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 stretch too far or too quickly.
This rapid expanding of the skin can lead to stretch marks. Up to 90 percent of women get stretch marks during pregnancy. However, stretch marks can affect people of nearly all ages and skin types.
They often occur during periods of growth and body changes, such as significant weight gain, puberty, and extreme muscle building.
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 stretches 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. Once they appear, the marks do not usually go away fully. Stretch marks are not physically painful, but they can affect a person’s confidence and self-esteem. They can be disfiguring in severe cases.
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 do not 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 those who gain more weight during pregnancy.
However, these factors alone do not guarantee that stretch marks will appear. 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 do not have this condition. Similarly, people who are taking steroid medications or using topical steroid creams may be more likely to get stretch marks.
This may be because steroid hormones weaken collagen in the skin, making it more likely to break. Genetics plays a role. Some skin types are more prone to stretch marks than others.
Treatments for stretch marks
Treatments available through skin doctors and plastic surgeons offer some hope for reducing the appearance of stretch marks. No solution has been shown to work for everyone, but many people find success with some of the following treatments.
There is little evidence to confirm that tretinoin (retinoic acid) works, a cream containing 0.1 percent tretinoin cream was shown to help diminish early stretch marks in one early study. Tretinoin often called by its brand name Retin-A, can cause side effects, such as redness and peeling. Pregnant or nursing women should not use this drug.
Tretinoin can penetrate 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 people should seek treatment as early as possible. 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.
A plastic, cosmetic, or skin surgeon will carry out these procedures. The American Society for Dermatologic Surgery (ASDS) recommend laser or light therapy as ways to significantly improve the appearance of stretch marks.
Be sure to use a fully trained and licensed healthcare practitioner. A person may need up to 20 treatments to see a 20- to 60-percent improvement in their stretch marks. Treatment can be costly.
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 platelet-rich plasma taken from the person’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 similar procedures work by removing excess skin and tightening remaining skin and tissue. A doctor or healthcare professional may suggest that people who have sagging skin due to weight loss or pregnancy have these procedures.
According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the ideal candidate for this surgery:
has a stable weight and 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, loss of the stretch marks — due to the removal of the excess skin from the body — marks can be an added benefit.
If the skin is not loose, this type of plastic surgery may not be an option. People should discuss possible risks and benefits with their surgeon before undergoing any surgical procedure.
Alternative and home remedies
Stretch marks occur in the deep dermal layer of the skin. Therefore, despite claims, moisturizers do not help to prevent 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.
A range of these products is available for purchase online. 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 mark creams may not be effective, but taking proper care of skin can help it look and feel its best. Keep your skin moisturized from inside and out. The American Academy of Dermatology suggest the following.
Use proper sun protection
Sunscreen alone cannot prevent stretch marks, but it does improve the 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. Use an effective sunscreen when out in the sun. In addition, sun exposure can break down skin’s collagen fibers, making a person more at risk of stretch marks. A range of sunscreen products is available for purchase online.
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. A range of moisturizers for stretch marks is available for purchase online.
Follow a healthful lifestyle
It is not possible to prevent stretch marks completely, but a healthful lifestyle can lower the risk of developing them. Drinking plenty of water, eating a variety of nutritious foods, and getting regular exercise can keep weight stable and promote good health in general.
Avoid sudden weight gain or loss
Avoiding rapid weight changes and working toward healthy and gradual weight gain during pregnancy are also helpful. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend that those who have a healthy weight before pregnancy should gain 25 to 35 pounds of total weight 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 stretch marks to learn about possible solutions and ways to reduce their appearance.
Is there really an effective way to prevent or remove stretch marks?
There may be many effective ways to prevent stretch marks, but to date, there is no research to support these methods. It makes sense to keep the skin hydrated and moisturized to allow top layers to stretch and respond to sudden growth and stretching. Eating well will give the skin cells immediate access to nutrients and healing at the first sign of stretching trauma. If there is no risk to a home remedy for preventing stretch marks, such as using sunscreen and extra moisturizing, I encourage you to use these. They can’t hurt, and someday there might be some research to support their use.
Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT
Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (2013, January). Weight gain during pregnancy. Committee Opinion No. 548. Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 548(121), 210–212
- Brennan, M., Young, G., Devane, D. (2012, November 14). Topical preparations for preventing stretch marks in pregnancy [Abstract]. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews
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- Kang, S., Kim, K., Griffiths, C., Wong, T., Talwar, H., Fisher, G., … Voorhees, J. (1996, May). Topical tretinoin (retinoic acid) improves early stretch marks [Abstract]. JAMA Dermatology 132(5), 519-526
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