Known medically as striae, stretch marks are reddish or purplish lines that can appear on the abdomen (particularly around the navel), chest, upper arms, back, thighs, and buttocks.
They are not medically significant, although in rare cases they can be an indication of an underlying condition, such as the endocrine disorder known as Cushing’s disease.
Stretch marks tend to fade with time, but they do not go away completely. As they fade, they sometimes turn pale white or silvery.
What Causes Stretch Marks?
Stretch marks are really a type of scarring. They’re caused when the collagen fibers in the skin’s middle layer (dermis) tear apart. Hormonal changes—particularly at puberty or during pregnancy—are associated with these ruptures. Certain medications, such as steroids, can also damage the fibers, which is why body builders sometimes develop them. Stretch marks are not caused by rapid bone or muscle growth, as was once believed.
One study found that well over half of pregnant women develop stretch marks. Younger mothers and those who are overweight before becoming pregnant tend to be at greatest risk for developing the marks.
How Are Stretch Marks Treated?
Two main options are available for treating stretch marks. Neither will remove the marks entirely, but they can greatly help to reduce their appearance. Your physician will discuss with you which treatment will be most effective for you. The age and color of your stretch marks are two factors that will be considered when choosing a treatment (or combination of treatments). Generally speaking, the younger (pinker and redder) your stretch marks, the easier they are to treat.
- Tretinoin cream (Retin-A) can help rebuild torn collagen. It’s used mostly for relatively new stretch marks—those that are still pink and less than six weeks old. Pregnant or nursing women should not use tretinoin, for it’s associated with birth defects in unborn children.
- Laser treatments can be effective in improving the appearance of stretch marks. Several types of lasers are used. Pulsed-dye lasers are a great option for red stretch marks. They help reduce some of the inflammation that led to the collagen tears, and they encourage new collagen to form. Fractional lasers are often used on older, white stretch marks. Some research suggests that these lasers help
marks fade by up to 75 percent. White marks can also be helped sometimes with excimer lasers, which stimulate re-pigmentation, thus making the marks look closer in color to the surrounding skin.
Don’t waste your money on over-the-counter “stretch mark” creams and lotions. They may make your skin feel better, but they will do absolutely nothing to prevent or treat stretch marks.