Skincare

Your Non-BS Guide to Stretch Marks

Wendy Rose Gould

I distinctly remember the deep shame and frustration I felt toward my growth spurt stretch marks. Every evening throughout junior high, I’d devoutly spread a slippery layer of Palmer’s cocoa butter across my thighs, breasts, and stomach, desperate to keep those angry red lines from snaking any further across my body. I was promised that my nightly applications would eventually pay off. The packaging — and those beauty magazine stacked in the corner of my bedroom — said so.

As you can probably surmise (perhaps from your own experience) the $5 cream and every other “miracle cure” that inspired hope did not deliver. I sit here, a good 15 to 20 years later, with time-faded, silvery white lines and buyer’s remorse. It took years for the red streaks to soften in color, and more years yet for me to come to terms with their presence. If I’m being completely honest, I think I’m still probably coming to terms with their alarming invasion.

Over the years, I’ve researched countless treatments, creams, and even minimally invasive procedures that promised to prevent, reduce, and expedite fading. Through it all, I’ve gleaned that there’s an incredible amount of misinformation regarding how stretch marks form, how they ought to be treated, and whether they’re even preventable to begin with. So, in an effort to curb false hope (including my own), I garnered expertise from a handful of experts who were just as eager as I was to cut through the marketing BS.

Above, I only spoke about the stretch marks gifted to me by the adolescence gods in middle school. Though this is a very common time for them to develop, it’s not the only time in which they do. Stretch marks, medically referred to as striae, form any time you gain weight quickly, like during pregnancy, intense muscle building, or simple weight gain.

“This [weight gain] ultimately causes the skin to stretch without having time to heal itself,” explains Dr. Jason Emer, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist in West Hollywood. “These marks are caused by the tearing of the dermis; the lower portion of the skin between fat and skin layers. Stretch marks may also be influenced by hormonal changes associated with puberty, pregnancy, bodybuilding, or hormone replacement therapy.”

He says that stretch marks typically occur in areas that are susceptible to weight gain — a.k.a. where larger amounts of fat are stored. This includes your stomach, thighs, hips, breasts, lower back, butt, and even upper arms. Though they may look painful, they aren’t, and they do not pose any health risks.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to misinformation on stretch marks. We’ve decided it’s time to do the world a favor and set the record straight. We consulted a handful of experts to break down all the myths — including whether or not you can get rid of them permanently.

iStock / ti-ja 

Myth #1: Stretch Marks Are Preventable

It doesn’t matter how much cocoa butter you lather on: if you’re prone to developing stretch marks then they will come. Ultimately, this all boils down to genes.

“Genetics is a key factor that predicts the development of stretch marks,” says Dr. Sejal Shah, a board-certified dermatologist based in NYC. “Other risk factors include pregnancy, rapid weight gain or loss, being overweight, and using corticosteroids. They have also been associated with medical conditions, such as Marfan Syndrome and Cushing's Syndrome. There really isn't a proven way to prevent them, especially if you have a predisposition.”

Dr. Emer adds that “although there are a lot of creams and oils on the market, no treatment has ever been clinically proven to prevent stretch marks.” Moral of the story: save your cash.

Myth #2: Only Women Get Stretch Marks

While stretch marks are more common in women due to pregnancy and dramatic puberty changes, men get them, as well.

Myth #3: You Can Cover Them With a Tan

This isn’t true — in fact, a bronzed glow will make these silvery streaks pop. “Generally, stretch marks will not tan, so a tan will most likely make them more noticeable,” says Dr. Shah. Spare your skin the damaging UV rays.

Myth #4: It’s Possible to Completely Remove Stretch Marks

While some treatments can improve the appearance of stretch marks and help blend them in with surrounding skin, they will likely never be completely eliminated.

“Typically, more than one type of treatment is necessary to see results, and even then, the stretch marks may not fully disappear,” says Dr. Robb Akridge, a microbiologist and the founder of Clarisonic®.

Truth: Treatments That Can Make a Difference

Though you cannot prevent or completely remove stretch marks, a handful of options do exist that can effectively minimize them. One important factor to understand is that new, red stretch marks are much easier to treat than their faded, silvery counterparts due to increased blood flow, says Dr. Shah. Because there is blood flow going to the area, it’ll still be possible for the skin to react to treatment (that redness is a sign that your skin is trying to heal itself!). Once the marks have faded, however, correcting their look will be more challenging.

“Because stretch marks are a type of scar, collagen-stimulating treatments, such as resurfacing lasers — including fractional and CO2 lasers — can help minimize their appearance,” says Dr. Shah. To treat your stretch marks with lasers, you can expect pricing to start around $500 per treatment. This cost could go up into the thousands for larger areas and more aggressive treatments, such as CO2 laser. Note that any pricing will depend on the type of laser you opt for and the size of the treated area.

Dr. Shah adds, “Often a series of treatments may be required. Results can vary greatly. Some people may have better results.”

You could also look to microneedling as an option for stretch mark correction. Microneedling devices may help to improve the appearance of stretch marks with multiple treatments over time. These help to stimulate collagen, creating plumper skin,” says Dr. Jennifer Chwalek, a board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Dermatology. According to Chwalek, pricing ranges from $500 to $1,000 per treatment depending on the area. Patients may see improvement after one treatment, but it often takes at least three to five treatments.

If you’re trying to save money, you could also try an at-home microneedle roller as an alternative to in-office microneedling. These generally cost around $100 to $300 for the device. These tools aren’t as aggressive (they don’t penetrate the skin as deeply as in-office options) and, therefore, require more frequent treatments. It’s also imperative to keep them impeccably clean, so bear that in mind.

Finally, you could try topical retinoids. These help stimulate collagen as well, and may help minimize the appearance of stretch marks, explains Dr. Chwalek. Again, this is particularly true when it comes to new marks. There are over-the-counter versions (more mild retinols) and prescription options (more aggressive retinoids) available, and prices range from $10 to several hundred per bottle. Read our article breaking down everything you need to know about retinoids for more information on this powerhouse ingredient.

[Editor's note: Retinol shouldn't be used by those who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. Please consult with your doctor before use.].

As frustrating as stretch marks can be, they are a fact of life for most of us. While we recommend trying to just embrace them — though we understand that’s easier said than done! — you still have some viable options to consider to reduce their appearance. That said, try not to throw your money at a treatment or product making really bold claims, especially now that you know nothing can permanently erase them. Do your research, be smart with your investments, and — most importantly — be kind to yourself.

 

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