Stretch marks, which the medical community calls striae distensae, are common and may affect up to 88 percent of people.
Puberty, pregnancy, and other periods of pronounced growth are the most common causes of stretch marks. The marks tend to lighten over time. They may eventually seem to disappear, or they may be permanently visible.
In this article, we describe what stretch marks are and who tends to get them. We also look at ways to diminish their appearance, including home and natural remedies. Finally, we explore the evidence behind these methods.
What causes stretch marks?
Pregnancy and periods of quick weight loss or gain can cause stretch marks.
The skin is elastic, but when it stretches or shrinks quickly, this can interrupt the body's production of two important proteins: collagen and elastin. This disruption sometimes leads to the scarring known as stretch marks.
Stretch marks tend to first appear as discolored lines in the skin, sometimes with a red or purple tinge. They are sometimes itchy and may have a different texture from the surrounding skin. Over time, they usually become lighter. In many people, they seem to disappear.
Stretch marks can appear in people of all ages. They often develop the buttocks, hips, thighs, or breasts. The marks are most likely to appear during:
- puberty-related growth spurts
- periods of quick weight loss or gain
- weight training that increases muscle mass quickly
Some people may also get stretch marks after using creams or ointments that contain steroids for extended periods. The marks are also associated with Cushing's disease and Marfan syndrome.
Stretch marks tend to become less noticeable over time. However, because they are a type of scar, they never disappear completely.
A dermatologist can prescribe tretinoin, a type of retinoid. Several studies have found that tretinoin can reduce the early appearance of stretch marks, but that the medication has less of an effect on mature marks.
Dermatologists can use several techniques to reduce the appearance of stretch marks. These include:
- laser therapy, such as pulse dye laser treatment
- ultrasound treatment
- radiofrequency treatment
- chemical peels
No single method works for everybody. Dermatologists may recommend a combination of the techniques listed above.
Home and natural remedies
A variety of home and natural remedies can minimize the appearance of stretch marks. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) has reviewed the evidence that supports many of them.
The AAD advises anyone who is pregnant or breast-feeding to check with a doctor before using treatments for stretch marks. This is because some products contain ingredients that could harm the baby, such as retinol.
Popular home and natural remedies that may be effective include:
Creams, lotions, and gels
For the best results, people should apply creams, lotions, and gels as soon as stretch marks appear.
There are many creams, lotions, and gels that claim to treat stretch marks. However, according to the AAD, researchers have found that no single product works for everyone and that many do not work at all.
A person may have the best results if they use these products as soon as stretch marks appear and apply them daily for several weeks. It is important to massage the products thoroughly into the area with marks.
Many of these products can be purchased online.
According to the AAD, there is currently no evidence that massaging cocoa butter, olive oil, almond oil, or vitamin E oil into stretch marks makes them fade. However, these products are generally safe, and some people may benefit from them.
Stretch marks do not tan, and when a person gets a tan, the marks can become more noticeable.
Using a self-tanning lotion, however, can help to disguise stretch marks. A wide variety of these lotions are available for purchase online.
When applying a self-tanner, the following steps can help to achieve better results:
- Before using the product, exfoliate the skin to remove any dead cells. Take extra care with areas of thicker skin, such as the elbows, knees, and ankles.
- Dry the skin thoroughly before applying the self-tanner.
- Wash the hands with soap and water after applying the lotion to each section of the body, to avoid dyeing the palms of the hands orange.
- For a more natural look, blend the product well in areas such as the ankles, feet, wrists, and hands.
- Dilute the lotion when applying it to the knees, ankles, and elbows. These and other areas of thicker skin tend to absorb more of the product.
- Give the skin at least 10 minutes to dry before dressing.
- After applying the lotion, avoid wearing tight-fitting clothing and any activity that can cause sweating for at least 3 hours.
Hyaluronic acid occurs naturally in the skin. Results of some studies suggest that it makes early stretch marks less noticeable.
This acid may appear on ingredients lists as sodium hyaluronate, and a range of serums, lotions, and moisturizers contain it. Many can be purchased online.
Hyaluronic acid does not work for everyone. A person is likely to see the best results if they use it over a long period.
Can stretch marks be prevented?
Some proponents suggest that applying products such as almond oil, cocoa butter, olive oil and vitamin E to the skin may prevent stretch marks, but the AAD reports that no studies support these claims.
There is some evidence that skin care products containing hyaluronic acid or the herb centella may help to prevent stretch marks. However, genetic makeup may simply make some people more prone to them than others.
It is worth remembering that while stretch marks are permanent, they tend to fade over time. In many cases, they can seem to disappear.