Repeat after me: There is nothing wrong with having stretch marks. Got it? Good. Some women like to think of stretch marks as battle scars, and I understand why. When I look in the mirror, I see a body that lost a significant amount of weight. I see a body that has gone through the physical trauma of childbirth. Even though I try to practice body positivity daily and encourage it in others, I have to admit that I’ve purchased just about every cream on the market that promises to get rid of stretch marks. All bodies should be celebrated, but who wouldn’t want a tummy (or underarms, or inner thighs) that are “blemish” free? To understand how you can prevent or reduce the appearance of stretch marks, you first have to understand how and why they occur.
What causes stretch marks?
“Stretch marks are very common and are the result of tears in the dermis layer of the skin typically caused by rapid weight gain, rapid growth, pregnancy, puberty, hormonal changes, bodybuilding, and some medications including steroid use,” says cosmetic plastic surgeon Stephen Greenberg. Plastic surgeon Brian Pinsky elaborates, “This [stretch marks] happens when the forces stretching the skin area are greater than its inherent elasticity. Once it’s gone, it never comes back.” Also called striae or striae gravidarum (which kind of sounds like a Harry Potter spell) in pregnancy, stretch marks can appear anywhere on the body, but are most commonly found on the stomach and breasts during pregnancy and on the arms, hips, and thighs from rapid growth like that experienced as a result of bodybuilding or puberty. According to the American Pregnancy Association, there are three stages of stretch marks during pregnancy. First, stretch marks will appear light in color and the surrounding skin may be itchy. Then, the stretch marks will deepen in color to a dark purple or red and grow in length. After pregnancy, the red and purple stretch marks will fade to a color a little lighter than your natural skin tone. Except for that one person we all know on Facebook who posts pictures of her nonexistent third trimester bump, exclaiming, “Can you believe I’ve only gained five pounds this pregnancy?” most women gain weight rapidly while pregnant, but not all pregnant women develop stretch marks. Why is that? Well, genetics have a lot to do with it. According to WebMD, if your mother developed stretch marks during pregnancy, more than likely you will, too. Supporting the evidence that genetics may predispose certain people to get stretch marks, the company 23andMe conducted a study that pinpointed four genetic variants that directly influence whether or not a person will develop stretch marks. According to 23andMe’s report, “The analysis identified an association between stretch marks and a variant near the ELN gene that encodes for the protein elastin. Defects in the gene are known to affect the integrity of the skin as well as cause heart defects.” Think you’re in the clear because your mom had a stretch mark–free tummy in her last trimester? Well, you still may earn your stripes. “Just because your mom did not get stretch marks while pregnant does not mean that you will not develop them,” says Greenberg. Up to 90 percent of women get some form of stretch marks due to pregnancy, and up to 70 percent of us will experience stretch marks that are not pregnancy related. With such a high percentage of the population impacted, it’s no wonder that there are over two million Google Search results for the phrase “stretch mark removal.”
Preventing stretch marks is as easy as a day at the spa.
Ok, so not really. But, most of the things dermatologists say might prevent stretch marks, like getting massages and daily stretching, are just as relaxing. According to Candy Campbell, RN, an assistant professor at the University of San Francisco, “Research shows greater BMI … and larger weight babies cause more stretching of the dermis and is more likely to cause stretch marks on the abdomen, breasts, and thighs.” While you can’t do anything about the size of your baby, you can be mindful of weight gain during pregnancy. Most doctors recommend a healthy weight gain of 25 to 35 pounds for the average women (which is easier said than done when the only thing that staves off morning sickness is all of the carbs). Reach for the fresh fruits and veggies instead of empty calories though, and you may just prevent stretch marks from forming. In addition to keeping an eye on weight gain, one of the easiest ways to possibly prevent stretch marks is to hydrate your skin by drinking plenty of water. According to a resource published by the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority, “If your skin is not getting the sufficient amount of water, the lack of hydration will present itself by turning your skin dry, tight and flaky.” Dry skin is more susceptible to stretch marks and wrinkles because the skin is dehydrated. Water helps the skin stay plump, smoothing cells and mitigating the risk of stretch marks. Daily massage may also keep striae at bay. One study done by researchers in Turkey showed that pregnant women who massaged their skin at least 15 minutes a day with bitter almond oil reduced their likelihood of developing stretch marks by about 20 percent. According to the study, “It was found that a 15-minute massage applied with almond oil during pregnancy reduced the development of striae gravidarum, but using bitter almond oil had no effect on this in itself.” The researchers’ takeaway: “It is recommended that pregnant women be informed about the positive effects of massaging applied with almond oil early during their pregnancy.”
I’ve got stretch marks anyway. Now what?
Despite all that pampering, you may still develop stretch marks. While there’s nothing wrong with having stretch marks, you might feel a little self-conscious when you look in the mirror. If you’re like me, you’ve probably thought about trying or actually invested in creams that claim to reduce the appearance of stretch marks. But do they work? Unfortunately, not so much. “I would be [wary] of any topical creams or ointments that promise a reduction in appearance or removal of stretch marks,” Greenberg tells HealthyWay. Unfortunately, if a product claims to reverse stretch marks once they’ve formed, it’s probably too good to be true. However, just because a moisturizer can’t completely reverse stretch marks doesn’t mean the product can’t effectively reduce the appearance of stretch marks. In particular, dermatologist Lela Lankerani, DO, says products containing topical tretinoin can “improve the appearance of stretch marks.” Topical tretinoin is commonly used to treat acne, but it can also be an effective treatment for wrinkles and dark areas on the skin (like stretch marks). According to the Mayo Clinic, topical tretinoin works by “by lightening the skin, replacing older skin with newer skin, and by slowing down the way the body removes skin cells.” That’s because tretinoin is a retinoid. Retinoids are derived from vitamin A. When applied to the skin, retinoids can help boost collagen production and even out some skin discoloration. You may have to see a dermatologist for prescription-strength tretinoin cream for stretch marks, but many over-the-counter face creams contain tretinoin or retinol, which could help diminish the appearance of stretch marks. Lankerani says chemical peels may also help reduce the appearance of stretch marks. Chemical peels are cosmetic skin-resurfacing treatments that help reduce the discoloration stretch marks can cause. Unlike tretinoin creams that can be purchased over the counter, a chemical peel can only be done in your dermatologist’s office, so you may want to pick up the phone and schedule an appointment.
Say so long to stretch marks for good.
If you’re ready to see your stretch marks disappear permanently, there are a couple of ways to truly banish them. More women than ever are turning to plastic surgeons postpartum for a trendy “mommy makeover,” which can include the removal of stretch marks in addition to other surgical procedures. “Depending on the area of the body, the only way to get rid of them is cut them out with procedures such as a tummy tuck, brachioplasty, or thigh lift,” says Pinsky. Many women still feel like they should keep their tummy tuck a secret, but there’s no shame in getting plastic surgery. If removing your stretch marks through plastic surgery helps you regain your pre-pregnancy confidence, then go for it. Just know that like any medical procedure, most cosmetic surgeries will require significant recovery time. While it’s usually totally safe to get pregnant after cosmetic surgery, most doctors recommend waiting for plastic surgery until you’re done having kids—or else you may end up opting to have the same procedure done a second time. If you’re looking for a less invasive option to remove stretch marks, dermatologists also recommend laser therapy. Laser therapy to remove stretch marks works by emitting pulses of laser light that trigger new skin-tissue production at the site. “The only proven and effective treatment for stretch marks are select lasers,” says Greenberg. “In my practice we have had great success in treating stretch marks with a fractional non-ablative 1440 laser. This laser treatment … uses fractional laser light to shrink, fade, and smooth stretch marks for a marked reduction in their appearance. This treatment initiates new tissue and collagen production at the target site resulting in this improvement in color and texture.” Laser therapy is generally done in your cosmetic surgeon or dermatologist’s office but is considered a lunchtime procedure, meaning you can be in and out of your appointment in about 30 minutes with minimal discomfort.
There is a third option.
Haven’t you heard? There is a third option when it comes to stretch marks. You can reduce stretch marks’ appearance, remove them through surgery, or take the advice of dermatologist Fayne L. Frey, MD: “Women should embrace their stretch marks. In a culture that has emphasized physical beauty, it is time women embrace themselves for who they are, not what they look like!” Amen, sister! Frey says, “Almost 95 percent of women ages 18 to 98 feel inadequate with themselves when they walk past a mirror.” I can relate. I’m only a few months postpartum. I’ve lost most of the baby weight, but my favorite pre-pregnancy jeans still don’t fit. Even though I have a great support system at home, I feel like I’m sometimes looking at a stranger. I don’t like the body I see in the mirror most of the time. I’m not alone. But ladies, we’re being too hard on ourselves. Greenberg often reminds his patients to “remember that their [stretch marks’] presence is often a reminder of a big life accomplishment; most commonly the birth of a baby or significant weight loss.” If you’re struggling to embrace your stretch marks, there are few things that can help you learn to love your new body:
Appreciate your new assets.
Yes, I’m talking about your new boobs. You may have a few stretch marks, but you’ve got Dolly Parton-size breasts now. And aside from your labor and delivery bill, they were totally free!
Schedule some alone time.
A lot of new moms think they’ll be seen as bad parents if they leave their kid for even a second. But I have news for you: Alone time is necessary for your sanity and self-image. Do something just for you. Schedule a massage. Go for a 20-minute walk. Sit in your car and watch Netflix on your phone. Whatever you do, make sure it’s something that you do for you. You’ll be more relaxed and more apt to like what you see in the mirror.
Remember that you don’t have to like your body all the time.
Being body positive does not mean you have to love your body all the time. Instead, try practicing a bit of body neutrality. Sometimes striving for body positivity can be just as harmful as a negative self-image because you’re still putting a lot of pressure on yourself to live up to a certain ideal. Body neutrality simply means saying, “This is my body and I’m fine with it most days.” The bottom line on stretch marks? Do whatever makes you feel good. Buy the cream. Schedule a chemical peel. Get cosmetic surgery. Or, do nothing. How you think about and respond to your stretch marks totally your choice.