What do bodybuilders, pregnant women and teens going through puberty have in common? (And, no, it’s not the awe-inspiring ability to inhale a meal in three seconds flat.)
The answer is stretch marks.
While you may have thought those lovely skin stripes only affect moms-to-be and their expanding bumps, the truth is they’re actually pretty common for a wide swath of the population.
What are stretch marks exactly?
Stretch marks, or “striae distensae” as they’re known in less-easy-to-pronounce circles, are basically a form of permanent scarring.
During a period of rapid weight gain or growth, your skin is put under incredible tension because it’s not able to expand quickly enough. This causes collagen and elastin in your skin to rupture, generating the stretch marks you see.
“Stretch marks show more inflammation early after they appear,” explains Dr. Michi Shinohara, a dermatologist who sees patients at the Dermatology Clinic at University of Washington Medical Center-Roosevelt. “This is likely the body’s attempt at healing the wound, so they can initially appear redder and then fade with time.”
Who gets stretch marks?
Wait a darn minute, you might be grumbling. Why were you graced with a tiger clan’s worth of mama stripes during your pregnancy when your sister-in-law sported absolutely none on her baby bump?
You, mama tiger, simply won the gene lottery.
Just like your height, hair texture or eye color, stretch marks tend to run in the family, Shinohara says. That means that if your mom had them, you’re likely to get them as well.
But don’t worry — you’re far from alone. One study shows that as many as 88% of pregnant women and 86% of growth-spurting teens get stretch marks.
Then there are those aforementioned bodybuilders, who may have stretch marks pop up on their arms, chest and legs due to fast-growing muscle mass. Certain medical conditions like Cushing syndrome can also result in this type of scarring.
“A lot of people are concerned about stretch marks,” notes Yasmeen Bruckner, a certified nurse midwife at the Midwives Clinic at Northwest Outpatient Medical Center. “People ask me all the time for recommendations of products to use to prevent stretch marks from happening.”
And, boy, are there a ton of options out there. Think everything from oils, creams and lotions to microdermabrasion sessions and laser therapy. According to an industry report, the stretch marks treatment market was worth $2.1 billion in 2018 and is projected to grow to $3.9 billion by 2026.
So can that $2.1 billion worth of serums and skin treatments actually do much of anything?
Can you prevent stretch marks?
Hate to break it to you, but the answer is no.
“Unfortunately, there isn’t any evidence that topical treatments of any kind prevent them,” Shinohara says.
Those special creams and lotions may market themselves as being able to keep stretch marks at bay, but the truth is, they don’t do much of anything except perhaps moisturize your skin.
“Even if a product can’t prevent you from getting stretch marks, oftentimes people still want to try something,” Bruckner notes. “For some people, the stretch marks can be really itchy when they first come in so, if anything, those products can help to keep the skin moisturized to reduce discomfort.”
That said, Bruckner does advise pregnant women to avoid any products containing retinol, which can be absorbed into your bloodstream and harm your baby.
How can you get rid of stretch marks?
OK, so while you can’t prevent yourself from getting stretch marks (bummer), the upside is that there are certain treatments that can effectively reduce their appearance. Just remember to keep your expectations in check: nothing will be able to get rid of those scars completely.
Remember the saying that time heals all wounds? Well, it comes pretty darn close with stretch marks. (Take that, $2.1 billion stretch marks industry.) Your stretch marks naturally heal over time, fading from an angry red, purple or brown color to a more subtle gray, white or silver hue.
Retinol-containing creams or lotions can also help when applied to fresh stretch marks, Shinohara says. Just remember that pregnant women should avoid these types of products.
Other heavy-duty options she suggests include laser therapy and microdermabrasion. These types of cosmetic dermatology treatments can treat the redness and flatten your stretch mark scars, minimizing their appearance.
The easiest solution, though, may just be to embrace your stripes.
“I think we’re in a really wonderful movement about body acceptance,” Bruckner says. “We shouldn’t be ashamed of our stretch marks. They’re a sign of our incredible bodies and what we’re capable of.”
So whether you’ve nurtured a new baby, hit a growth spurt or greatly upped your swole status, the best treatment of all might just be to love the skin you’re in.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect Northwest Hospital is now UW Medical Center – Northwest, a second campus of the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle.