Ahh, stretch marks… one day your skin looks like its usual, smooth self, and one day you wake up to strange stripes along your thighs, or breasts, or belly… or really, anywhere else on the body. After all, stretch marks can appear almost anywhere where growth happens, which happens to be over all of our body.
Stretch marks are also known as striae, and in this article I will outline what they are, what causes them, and what one could do to mitigate them. I will go over all of the major stretch mark treatments, and explain how well they actually work. I also included a small confession at the end, because I felt it was important to talk about the social factors that surround being a woman and having stretch marks.
What Are Stretch Marks?
The name for stretch marks is almost, but not quite self-explanatory. Stretch marks occur when the central level of the skin, the dermis, is stretched a lot over a relatively short period of time. The dermis is the level of our skin that holds elasticity and shape, and it is made up of various connective fibers (especially collagen and elastin). These connective fibers can break, which causes scarring that is visible through the thin upper layer of the skin, the epidermis.
Stretch marks most frequently occur on the shoulders, arms, stomach, hips, thighs, backside, and lower back. They can happen to both women and men. When the stretch marks are still young and fresh they are usually either red or purple toned. As time passes, they become lighter, often turning silvery white.
What Causes Stretch Marks?
During puberty our bodies undergo a lot of change. Puberty is the time when we grow taller. Many boys start developing larger muscles, while girls often develop breasts while also gaining mass around their hips and thighs. This period of rapid growth often results in stretch marks, both for girls and boys.
• Muscle Growth
Gym bunnies beware! Rapid muscle growth can also cause stretch marks, by stretching skin that is unprepared for the sudden change in mass.
Developing stretch marks during pregnancy is extremely common. This makes sense, since the belly swells quite quickly during pregnancy. In the span of a healthy 9-month pregnancy, women are expected to put on between 25 and 35 pounds. The skin over the stomach has to stretch to accommodate its new size, and as a result, three out of four women will develop stretch marks during their pregnancy.
Whether someone will develop stretch marks during their pregnancy has a lot to do with their genetics, as well. If your mother developed stretch marks during her pregnancy, you are much likelier to develop them as well.
• Other Causes of Weight Gain
Almost any other cause for gains in body mass can also lead to stretch marks. Weight gain due to a high calorie diet or lack of physical activity is certainly a common cause for stretch marks.
• Steroid Creams
Long-term use of corticosteroid creams like hydrocortisone can cause stretch marks. This is because steroid creams thin out the skin and decrease its ability to stretch.
• Sudden Weight Loss
Stretch marks can also appear during times of rapid weight loss. It seems that while the actually scarring and tearing happens beforehand, after weight loss the stretch marks become more visible.
How Do You Prevent Stretch Marks?
In some circumstances, preventing stretch marks just isn’t possible. In a moment of humor, for example, I considered adding “don’t get pregnant” to this list of stretch mark prevention tips, but it’s fair to say that for many women, the benefits of having a child greatly outweigh the drawbacks of having stretch marks. However, there are a few measures one can take to reduce the chances of having stretch marks.
Okay, it is not totally clear if moisturizing the skin can prevent stretch marks, but anecdotally, many women swear that it works. At the very least, it can’t hurt.
The rationale behind moisturizing is only semi-sound. By keeping our skin well hydrated, we can keep it more supple and elastic. There is even some research suggesting that glycerin, a humectant that is found in almost all moisturizers and stretch mark creams, is able to guide and improve skin cell proliferation, while active ingredients like vitamin C and green tea extract are able to increase collagen and elastin production in the skin.
The most popular choice, cocoa butter, might smell lovely and work okay, but on its own it’s really not the best product for preventing stretch marks, since it totally lacks humectant ingredients. A moisturizer that contains cocoa butter in addition to other active ingredients would work a lot better, as would almost any moisturizer that contains other natural plant oils and actives.
Now, the reason why I am somewhat doubtful is that moisturizers don’t penetrate past the epidermis – the first layer of skin. Stretch marks, however, happen on the dermis level of skin. It is possible that by increasing the strength of the epidermis, however, stretch marks that do form are simply less visible.
In the end, I’ll defer to reviews. Many women swear by Mustela Stretch Mark Double Action Cream, which is available at Overstock. By rubbing into skin this moisturizer, which is loaded with some really unique emollients, humectants, and antioxidants, many women swear that they did not develop any stretch marks during their pregnancy. Of course, it did not work for some women, while for others it seemed to work a little bit.
Another product, a little on the pricier side, that gets excellent reviews is the StriVectin-SD Intensive Concentrate for Stretch Marks and Wrinkles, available at Nordstrom for $139.00 for 4.5 oz. Many report that this potent collection of active ingredients helped prevent as well as lighten pregnancy stretch marks.
• Watch What You Eat and Take Supplements
There are many vitamins and minerals that are very important for healthy skin cell proliferation. In my mind, stretch mark prevention is the lowest of the benefits of getting an adequate supply of these important nutrients, since they are so critical in maintaining our overall health.
The most important nutrients for stretch mark prevention are Vitamins A, C, and E, as well as the mineral Zinc. A diet rich in green veggies, healthy fats should cover all bases as far as vitamins go.
Zinc is less abundant, especially for vegetarians, so talking to your doctor (especially if you are pregnant) about taking zinc supplements might be the way to go. If, for whatever reason, you suspect you are not getting enough vitamins in your diet, a multivitamin or a prenatal vitamin should also do the trick and reduce your chances of developing stretch marks.
• Watch Your Weight
This one encompasses all forms of weight gain and weight loss. The key to preventing stretch marks is either to totally avoid having your weight change, or at least to control it so the change does not occur too rapidly.
If you are wanting to lose weight, do so slowly and gradually. Avoid extreme dieting practices, as well. You are both less likely to develop stretch marks, and also much likelier to keep the weight off in the long term. If you combine this with a nutrient-dense diet, you will also strengthen your skin and improve its ability to regenerate.
Similar instructions apply if you are attempting weight gain. Eat healthfully, and in moderation, and increase your overall caloric intake gradually.
Treating Stretch Marks After the Fact
Before I go into possible treatments for already existing stretch marks, I want to point out one factor that will apply to all treatments. The sooner you act, the likelier you are to seriously reduce all signs of stretch marks.
Starting stretch mark treatment when the scars are still fresh and reddish in color is the most effective route to take. Keep in mind, however, that most of these treatments are not appropriate for pregnant or breastfeeding women.
• Tretinoin and Other Forms of Vitamin A
The reason I don’t list topical vitamin A under “prevention” is that the most frequent cause of stretch marks is pregnancy. Retinol is not recommended during pregnancy, so it is better to save this potent topical vitamin for once you are no longer pregnant or breastfeeding.
Vitamin A works topically, by sloughing away dead skin while simultaneously speeding up skin cell regeneration. It is extremely effective at slowing down the signs of aging, as well as at treating acne and hyperpigmentation.
Vitamin A comes in multiple forms and strengths, from the fairly weak retinol that is available over the counter in many anti-aging products, to prescription strength Tretinoin, better known as Retin-A. Naturally, the prescription strength product is much likelier to have an effect.
Vitamin A is most effective while the stretch marks are still fresh and tinted red, but it might also be able to help a little bit once the scars have turned older.
If you want to avoid prescription vitamin A, have no fear; there are some wonderful options available over the counter, as well! The Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM is a brilliantly formulated serum that contains both skin cell regenerating retinol and collagen boosting vitamin C. It is available at Sephora for $65.00.
A bit more affordable, but just as effective, is the Paula’s Choice Resist Retinol Skin Smoothing Body Treatment, which is available at Nordstrom for $28.00.
• Derma Rollers
This is an excellent at-home solution for stretch marks, assuming that you don’t have any problems with needles or a bit of pain. Derma rollers are little cylinders, covered in tiny needles that are attached to a handle.
They are meant to treat such skin concerns as pigmentation, fine lines, loss of tone, cellulite, and, of course, stretch marks. The derma rollers are meant to be rolled over the affected area, and as they come into contact with the skin, the needles puncture it. This minor trauma to the skin, caused by the needles, is actually supposed to help repair it.
Let’s take stretch marks, for instance. Stretch marks are scars caused by torn elastin fibers that don’t heal as they should. The minor trauma caused by the tiny needles of the derma roller triggers a healing response, both for the punctures, but also for the stretch marks. During this healing, the skin produces more collagen and elastin.
Over time, this should either completely heal or at least minimize the stretch marks. The process of derma rolling becomes doubly effect if used in conjunction with skin care ingredients that will increase elastin and collagen production, like retinol, vitamin C, peptides, niacinamide, or other potent antioxidants and cell-communicative nutrients.
In fact, the derma rolling allows these ingredients to penetrate much deeper, into the dermis layer of the skin, which gets around the problem that they would normally not penetrate deeply enough.
However, there are also some risks associated with derma rolling. Using needles that are too long, using a cheaply made derma roller, derma rolling too often, derma rolling too aggressively, or not taking proper sanitary precautions are all behaviors that could lead to complications, like infection, irritation, or bruising.
If you choose to go this route, buy a high quality derma roller, and be careful. Derma rolling should be done every 3-4 weeks (waiting longer in between sessions would make the treatment less effective, while not waiting enough time could damage the skin), and very gently. Always make sure to follow up the derma rolling with a skin repairing cream, like the ones I’ve previously mentioned.
Derma rolling is reported to be very effective, as long as one does it continuously, and has patience. It might take 6 months to a year to see drastic results, although some changes normally appear within the first couple months.
• Laser Treatments
The logic behind laser treatments for stretch marks is quite similar to the logic behind derma rolling. The laser, a high energy and highly targeted UV light, penetrates through the epidermis down to the dermis, where it causes minor and targeted trauma, similar to burning but not nearly as destructive. This trauma stimulates the healing mechanisms of the body, which also repair the damage to the broken elastin fibers (i.e. the stretch marks).
Once again, much like derma rolling, a single laser treatment session is not likely to show drastic results. However, multiple sessions can have a very big impact on the skin.
Before booking a laser session at the nearest salon, make sure the place where you are going is clean, qualified, and gets excellent reviews. Make sure they offer a free consultation, so you can check out the salon or dermatological center, and meet the person who will perform the procedure.
Only once you are convinced that you can trust and feel comfortable with the salon and your technician, should you book an appointment, or even purchase a series of laser treatments.
After a laser treatment, the skin will normally feel a little tender and irritated, although an inexperienced technician could cause quite a bit of damage. This is likely the most effective method of stretch mark removal, however, a session will cost you around $500 to $1000, and normally three sessions are recommended.
Carboxytherapy treatments help treat stretch marks with the aid of CO2, a.k.a. carbon dioxide. During the carboxytherapy treatment CO2 is injected below the skin to the striae affected areas.
The purported science behind this is the following: the disruption that the CO2 causes in the area causes a targeted increase in blood circulation, which in turn promotes healthy cell regeneration and heals the skin. Over time, this treatment helps reverse the appearance of stretch mark scars.
Normally, it takes around 4-5 sessions of CO2 therapy to see results, and the treatment costs around $100-$200 per session. These treatments are not guaranteed to work for everyone, or totally erase all signs of stretch marks. Considering the cost, this might have to be a last resort. If you do decide to go the carboxytherapy route, make sure you have it done either by a doctor, or a licensed nurse.
• Time Is the Healer of All Wounds
Often, people report extremely good results from all of the treatments I’ve previously described. However, it is possible there is some confirmation bias happening, since stretch marks do naturally fade over time.
If your stretch marks are still at the red stage, rest assured that they are highly unlikely to stay so visible for long! Be your own judge, and decide for yourself if you prefer to let them fade on their own, or if you prefer to help them along with any of the previous outline procedures.
Learning to Love Your Tiger Stripes
While lightening stretch marks is certainly possible, completely eliminating them can be difficult, time consuming, and in my opinion… not really necessary.
Confession time – while I find any topic related to skincare fascinating, and while I think that if anything annoys us we have every right to fix it, stretch marks are one of those things I personally don’t really care about.
I have stretch marks on my thighs, and on my backside. They stand out oddly, all silvery white against my pale skin, and I kind of like them… or at least, I don’t dislike them. They are my personal tiger stripes, and they remind me that I’ve grown. They seem feminine and non-disruptive.
And I’m not alone here! Both American model Chrissy Teigen and Australian model Robyn Lawley had no problem posting pictures of their “tiger stripes” on Instagram. Chrissy’s, like mine, are on her thighs, while Robyn Lawley’s stretch marks are a result of her pregnancy.
In reality, most women will end up with stretch marks after pregnancy, and Robyn Lawley is not the only one who has embraced them. It is easy to understand why so many women refuse to be ashamed. How can a reminder of something as beautiful as pregnancy and motherhood be bad or ugly?
There are so many things in the world and in the media that are specifically designed to tear women down and make them feel shame, so we can’t be faulted for listening and trying to conform to these standards. However, I think the refusal to be ashamed of stretch marks is an excellent example of women winning the fight against impossible beauty standards, at least a little bit.
Do you have stretch marks? Do they annoy you, or are you loving them? Let us know in the comments!
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