinoin cream to stretch marks each night for 6 months experienced an improvement in their appearance. A dermatologist can prescribe tretinoin for you, although it can cause skin irritation and redness when you first start using it.
You can also buy products that contain retinol, a weaker form of retinoid. Since retinol is weaker, the results may be slower and less dramatic, but retinol is less irritating to the skin and is less likely to cause redness or itching. Both forms of retinoids are most effective when you use them on young stretch marks that are still purple or pink in color.
Other procedures that dermatologists use to improve how stretch marks look include chemical peels, microdermabrasion, laser therapy, and ultrasound therapy. It’s best to talk to a dermatologist to see which procedure would work best for you. Don’t wait, as the odds of success go down as the stretch marks age.
Can You Prevent Stretch Marks?
The best way to prevent stretch marks is to avoid losing or gaining large amounts of weight. Eating a nutrient-rich diet that contains enough vitamin C may be helpful too. You need vitamin C to synthesize collagen and elastin, two proteins that give skin its support and resistance to tearing. Also, avoid sun exposure or wear sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays to protect your skin against damage. Ultraviolet light from the sun breaks down collagen and elastin, making skin more fragile and prone to tearing.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, applying products that contain hyaluronic acid, a sugar found naturally in the skin, to areas prone to stretch marks may be beneficial. Hyaluronic acid attracts water to the skin for greater hydration and skin health. Plus, the increased volume the hyaluronic acid provides makes stretch marks look less obvious.
The Bottom Line
Don’t let those stretch marks get you down! Be sure to treat them as early as possible for the best results and avoid factors like gaining a lot of weight that can cause them.
- Medscape Reference. “Striae Distensae Treatment & Management”
- Ud‐Din S, McGeorge D, et al. “Topical management of striae distensae (stretch marks): prevention and therapy of striae rubrae and albae. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2016; 30(2): 211-22.
- American Academy of Dermatology. “Stretch Marks: What They Are and Why They Appear”
- Journal of the Turkish Academy of Dermatology. “Striae Gravidarum: Associated Factors in Turkish Primiparae”