Stretch marks (striae) are indented streaks that appear on the abdomen, breasts, hips, buttocks or other places on the body. They’re common in pregnant women, especially during the last trimester. Stretch marks aren’t painful or harmful, but some people don’t like the way they make their skin look.
What is the first thing you think of when you hear the words ‘stretch marks’? Most likely, you think of pregnancy. Pregnancy is the most common cause of stretch marks—called ‘striae’ in the medical community—usually on the belly and breasts. But did you know stretch marks are common generally and can appear on anyone, even children?
Stretch marks, medically known as striae distensae, are an extremely common finding in both men and women who are past puberty. They appear as linear, thinned skin most often found on the breasts, abdomen, hips, and thighs. Stretch marks may appear due to the rapid hormonal changes and growth associated with puberty, during pregnancy, or with medical diseases, such as Cushing syndrome. Under the microscope, they appear similar to scar tissue. No curative treatment has been developed; however, moisturizers, massage, microdermabrasion, and laser resurfacing may improve their appearance.
Anyone can develop stretch marks, although they tend to affect more women than men.
These lines commonly appear during or after pregnancy or after a sudden change in your weight. They also tend to occur in adolescents who are rapidly growing. Stretch marks aren’t dangerous, and they often disappear over time.
You can have stretch marks just about anywhere, but they’re most common on your stomach, breasts, upper arms, thighs, and buttocks.
They can occur on a range of body parts, including the stomach, thighs, hips, breasts, upper arms, and lower back.
What Are Stretch Marks?
Stretch marks are rippled streaks, medically also called striae, which most commonly appear on the stomach, breasts, buttocks, thighs, and upper arms. Their appearance depends on the skin type and color. On pale skin, stretch marks can appear red, pink, purplish-blue, or white. On darker skin, stretch marks usually appear whitish or darker than the surrounding skin.
Signs and Symptoms
Before stretch marks begin to emerge, the skin can appear thin and pink. It may also feel irritated or itchy.
The marks initially develop as wrinkly, raised streaks that can be red, purple, pink, reddish-brown or dark brown, depending on skin color. The streaks eventually fade and flatten and tend to change to a silvery color over time.
Stretch marks may gradually become less noticeable, but this can often take years.
Extreme skin growth or shrinkage can cause stretch marks.
Common causes of skin stretching include:
- Pregnancy: Between 50 and 90 percent of women who are pregnant experience stretchmarks during or after birth.
- Puberty: Rapid growth is typical in young people going through puberty. This can lead to stretch marks.
- Rapid weight gain: Putting on a lot of weight in a short space of time can cause stretch marks.
- Medical conditions: Certain conditions can cause stretch marks, such as Marfan syndrome and Cushing’s syndrome. Marfan syndrome can lead to decreased elasticity in the skin tissue, and Cushing’s syndrome can lead the body to produce too much of a hormone that leads to rapid weight gain and skin fragility.
- Corticosteroid use: Prolonged use of corticosteroid creams and lotions can decrease levels of collagen in the skin. Collagen strengthens and supports the skin, and a reduced amount can increase the risk of stretch marks.
The skin consists of three key layers. Stretch marks form in the dermis, or middle layer, when the connective tissue is stretched beyond the limits of its elasticity. This is normally due to rapid expansion or contraction of the skin.
As the body grows, the connecting fibers in the dermis slowly stretch to accommodate slow growth. However, rapid growth leads to sudden stretching. This causes the dermis to tear, allowing deeper layers of skin to show through.
This can form stretch marks and contributes to the way they look.
Stretch marks eventually fade to a silvery, white, or glossy appearance, due to the pale fat beneath the skin becoming visible instead of the usual blood vessels.
They are more likely to develop and become more severe where there are high levels of circulating cortisone, or when cortisone is applied to the skin. Cortisol, the stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands, is converted into cortisone. This weakens elastic fibers in the skin.
A number of risk factors have been associated with the development of stretch marks, but the evidence varies. More research is needed to confirm the causes of stretch marks.
The risk factors for developing stretch marks could be linked to:
- family history
- chronic diseases
- body mass index (BMI) before pregnancy
- birthweight of the child in women who are pregnant
These findings can be explained by the greater degrees of skin stretching in obese women with larger babies, and by age-related changes in skin collagen and connective tissue that affect the likelihood of tearing.
The doctor only has to look at your skin to diagnose them. But they’ll probably ask about your medical history. If you’ve taken either oral or topical steroids for a long time, high cortisol levels in your body might be to blame.
Treatment for stretch marks can be costly and is not always effective.
Unless an underlying condition is the cause, it is unlikely that your insurer will fund treatment. Stretch marks are seen as a cosmetic complaint.
Creams, gels, lotions, and cosmetic surgery have all been proposed as treatments for stretch marks, although there is little medical evidence to support the effectiveness of such treatments.
Current treatments are particularly limited in their ability to deliver long-lasting improvements for all skin types.
Stretch marks often fade over time and become unnoticeable. For women who develop stretch marks in pregnancy, these usually become less noticeable around 6 to 12 months after giving birth.
Makeup can be used to conceal stretch marks on more exposed areas of the body while they are more pronounced.
Creams, oils, and topical preparations
There is no high-quality evidence that applying lotions, creams, or oils to the skin can help the appearance of stretch marks.
Topical treatments are preparations containing active ingredients that are applied to the surface of the skin.
Several studies have compared the effects of topical treatments to preparations containing no active ingredients, or to the effects of receiving no treatment at all.
These investigations found no statistically significant difference between the groups, suggesting that currently available treatment options do not enhance or speed up the healing process of stretch marks.
Vitamin A is referred to as a retinoid. Retinoids make skin appear smoother and more youthful. They’re used in many over-the-counter topical cosmetic creams.
Simply using a topical extract of vitamin A, or taking vitamin A orally, can contribute to your skin’s health and overall appearance. A diet rich in certain foods, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, might also help you increase your vitamin A levels.
In an older study in 1996, researchers identified retinoids as helping the appearance of stretch marks. Further research is still necessary to identify all of its effects on stretch marks.
Some people swear by sugar as a naturopathic microdermabrasion method.
Microdermabrasion performed by a dermatologist is one of the few clinically proven methods to make stretch marks fade. So this home remedy seems worth a try.
Rubbing a sugar scrub on the skin will exfoliate the area. To do this:
Mix one cup sugar with 1/4 cup of a softening agent, like almond oil or coconut oil, before mixing to the consistency of wet beach sand.
Add some lemon juice.
Scrub the mixture on the part of your body where the stretch marks are.
Repeat several times a week while in the shower, making sure to rub the mixture on for 8-10 minutes.
While little clinical evidence exists for aloe vera as a stretch mark cure, pure aloe vera is both a natural healing agent and a skin softener. This makes it an ideal home remedy to try for stretch marks.
Apply pure aloe vera from a plant to your stretch marks daily after your shower.
Collagen is the protein in your skin that allows it to keep its shape and appear healthy. As we age, collagen decreases in our face and our bodies.
Collagen production can be stimulated with hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid can be absorbed by consuming a capsule or extract.
Since stretch marks are scarring from skin damage, coconut oil might help heal the appearance quickly.
Coconut oil has been studied for its healing properties and was found in rats to reduce the time it takes for skin wounds to heal.
Applying virgin coconut oil to your stretch marks each day might take away some of their red appearance. Unless you’re allergic to coconuts, this oil is considered safe.
The prevention of stretch marks is challenging. It appears that stretch marks do not occur when the stretching of the skin is gradual rather than abrupt. Thus, rapid changes in body size should be avoided if possible. Since stretch marks represent small scars, rapid growth of the body can result in tearing of the skin and more stretch marks. Slower changes in body size may allow the skin to adjust more gradually. People with better skin elasticity and less rigid collagen are less likely to develop stretch marks, but it is not possible to modify these skin characteristics at present.