What Are Stretch Marks?

stretch marks

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What Are Stretch Marks?

Stretch marks, or striae distensae, are a type of scarring on the skin that happens when the skin stretches quickly. They can also occur when the skin shrinks after being stretched. This is common in pregnancy or extreme weight gain and loss in non-pregnant people.

Although stretch marks can affect both men and women, they are more common in women. The scarring may appear as reddish or purple markings that stretch over certain areas of the skin. This scarring looks different from your normal skin. Over time, stretch marks can fade and take on a glossy, paler appearance. While they can occur on any part of the body, stretch marks are most often found on the thighs, hips, abdomen, breasts, lower back, buttocks, and upper arms. 

Symptoms

The appearance of stretch marks varies and depends on the location, cause, skin type, and duration. You can experience a variety of symptoms, but the most common include: 

  • Streaks or lines in the skin
  • Red, purple, light gray, or glossy in color
  • Indent or slight ridge in the skin
  • Changes or fades in color over time
  • Streaks appear on the breasts, thighs, buttocks, upper arm, lower back, hips, and abdomen
  • The skin may feel itchy or irritated 

Identifying Stretch Marks 

Since stretch marks are easy to detect, you will likely be able to identify them on your own. If you’re pregnant or have been pregnant or recently gained or lost weight, do a full-body scan of your thighs, abdomen, lower back, breasts, buttocks, and other common areas for stretch marks. 

If you want an expert opinion, a primary care doctor or dermatologist can also diagnose stretch marks. They will take a thorough medical history and do a visual examination to determine the cause. Stretch marks are not dangerous, so recommendations for treatment typically involve products or procedures to help reduce their appearance.

Causes

Stretch marks happen for various reasons, including rapid weight gain or loss, puberty, and pregnancy, among others. This causes the skin to stretch or shrink. When this happens, collagen and elastin, which give skin its shape, rupture. During the healing process, stretch marks may appear on the skin. The most common causes of stretch marks include:

  • Pregnancy weight gain and an increase in the size of breasts and abdomen 
  • Rapid weight gain that causes the skin to stretch 
  • Extreme weight loss that causes the skin to shrink 
  • Muscle hypertrophy or an increase in muscle size 
  • Hormonal changes and growth spurts that happen during puberty
  • Cosmetic surgery such as breast augmentation
  • Endocrinopathies (Cushing syndrome)
  • Side effect of topical corticosteroid use

Types

Stretch marks are often categorized by cause and duration. Here are some of the more common types of stretch marks:

  • Striae rubrae: early or new stretch marks
  • Striae albae: older stretch marks
  • Striae gravidarum: pregnancy stretch marks

Treatment

There are a variety of treatments available for stretch marks, including topical and surgical methods. However, since stretch marks are scars, they are permanent. So, at best, treatment may improve their appearance and make them less noticeable.

Although surgical treatments seem to work best for reducing the appearance of stretch marks, the procedures will not eliminate stretch marks completely. The same is true for topical treatments, which have an even lower success rate for minimizing the appearance of stretch marks.

To help decide which option is right for you, consider making an appointment with a dermatologist. They can examine the stretch marks and advise you on the best treatment options.

In-Office Procedures

A dermatologist may recommend an in-office procedure to help reduce the appearance of stretch marks. These include:

In general, these procedures aim to reduce the color, texture, and overall appearance of stretch marks while helping to blend them in with the surrounding skin. It often takes multiple sessions using different therapies to see any noticeable results. When combined, some of these treatments produce better results, especially in stubborn stretch marks. 

Topical Treatments

There are countless skin care products such as ointments, creams, lotions, and gels that promise a reduction in stretch marks. Some of the more common ingredients used in these products include:

  • Olive oil
  • Cocoa butter
  • Glycolic acid
  • Aloe vera
  • Retinoids
  • Silicone
  • Trofolastin
  • Ascorbic acid
  • Pirfenidone 

Unfortunately, most topical treatments have only mild effects and require long-term use to see results. That said, if you want to use a topical treatment, experts recommend that you use the product early, apply it daily for several weeks, and massage it over the stretch marks. These products require a lot of time to show any results. 

Two common topical products that have shown some promise in reducing the appearance of stretch marks are hyaluronic acid and tretinoin. Hyaluronic acid, which is a glycosaminoglycan, occurs naturally in the skin. It may help hydrate the skin, add volume, and reduce wrinkles. Tretinoin, a retinoid, may be successful in reducing the appearance of early stretch marks. However, the research does not support using it for striae albae, or older stretch marks.

If you’re pregnant or have any skin conditions, talk to your doctor before applying a topical treatment for stretch marks.

Coping

Stretch marks are common in puberty, pregnancy, weight gain, and weight loss. Both men and women can experience stretch marks, but they are twice as common in females. The good news is they rarely cause medical problems and are generally categorized under cosmetic or an aesthetic concern. Because of this, skincare products claiming to prevent, reduce, or eliminate stretch marks are plentiful. 

Topical treatments such as lotions, creams, and ointments are available both over-the-counter and as a prescription medication. If you are experiencing itching, a stretch mark cream may help reduce the urge to itch. 

In-office procedures like laser therapy, microneedling, and microdermabrasion, while generally considered safe, do come with more risk than topical treatments. If you’re concerned about existing stretch marks or the possibility of getting them, it’s best to talk to a dermatologist or your primary care doctor. 

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Article Sources
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