If you’ve recently had a baby or put on a few pounds, you might notice red or purple snake-like stretch marks across your body. Find out how they got there and how to treat them.
What are stretch marks and who gets them?
Technically known as striae, stretch marks occur when the skin tissues stretch suddenly and dramatically — common during pregnancy. In fact, Medical News Today reports, "Almost half of all pregnant women will acquire stretch marks," particularly if they are older women, have other relatives with stretch marks, or are carrying a large baby or multiple babies. Stretch marks can also appear during growth spurts, such as puberty. They affect both women and men, often appearing on the:
- upper arms
- lower back
These marks are initially reddish to brownish-tan, and should eventually fade to pale white or silver streaks. In addition, the texture of stretch marks is generally raised, making the marks visible on the skin.
How do stretch marks form?
Stretch marks can have various causes, including:
- Collagen breakdown. Stretch marks occur in the dermis layer of skin between the epidermis and subcutaneous tissue. The dermis contains oil glands, sweat glands, hair follicles and nerve endings. It also has collagen and elastin — proteins that support skin and enable it to retain its shape. When skin is stretched suddenly to accommodate rapid growth or weight gain, collagen and elastin can become dry and break down. This produces raised, reddish stretch marks.
- Abnormal collagen formation. This can occur naturally or as a side effect of certain medications or health conditions. People who use cortisone medications for prolonged periods or who suffer from diabetes or Cushing's disease may be more prone to stretch marks.
How are stretch marks treated?
Eliminating stretch marks is time-consuming and often impossible. However, numerous options can reduce their appearance:
- Professional procedures
- Lasers can help stretch marks. Pulsed Dye Laser (PDL) treatments encourage "the growth of new collagen and elastin," notes Mayo Clinic. Other lasers, like the excimer laser, promote melanin production to darken the skin around stretch marks. This makes them blend in and seem less apparent. However, excimer treatments are expensive — around $300 per session. You'll need multiple treatments to see an improvement and maintenance sessions every few months to retain your results, writes Jennifer Tung in InStyle Getting Gorgeous. Pregnant women shouldn't have laser treatments.
- Chemical peels use special ingredients, such as alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), which are applied to the skin with a brush, cotton sponge, pad or swab. They help to fade stretch marks by peeling off "the top layers of damaged, dead skin" and activating "new cell production," according to DocShop.
- Microdermabrasion exfoliates the skin's top layer. A hand-held wand releases crystals onto the skin to abrade it. Then a vacuum-like device absorbs the crystals and dead skin cells. Microdermabrasion may stimulate the growth of new, more elastic skin, according to Mayo Clinic. However, dermatologist Eric F. Bernstein, M.D., medical director of the Mainline Cosmetic Laser Center, notes that microdermabrasion won't improve the actual stretch marks, but it will help other topical products penetrate better.
- Topical treatments
- Over-the-counter products contain ingredients to refine the appearance and texture of stretch marks. Look for AHAs, which slough off outer cells and excess pigment, resulting in smooth, even-toned skin, according to iVillage. Avoid products with AHAs if you're pregnant.
- Tretinoin creamis a retinoid formula, which requires a prescription from the dermatologist. Research suggests that it can improve stretch marks. In one study, after six months, 80 percent of the participants who applied tretinoin cream had "definite or marked improvement" in their stretch marks, reports Journal Watch. Specifically, participants applied either 0.1 percent tretinoin cream or a placebo every day for six months. In addition to answering questionnaires, participants received stretch mark measurements, skin examinations and biopsies.
Pregnant women shouldn't use tretinoin or any retinoid-based products, plant-based creams, essential oils and herbal extracts. Consult with a doctor before starting any regimen to treat stretch marks.
Can stretch marks be prevented?
In some cases, stretch marks are inevitable. However, maintaining a healthy lifestyle can reduce your risk for stretch marks. Specifically:
- Drink plenty of water to keep your skin hydrated.This helps to strengthen collagen and elastin, making them less likely to tear and leave stretch marks, writes Tung.
- Avoid excess caffeine. It can cause your body to excrete fluid, which contributes to dehydration and increases the risk of collagen and elastin tearing.
- Eat a healthy diet. Opt for foods rich in zinc (e.g., nuts and fish); vitamins A and C (e.g., carrots and oranges); and protein (e.g., eggs).
- Watch your weight. "Avoiding rapid weight gain helps reduce stretch marks caused by obesity," notes Medline Plus.
- Moisturize your skin. Emollients add moisture and protection to skin's lower layers, reducing the likelihood of brittle, torn collagen and elastin. Cocoa butter is an effective ingredient for this purpose, according to Helen Foster, author of The Beauty Book.
Whether you've already got stretch marks or you'd like to prevent them, check out these options:
- Janson Beckett AlphaDerma CE contains vitamin C Ester, DMAE, elastin, collagen and alpha lipoic acid to repair skin and reduce the appearance of stretch marks.
- StriVectin SD combats stretch marks with palmitoyl oligopeptide and cocoa butter. Clinical trials indicate that with proper use, StriVectin SD successfully reduces the depth, length and discoloration of stretch marks — even older, established ones.
- Mustela Stretch Marks Double Action is perfect if you're expecting because it's safe for you and your baby. The creamy, hypoallergenic formula prevents stretch marks from forming and reduces the ones you've already got.
- Thalgo Stretch Mark Cream softens, protects and hydrates the skin to help stretch marks heal. It's also safe for pregnant women.
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