Stretch Marks: What They Are, Where They Come From, and How to Deal With Them

Disclaimer: Results are not guaranteed*** and may vary from person to person***.

Stretch marksStretch marks are streaks, stripes, or lines that appear on the body when the skin is suddenly and intensely stretched. Although harmless, the appearance of stretch marks can make people self-conscious. It is hardly surprisingly that most people with stretch marks would want to know how to get rid of stretch marks fast. Unfortunately, while there are some limited options available as stretch mark treatments, the only means to remove stretch marks (naturally or not) is time.

Presentation of Stretch Marks

Stretch marks usually appear as bands or stripes of parallel lines on the skin. If you touch one, the mark will feel slightly ridged or indented. Stretch marks are often reddish when they first appear and may also be sore or itchy. Over time, they will soften to a purple color, then a whitish, glossy, or pale silver hue. Stretch marks are more likely to form over areas with weaker connective tissue such as the abdomen, hips, flank, buttocks, thighs, upper arms, and breasts. Both men and women can develop stretch marks, though they are more common in women.

The Nature of Stretch Marks

Your skin is remarkably pliable and elastic, but even this feature has limits. If the skin stretches too suddenly, the dermis (middle layer) will tear. What appears as a stretch mark is actually the deeper layer of skin becoming exposed through the rip. The reason a stretch mark appears red or purple when it first appears, by the way, is because all of the underlying blood vessels are now more visible. As the blood vessels contract and the paler fat beneath shows through, the appearance will fade towards a silver, white, or glossy look.

Causes of Stretch Marks

About 70% of pregnant women will develop stretch marks after the 25th week. As the body produces hormones to soften the pelvic ligaments and supply the flexibility needed for delivery, skin fibers become softened. This makes the dermis more vulnerable to tearing and the weight gain and abdominal stretching of the growing fetus can supply the necessary strain. Pregnancy stretch marks often appear on the abdomen, thighs, and/or breasts.

Weight Gain
Rapid weight gain can cause the dermis to stretch further and faster than normal and provoke a tear. The actual cause of the weight gain is largely irrelevant for this purpose and can just as easily happen if the new weight is due to fat or an increase in muscle growth.

Weight Loss
Rapid weight loss is also associated with stretch marks, but for different reasons than weight gain. As you lose weight, your skin will begin to relax and contract. This can make previously existing stretch marks (from the weight gain) become more visible and they may be noticed for the first time. The other more rare reason is that rapid weight loss can produce a lot of excess skin. As the skin contracts and sags, it will produce enough strain to cause a dermal tear.

As the body develops and grows, the connecting fibers in the dermis will naturally stretch and lengthen. Puberty, however, throws the usual pace of development out the window as the body is put through periods of rapid and sudden growth capable of making the dermis overstretch and tear. In boys, stretch marks on the shoulders or back are more common. In girls, the typical sites are on the hips, thighs, and breasts.

Cortisol is a stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands. In large or prolonged amounts it is capable of weakening the elasticity of skin and increasing the risk of a tear. Normal stress, or even periods of extreme stress, don’t usually cause this. Instead, it takes something like prolonged use of topical corticosteroids or Cushing’s syndrome to get the amounts needed.

Inherited Conditions
Two inherited disorders, Marfan syndrome and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, can also cause stretch marks. Marfan does so by weakening the elasticity of body tissue. Ehlers-Danlos does it by disrupting the structural proteins of the skin. The conditions are uncommon at best and will present with other symptoms beyond just stretch marks.

Stretch Marks Treatments

As mentioned at the beginning, there are no ways to get rid of stretch marks, fast or otherwise. Some skin creams, moisturizers, or herbal advocates may say their products can remove stretch marks naturally, but this is misleading and not supported by evidence. This doesn’t mean such products are useless—moisturizers and soothing lotions can help ease the itchiness and soreness of a stretch mark in the early stages—just that they cannot prevent stretch marks or make them go away faster than normal.

Stretch marks will go away with time, but the process is slow. For those interested in what to do in the meantime, there are some options that, although not able to get rid of stretch marks, can help lessen their appearance.

Tretinoin Cream
This is a product that contains retinoic acid and may be more familiar as the acne treatment Retin-A. It helps promote collagen growth and has some strong clinical evidence for being able to reduce the width and length of stretch marks, especially when used early on—though it can cause skin irritation. WARNING: retinoic acid can cause birth defects and should not be used by anyone who is pregnant or breastfeeding.

The cosmetic treatment involves “polishing” the skin with a stream of tiny crystals to remove the upper layer of the skin. This provokes the growth of a new, and ideally more elastic layer. Microdermabrasion shows some ability to improve the appearance of older stretch marks that have reached the silver/whitish/glossy stage.

Various cosmetic laser treatments are capable of stimulating the growth of collagen and elastin. They can reduce the appearance of both newer and older stretch marks, but you will need to speak with a doctor to identify the one that is most suited for the stage of your marks and your skin type.

A bit of camouflage is possible using various makeup products. It won’t reduce the size of stretch marks but it can make them less visible and let them blend in against your skin better.