The skin is the body’s largest organ and has the remarkable ability to expand and contract as needed. The skin is strong and elastic, but its supporting tissues can be damaged if they are stretched too far or too quickly.
This rapid expanding of the skin can lead to stretch marks. Stretch marks are a common problem that affect men and women of nearly all ages and skin types.
Up to 90 percent of women get stretch marks during pregnancy, though they also affect men, women, and teenagers. They often occur during periods of growth and body changes such as significant weight gain, puberty, and extreme muscle building.
Contents of this article:
- What are stretch marks?
- Treatments for stretch marks
- Alternative and home remedies for stretch marks
What are stretch marks?
Stretch marks are lines or bands caused by stretching of the skin’s connective tissue.
Stretch marks fade to a white or silver color over time. Although they are not physically painful, they can be disfiguring in severe cases.
When the middle layer of skin gets stretched too quickly, some of its collagen fibers can break. This allows underlying blood vessels to show through, leaving behind the telltale red or purplish marks.
Over time, they fade to a white or silver color as blood vessels heal. Typically, the marks don’t go away fully.
Though they are not physically painful, stretch marks can affect a person’s confidence and self-esteem. They can be disfiguring in severe cases.
Because of their psychological effects, experts have tried for years to find an effective treatment for these marks. Unfortunately, no treatment has been shown to erase them fully. New ways of treating stretch marks are emerging, however, and some of them show promise.
The reason why some people get stretch marks and others don’t remains unclear. Some people may simply be more prone to getting stretch marks due to genetics or certain hormone levels.
A study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology suggests that women who are pregnant at a younger age tend to get them more frequently, as do women who gain more weight during pregnancy. However, these factors alone do not guarantee a woman will get stretch marks.
Higher levels of steroid hormones in the body appear to play a role in some cases. People who have Cushing disease tend to get stretch marks more frequently than those who don’t have this condition.
Similarly, people who are taking steroid medications or using topical steroid creams may be more likely to get stretch marks. Experts believe this is because steroid hormones may weaken collagen in the skin, making it more likely to break.
Treatments for stretch marks
Treatments available through skin doctors and plastic surgeons offer some hope for reducing the appearance of stretch marks. Though no solution has been shown to work for everyone, many patients find success with some of the following treatments.
A 0.1 percent tretinoin (retinoic acid) cream was shown to help diminish early stretch marks in one study, but later results have shown mixed results.
Tretinoin is often called by its brand name Retin-A. It can cause side effects such as redness and peeling. This drug should not be used by pregnant or nursing women.
It can get through the upper layer of skin and rebuild collagen, which explains how it improves stretch marks for some people.
Tretinoin is available only by prescription. Its benefits appear to be strongest when used on new stretch marks, so early treatment is recommended. Once the marks have faded to white or silver, tretinoin may not be beneficial.
Laser or light therapy
Laser and light therapy are proven ways to significantly improve the appearance of stretch marks, although they are very expensive.
Laser therapy is one of the newest treatments for stretch marks that appears to be effective in reducing their appearance. Pulsed dye lasers and intense pulsed light can improve the appearance of stretch marks and increase collagen production over time. These treatments are performed by a plastic, cosmetic, or skin surgeon.
The American Society for Dermatologic Surgery (ASDS) recommend laser or light therapy as the only proven ways to significantly improve the appearance of stretch marks. The ASDS estimate each treatment costs $200 to $400. Up to 20 treatments may be needed for full results.
Platelet-rich plasma with ultrasound
Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy has gained popularity as a way to revive skin and increase collagen production. PRP therapy uses PRP taken from the patient’s own blood immediately before the procedure.
A study in the Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy indicates that PRP therapy coupled with an ultrasound device may be a good treatment for reducing stretch marks. More than 70 percent of participants reported “good” or “very good” improvement in their appearance.
A tummy tuck, thigh lift, and other such procedures work by removing excess skin and tightening remaining skin and tissue. They are often suggested for people who have sagging skin due to weight loss or pregnancy. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the ideal candidate for this surgery:
- Is at a stable weight and in good health
- Does not smoke
- Has realistic expectations about what the surgery can do
These procedures are not specifically designed to remove stretch marks. However, losing the marks can be an added benefit when the affected skin is removed from the body.
If the skin is not loose, this type of plastic surgery may not be an option. Patients should discuss possible risks and benefits with their surgeon before undergoing any surgical procedure.
Alternative and home remedies for stretch marks
Some creams, oils, and other topical skin products on store shelves claim to prevent or reduce stretch marks. Popular ingredients include cocoa butter, olive oil, and almond oil.
Despite the claims on the bottle, no over-the-counter cream or oil has been proven to help prevent or treat stretch marks. Stretch marks occur in the deep dermal layer of the skin, where moisturizers and creams cannot reach.
A summary of six clinical trials found that preventing stretch marks with topical skin care products is not successful. In addition, applying moisturizers or creams after the marks have appeared does not have an effect on their appearance.
Stretch marks occur in the deep dermal layer of the skin. Therefore, despite claims, moisturizers do not help to prevent stretch marks.
Although stretch mark creams may not be effective, taking proper care of skin can help it look and feel its best. The American Academy of Dermatology suggest:
- Proper sun protection. Sunscreen alone can’t prevent stretch marks, but it does improve skin’s overall health and appearance in general. Sun exposure may make existing scars and marks more noticeable. It also significantly increases the risk of skin cancer. In addition, sun exposure can break down skin’s collagen fibers, making a person more at risk of stretch marks.
- Keep skin hydrated. Using a moisturizer right after bathing, while skin is still damp, can help products penetrate better and keep skin soft and supple. Pregnant women may find that the rapidly expanding skin on the belly tends to itch, and moisturizers often provide some relief.
Stretch marks cannot be completely prevented, but a healthy lifestyle can lower the risk of getting them. Drinking plenty of water, eating a variety of nutritious foods, and exercising regularly can keep weight stable and promote good health in general.
Avoiding sudden weight changes and working toward healthy and gradual weight gain during pregnancy are also helpful. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend 25 to 35 pounds of total weight gain for normal weight women before giving birth.
If stretch marks are severe or interfering with a person’s mental well-being, treatment options are available. People can see a doctor who specializes in treating them to learn about possible solutions and ways to reduce their appearance.