Skin can stretch to accommodate size changes, including those due to weight fluctuations, puberty, muscle gain, and pregnancy. If the skin stretches too quickly, the collagen and elastic tissues in the skin may break, resulting in stretch marks.
Stretch marks typically first appear as red, pink, or purple lines. Over time, the blood vessels heal, and the lines often fade and become less noticeable. However, they may not disappear entirely.
According to some estimates, up to 80 percent of the population get stretch marks. They are particularly common during and after pregnancy due to the rapid changes in the body.
Teenagers who experience fast growth and body changes during puberty may also develop stretch marks. Some people who gain muscle quickly, such as weightlifters, may get stretch marks on their arms, shoulders, and legs.
How to prevent stretch marks
While there is no way to guarantee that a person will not develop stretch marks, the following tips may help reduce the likelihood:
1. Eat omega-3s
Chia seeds are a plant-based source of omega-3.
Omega-3 fatty acids help the skin stay supple. Many cold-water fish contain omega-3, including:
Vegetarian sources of omega-3 include:
- chia seeds
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend 8 ounces (oz) of seafood per week. Pregnant women should talk with a doctor to confirm how much fish it is safe for them to eat. They should also avoid fish that is high in mercury.
2. Get vitamin D
However, too much sun exposure also raises the risk of skin aging and cancer. The Skin Cancer Foundation state that eating fortified foods and taking supplements when necessary is a safe way to get vitamin D without exposing skin to the sun.
3. Gain a healthy amount of weight during pregnancy
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend 25–35 pounds (lb) of total weight gain for pregnant women who are already at a healthy weight.
Women who are overweight before pregnancy should gain 15–25 lb, while underweight women should gain up to 40 lb.
Pregnant women should talk to their doctor about how much weight to gain during pregnancy because underlying health conditions can also affect the range.
4. Use a moisturizer
Moisturizing the skin regularly may help prevent stretch marks.
There are no creams or oils proven to prevent stretch marks. However, keeping the skin supple may be helpful for reducing the risk in some people.
Moisturizers can often help reduce itching that happens as the skin stretches. One review found that creams and oils may also help prevent stretch marks, but more recent research is necessary to confirm this.
5. Avoid anabolic steroid usage
Anabolic steroids weaken the skin's structure, so people who use them, such as some athletes, may be more prone to stretch marks.
6. Limit or avoid steroid creams for itching
Steroid creams or corticosteroids, which usually contain cortisone, may weaken skin's collagen and result in stretch marks. However, people concerned about this should speak to a doctor before discontinuing them.
People can try anti-itch creams that do not contain cortisone for minor bug bites and rashes. They can also ask a doctor about nonsteroidal creams for conditions such as eczema.
If a person must use creams containing cortisone, it is best to use them only for as long as necessary before switching to a milder cream.
7. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables
Researchers have not been able to prove that any specific vitamins prevent stretch marks, but evidence shows that skin needs a variety of nutrients, including vitamins A, C, E, and zinc, to stay healthy. Fruits and vegetables are rich in these and other vitamins and minerals.
8. Get regular exercise
Exercising regularly can help a person lose weight and avoid weight gain in the future. Remaining at a healthy weight can reduce the risk of excessive skin stretching.
Exercise also increases blood flow to the skin, which can help the skin rebuild itself.
9. Wear sunscreen and avoid direct sun
The sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays damage the skin's collagen and elastin, which can make stretch marks more likely to form.
People should seek shade, wear UV-protective clothing, and apply sunscreen daily. It is essential to allow the sunscreen to absorb for 30 minutes before sun exposure and to reapply it at least every 2 hours while spending time in the sun.
10. Avoid smoking
Smoking reduces blood flow to the skin, which deprives it of the oxygen it needs to repair itself. In addition, smoking depletes nutrients in the body that the skin needs to stay healthy.
Smoking also releases damaging free radicals, which can break down the collagen and elastin fibers in the skin.
A woman may be more likely to have stretch marks from pregnancy if her mother had them.
Rapid growth and weight gain are the most common causes of stretch marks. However, not everyone who gains weight quickly or has a growth spurt as a teenager will develop them.
Experts believe that genetics may play a role in whether or not a person gets stretch marks. The American Society for Dermatologic Surgery say that if a woman's mother had stretch marks after pregnancy, she is more likely to get them as well.
Researchers also recently identified specific genes that may predispose people to stretch marks.
There is no proven way to get rid of stretch marks once they appear. However, some new treatments look promising, including:
- Laser or light therapy, which may help repair damaged collagen and soften the appearance of stretch marks.
- Injections of platelet-rich plasma (PRP), which can help rebuild collagen and make stretch marks less visible.
- Prescription tretinoin cream, which was effective in reducing stretch marks in a small 2014 study.
- Dermabrasion, which the same study found to be effective and have fewer side effects than tretinoin cream.
A healthful lifestyle can help keep the skin looking supple and smooth and may help prevent stretch marks.
However, genetics also contributes to a person's likelihood of developing stretch marks, so it may not be possible for everyone to prevent them.
People who are bothered by their stretch marks may wish to talk to a doctor about clinical treatment options.