Stretch Marks: Why They Happen and How to Treat Them

Medically Reviewed
stretch makrs on black woman's upper under arm
To get rid of stretch marks, consult your dermatologist. Home remedies are unlikely to work.Getty Images
Stretch marks, or scar-like lines that appear when the skin stretches and shrinks rapidly, are very common. Indeed, data suggests that as many as 90 percent of people have stretch marks.

Also called striae, stretch marks often appear following pregnancy, puberty, and fluctuations in weight.

Stretch marks are completely harmless, and there is no medical need to treat them. Some people are perfectly comfortable with their stretch marks and choose to embrace them. That’s great! But others may not like their appearance and strive to get rid of them. Doing so can result in greater comfort with how they look, potentially bolstering self-esteem.

Whatever your relationship with stretch marks, read on to learn what causes them, who is at risk, and (if you choose to) how to treat them.

What Stretch Marks Look Like

Not all stretch marks look the same. They can vary depending on where they appear on your body, how long you’ve had them, and what caused them.

Stretch marks may be pink, red, blue, purple, or dark brown, depending on your skin color.

They may appear as bright streaks or bands on the skin that fade to a lighter color. Sometimes stretch marks appear to be indented or sunken.

When they first develop, stretch marks tend to be slightly raised and can feel itchy.

They may appear on the abdomen, breasts, hips, buttocks, or other places on the body. It’s common for stretch marks to fade over time. But they may never disappear entirely.

Stretch Marks: Causes and Risk Factors

Stretch marks are the result of abrupt stretching and shrinking of the skin.

“Stretch marks can occur when the skin stretches out so rapidly that the collagen and elastin, essential proteins that provide strength and elasticity to the skin, break,” says Susan Massick, MD, a dermatologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Westerville.

During the skin’s healing process, stretch marks may show up.

Common risk factors for stretch marks include:

  • Pregnancy
  • Growth spurts during puberty
  • Rapid weight gain or loss
  • Bodybuilding or weight lifting
  • Steroid use
  • Breast enlargement surgery

“That’s true for both anabolic steroids used by bodybuilders and weight lifters and prescription steroids when used to treat medical issues, such as in connective tissue disease and certain arthritis conditions,” Dr. Massick says.

Topical steroids used to treat skin conditions like eczema can also lead to stretch marks, particularly when applied to areas like the armpit and inner thighs and groin.

Repeated use of steroids can cause a thinning of the skin, which can lead to stretch marks, notes Amy Kassouf, MD, a Cleveland Clinic?dermatologist in Twinsburg, Ohio.

Certain genetic disorders can also increase the risk of stretch marks. Striae are common in people with Cushing’s syndrome, a disorder in which the body produces too much of the stress hormone cortisol.

Prolonged elevated cortisol levels can weaken the elastic fibers in the skin, leading to stretch marks, Dr. Kassouf explains. Marfan syndrome

and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, two disorders of the body’s connective tissues,

both weaken the skin, which can lead to stretch marks.

Treatment for Stretch Marks

Stretch marks are harmless to your physical health and will often fade over time without any treatment. But if your stretch marks make you feel uncomfortable with your appearance, it’s important to note that there is no magic bullet to get rid of them.

“With any of the treatments available, none of them are a slam dunk,” Kassouf says.

Still, if you wish to minimize the appearance of stretch marks, you might want to try the following options.

Prescription Retinoid Cream

While research is slim, some studies suggest retinoids, specifically prescription-strength tretinoin, may improve the appearance of stretch marks that are less than a few months old.

The theory is that tretinoin can rebuild collagen so that stretch marks appear more like your normal skin.

Yet Kassouf warns that the effects may be too minimal for the naked eye to even notice.

Tretinoin can cause pain, irritation, and dryness, so be sure to communicate with your dermatologist if you experience any side effects while using this treatment.

Microneedling

Microneedling can be done in your dermatologist’s office. It involves poking the skin with thin needles, which create tiny injuries in the skin that in turn help stimulate collagen and elastin growth.

It typically takes three to six treatments over several months to make a noticeable difference, although it can take longer. Some people report side effects after microneedling, such as irritation, swelling, discoloration, and flaky skin.

Laser Skin Resurfacing

During this procedure, a doctor directs concentrated, pulsating beams of light toward your skin to diminish the appearance of stretch marks. A laser very precisely removes layers of the skin or creates tiny, invisible holes in the skin to stimulate the growth of collagen and make the area look smoother.

Side effects can include swelling, milia, and discoloration.

Vascular Laser Treatment

If the stretch mark appears red or purple in color, your doctor may recommend a vascular laser that specifically targets the blood vessels responsible for the stretch marks. Side effects may include temporary discomfort and bruising in the treatment area. Results typically appear a week to two weeks after treatment.

Home Remedies for Stretch Marks

While a number of home remedies are marketed as stretch mark treatments, the hard truth is that none of them are proven to work.

“When it comes to cosmetic treatments and other interventions, the goal is to underpromise and overdeliver,” Massick says. “In home remedies, over-the-counter options, and other remedies touted on social media, the vast majority tend to overpromise and underdeliver.”

And while it’s a common belief that cocoa butter, coconut oil, olive oil, and almond oil diminish the appearance of stretch marks, studies suggest these kitchen ingredients aren’t an effective antidote.

But there is no harm in trying them if you like. If you choose to do so, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends using them soon after stretch marks appear and massaging the product into the skin every day for several weeks.

The AAD also notes that while tanning in the sun may make your stretch marks more visible, self tanner can help camouflage them. Just remember that this will only cover up stretch marks and not get rid of them.

Ultimately, if you see an expensive lotion, cream, or gel that’s being marketed as a cure-all for stretch marks and it seems too good to be true, that's probably because it is.

“Save your money and don’t invest your time or attention into home remedies that can’t increase collagen or repair ruptured elastin in your skin no matter what they promise,” Massick says.

Preventing Stretch Marks

In a similar way, there is not much that can be done to prevent stretch marks, and there’s no substantial evidence that any remedies actually work.

Still, Kassouf recommends hydrating your skin with moisturizer every day — especially during pregnancy — to help make the skin more flexible to stretch.

“Think of it like Play-Doh,” she says. “When it’s new and it’s hydrated, it’s more pliable and easy to stretch. But when it’s dried out, it’s not as flexible and begins to crack. It’s kind of the same concept.”

Kassouf notes that in many cases, particularly when skin stretches rapidly, moisturizing will likely not prevent stretch marks. But there’s reason to believe it may provide some benefit.

“Technically, striae are atrophic scars due to disruption and damage to the connective tissue in the skin,” Kassouf says. “We often use emollients [moisturizing treatments] to help with wound healing, allowing better movement of epidermal cells over the wound base. If we think of the stretch marks as wounds to the skin, then potentially the emollients can help at least some of the healing mechanisms to keep up.”

While research is limited, some studies suggest hyaluronic acid, a substance that is naturally found in the body, may prevent stretch marks.

Hyaluronic acid is added to many over-the-counter lotions and creams.
One study found that Centella asiatica, also known as gotu kola, an herb used in some beauty products, may prevent stretch marks during pregnancy. Yet the researchers note the evidence is limited and more research is needed.

So keep your expectations low.

Because rapid weight gain and weight loss can cause stretch marks, aim to maintain a healthy diet and get regular exercise to prevent rapid weight fluctuations.

If you’ve been prescribed topical steroids, use them only intermittently, and in general avoid long-term or continuous use, Massick says.

“If you’ve been prescribed systemic steroids for a medical condition, the goal will be to remain on the lowest dosage possible and wean off if appropriate as soon as possible,” she says.

Talk to your doctor if you have any questions about the medications you’re taking and their possible side effects.

Finally, if you’re using anabolic steroids to build muscle, stop taking them. “They are not a healthy way to build muscle,” Massick says.

How to Make Peace With Stretch Marks

Sometimes, stretch marks are impossible to prevent or get rid of. Other than medical procedures, which Kassouf emphasizes will not always yield perfect results, there may be little you can do to minimize their appearance.

Fortunately, stretch marks tend to fade with time and turn white or closer to the color of your skin tone. “They will get less noticeable over time,” Kassouf says.

If your stretch marks make you uncomfortable, especially early on when they are red, she recommends covering them up with clothing. For example, try wearing a sun shirt or light sun pants at the beach or pool.

In some instances, Massick suggests it may be helpful to reframe the way you think about your stretch marks.

“If these are pregnancy-related stretch marks, view them proudly as a badge of honor for motherhood,” she says.

Ultimately, while it may be challenging at times, try not to put too much stock into your stretch marks.

“Remember that stretch marks may be more noticeable to you personally than to those around you,” Massick says.

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