Stretch marks: Why they appear and how to get rid of them

scars-stretch-marks.jpg
Stretch marks fade with time; however, treatment may make them less noticeable more quickly.

What exactly is a stretch mark?

A stretch mark is a type of scar that develops when our skin stretches or shrinks quickly. The abrupt change causes the collagen and elastin, which support our skin, to rupture. As the skin heals, stretch marks may appear.

Not everyone develops these narrow bands on their skin. Fluctuating hormone levels seem to play a role. You may also have a higher risk if people in your family get stretch marks.

If you develop stretch marks, you’re most likely to do so during these times:

  • Growth spurts that happen in puberty
  • Pregnancy
  • Rapid weight loss or gain
  • Weight training when you have rapid muscle growth

Applying a corticosteroid to your skin for a long time can also cause stretch marks. If you have Cushing’s disease or Marfan syndrome, you may see stretch marks.

When stretch marks first appear, they tend to be red, purple, pink, reddish-brown, or dark brown, depending on your skin color. Early stretch marks may feel slightly raised and can be itchy.

In time, the color fades and the narrow bands sink beneath your skin. If you run your finger over a mature stretch mark, you often feel a slight depression.

What can get rid of stretch marks?

Like any scar, stretch marks are permanent, but treatment may make them less noticeable. Treatment can also help alleviate the itch.

If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, check with your doctor before treating stretch marks. Some products contain ingredients, such as retinol, that can harm your baby.

stretch-marks-pregnancy.jpg

It’s important to understand that no single treatment works for everyone — and many products don’t seem to work at all. Here’s what researchers have discovered about the many treatments for stretch marks.

Stretch mark creams, lotions, and gels: Researchers have studied many of the creams, lotions, and gels sold to treat stretch marks. While no one product seems to help all of the time — and some don’t seem to help at all — researchers have discovered some helpful hacks.

If you want to try one of these creams, lotions, or gels to fade stretch marks, be sure to:

  • Use the product on early stretch marks.
    Treatment seems to have little effect on mature stretch marks.

  • Massage the product into your stretch marks.
    Taking time to massage the product gently into your skin may make it more effective.

  • Apply the product every day for weeks.
    If you see results, they take weeks to appear.

Home remedies: In studies, popular home remedies have not worked. Researchers found that none of the stretch marks faded when people massaged almond oil, cocoa butter, olive oil, or vitamin E into their stretch marks.

Tanning cannot get rid of stretch marks. When you tan, stretch marks become more noticeable because they don’t tan.

stretch-marks-tanning-bed.jpg

Self-tanner: While tanning can make stretch marks more noticeable, a self-tanner can camouflage stretch marks — both early and mature ones. A self-tanner cannot get of rid of stretch marks.

Prescription medicine you apply to your skin: In studies, two ingredients seem to offer some relief:

  • Hyaluronic acid
  • Tretinoin

In two large studies, applying hyaluronic acid to early stretch marks made the stretch marks less noticeable.

Tretinoin is a retinoid, which may also make early stretch marks less noticeable. In one study, people who applied this prescription cream every night for 24 weeks had less noticeable stretch marks. Those who didn’t apply the cream saw their early stretch marks grow. Other studies have found similar results.

Retinol, another type of retinoid, may also help fade early stretch marks.

Procedures that dermatologists perform: Dermatologists use the following procedures to make stretch marks less noticeable, but none of these can get rid of stretch marks:

  • Chemical peel
  • Laser therapy
  • Microdermabrasion
  • Radiofrequency
  • Ultrasound

To give you the best results, your dermatologist may use more than one procedure. For example, your dermatologist may treat you with radiofrequency and a pulse dye laser.

With all procedures, side effects are possible. In the skilled hands of a board-certified dermatologist, side effects tend to be minor and temporary. It’s common to have some redness and swelling after a procedure. The redness and swelling tend to disappear in a few hours or days.

A dermatologist can tell you if any of these treatments would be suitable for you, given your health, age, and how long you’ve had the stretch marks.

Can anything prevent stretch marks?

Short answer: Maybe.

Researchers have discovered that many remedies said to prevent stretch marks don’t actually work. In studies, neither almond oil, cocoa butter, olive oil, nor vitamin E prevented stretch marks.

Other ingredients may work. Researchers have found that products containing centella or hyaluronic acid may help prevent stretch marks. Centella is an herb, and our skin naturally contains hyaluronic acid.

When to seek a dermatologist’s expertise

Stretch mark treatments that you can buy at a store or online can be expensive. If you find yourself spending a lot of time and money without getting any results, seeing a board-certified dermatologist can be helpful.

The in-office procedures have proven more effective than the creams, lotions, and gels. Dermatologists can also tell you about any new product or procedure that may help.


Images
Image 1 used with permission of the American Academy of Dermatology National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides.

Image 2 and 3: Getty Images

References
Hague A and Bayat A. “Therapeutic targets in the management of striae distensae: A systematic review.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2017;77(3):559-68.

Stier MF and Hirsch RJ. “Rejuvenation of scars and striae.” In: Hirsch RJ, et al. Aesthetic rejuvenation. McGraw Hill Medical, China, 2009:224-9.

Ud‐Din S, McGeorge D, et al. “Topical management of striae distensae (stretch marks): prevention and therapy of striae rubrae and albae. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2016; 30(2): 211–22.