A Lot of People Get Them!
Here's the Science Behind Stretch Marks:
You may have seen the photo posted by blogger and mother of three, Rachel Hollis, with the caption “I have stretch marks and I wear a bikini.” Her picture got the attention of people all over the world. It received over 10 million views and 350,000 Facebook likes! AMAZING!
I wish everyone had such confidence!
But stretch marks, also called striae, can be a great cause of anxiety for many people. While the marks don't affect the function of your skin, they can be disfiguring.
So what is a stretch mark?
Typically stretch marks look like long rope-like lines of discoloration in the top layers of your skin. They are indented and can be thin or wide, red or purple, and long or short. They're usually very noticeable. Over time they fade to a white or silver color.
And stretch marks make people unhappy.
What causes them?
The cause of stretch marks isn't fully understood, but we do know that they are the body’s response to stretching. People usually get stretch marks during pregnancy and the growth spurts in puberty - but they can also be from rapid weight or muscle gain.
Research has shown that there's a link between a build up of white blood cells in the skin with a loss of dermal fibers (elastin and collagen) that causes scarring. So medications like corticosteroid creams and lotions that are used to treat eczema can cause stretch marks because they decrease the amount of collagen in the skin.
Stretch marks are more extreme with an increase in the hormone cortisol (which is made in your adrenal glands). Cortisol weakens the elastic fibers in skin. So people with Cushing's Syndrome (a rare condition caused by prolonged exposure to cortisol) are more likely to get stretch marks.
Marfan Syndrome is another rare genetic condition that affects the connective tissues of the body and can cause stretch marks.
Tests by the company 23andMe show that genetics plays a role in stretch mark formation. These tests may help predict who has a predisposition for stretch marks and create a new approach for prevention.
"See, while excess tension on the skin is the short explanation for stretch marks, some people are more prone to developing them than others," says study author Joyce Tung, Ph.D., and Director of Research at 23andMe. "For instance, in the study, only 25 percent of the men reported having stretch marks, but 55 percent of the women did."
What happens to your skin?
The three main layers of the skin are the epidermis (top layer), dermis (middle layer) and hypodermis (bottom layer). Within each of these layers is a network of collagen and elastin which allow the skin to stretch when the tissue below is expanding.
At a normal growth rate, the connecting fibers in the dermis slowly stretch. But when the dermis is stretched rapidly, it can tear leaving the epidermis intact. The deeper layers show through the epidermis, forming a stretch mark.
When they're new, stretch marks look reddish or purple. With time, they slowly fade to a silvery white as the blood vessels contract and the fat lining of the skin becomes more visible.
Realself.com likened it to a tomato splitting over a flame, "only in a stretch mark, it is the deeper layer that splits, not the outermost layer."
5 Treatment Options for Stretch Marks
*There is NO miracle cure for stretch marks. However, there are some products and treatments that can make them less noticeable. The creams and services available often focus on stimulating collagen production. Future methods will most likely focus on the relationship between collagen, elastin and stretch marks discovered in the 23andMe study. Talk to your health care provider about stretch marks and best options for you.
1. Treat stretch marks early with Retin-A or Retinol.
Stretch marks are classified as rubra (pink, red or purple) or alba (silvery white). Over time, they turn from rubra to alba. When they are white/alba they are harder to treat. Stretch marks that are less than a few months old and are still pink or red respond best.
Regular use of retinol or retin-A creams increases collagen production, helping the skin to regenerate and heal the stretch marks.
- Dead skin is removed to reveal the healthier skin underneath the top layer.
- Skin pigmentation is redistributed to even out skin tone.
In one Advances in Therapy study, new moms who applied tretinoin cream 0.1% every day for three months shortened the length of their pregnancy stretch marks by 20%. To reduce the appearance of minor new marks, apply a vitamin A (retinol) oil or cream once a day. Results will start to be apparent in about 6 weeks.
Most body creams don’t contain retinol, so try a face cream instead. On larger, deeper rubra / red marks, use a prescription form of vitamin A, like Retin-A.
*Topical vitamin A can’t be used during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
SkinCeuticals makes a .5 retinol cream and a 1.0 retinol cream. Both are stronger than drug store retinol creams, and therefore give better results. Learn more by reading our blog post, Want Younger Looking Skin? 3 Ways Retinoids Make Skin Beautiful.
If retinoids irritate your skin, there’s another option. Mederma Stretch Marks Therapy is an over-the-counter cream that contains onion extract, the herb Centella asiatica (both anti-inflammatories), and hyaluronic acid (which hydrates skin).
A clinical study found that among 50 women, 80% reported their marks were smoother and less red after 12 weeks of twice-daily use.
Products with vitamin C or peptides, which both stimulate collagen, may also help. Learn more in our posts, Vitamins C and E for Skin and Why You Should Be Using Peptides in Your Skin Care.
*As always check with your doctor before trying any new product, especially if you are pregnant!
Microdermabrasion uses a hand-held device that blows crystals onto the skin. The crystals gently remove your skin’s top layer and trigger the growth of new, more-elastic skin.
One 2008 study in the Journal of the Egyptian Women's Dermatologic Society found that it only takes 5 microdermabrasion treatments to significantly reduce the appearance of stretch marks in more than half of patients.
Microdermabrasion gets good results on older, alba / white stretch marks.
4. Laser Treatments
Intense light therapies stimulate collagen, elastin, and melanin production. One of the most effective options is intense pulsed light therapy / IPL, which is effective at treating older stretch marks. Another laser to try is Fraxel or a CO2 Fractional laser.
According to a 2009 review published in the Journal of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, fractional lasers increase the number of collagen and elastin fibers. You'll need several treatments to achieve the best effect.
While lasers are effective, they can cause pigment changes in patients with dark skin and sessions can be costly.
Micro-Needling improves the appearance of stretch marks, but can only be used on marks that are one year old or more. It will improve the thickness of the skin, reduce the appearance of the stretch mark, and is safe for people with dark skin.
Like lasers, several treatments are necessary. Get more information on our Scars and Stretch Marks page and read our blog posts about micro-needling:
- What is Microneedling
- Why is a micro-needling pen better than other methods of skin restoration?
- Micro-Needling Is In the News!
Again, none of these treatments will make stretch marks disappear entirely, but they will make them less noticeable.
Looking for an alternative to stretch mark reduction?
Try a self tanner. It can help camouflage stretch marks. The American Academy of Dermatology has some great tips for applying self tanner. Check out their page.
And some people are having their stretch marks tattooed. Check out the Allure.com article for before and after pictures. They are amazing! But before you run get a tattoo, read our post, 13 Ways to Stay Healthy When You Get a Tattoo.
Some More Facts About Stretch Marks:
- Depending on the race and age of the population studied, prevalence of stretch marks can range anywhere from 40-90%
- Both sexes are affected by stretch marks
- Around 70% of girls develop stretch marks during puberty
- Around 40% of boys develop stretch marks during puberty
- Stretch marks are more common in younger pregnant women
- Cocoa butter is not effective in preventing stretch marks
- Stretch marks occur in over 70% of pregnant women, most commonly after 25 weeks of gestation
So you're in GREAT company. Lots of people have stretch marks! And although they cannot be eliminated, good advances are being made.
Thanks for reading, The Science Behind Stretch Marks!
Amy Takken is a registered nurse with 20+ years of experience helping people improve their health. Her in-depth skincare articles have been featured on Nazarian Plastic Surgery and The Palm Beach Center for Facial Plastic & Laser Surgery. Amy loves research and constantly watches for new products and treatments to help you improve your skin’s health – because healthy skin is beautiful! To reach Amy, visit our contact page.
Masterpiece Skin Restoration is your online resource for all things medical aesthetics, skincare, beauty, and wellness. We keep you up to date on leading edge technology and the services available to help you restore your natural beauty.
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The Information provided on our website is not medical advice and should not be viewed as such. By law, only a medical doctor can diagnose or give medical advice. As a registered nurse, my goal is to educate, so I provide information on skin care, skin care products, and skin care treatments. If you have any condition that concerns you, please see a medical doctor. While most skin conditions are benign, some - like melanoma - can be deadly. If there is any doubt, please, please consult your physician. Thank you!