How to Minimize Stretch Marks After Pregnancy

Stretch marks accompany at least 50 percent of pregnancies. See more pregnancy pictures.
©iStockphoto.com/boumenjapet

There are women who glow when they're with child. Their skin is clear, their hair is lustrous and they generally become more beautiful with each passing trimester.

And then there's the other 90 percent of the female population.

Magical as pregnancy may be, few women would extol its cosmetic virtues. Weight gain, bloating, varicose veins and skin discoloration are typically considered some of the condition's downsides. In the aftermath, many women experience hair loss, sagging skin, rashes and, perhaps the most dreaded of pregnancy's cosmetic bummers, stretch marks.

Stretch marks accompany at least 50 percent of pregnancies [source: BabyCenter]. They often appear on the belly in the third trimester or in the initial weeks after delivery, but they might also crop up on the hips, buttocks and breasts -- anywhere with heavy concentrations of fat cells.

Technically called striae gravidarum, they result from excessive stretching of the skin. As the stomach gets bigger and bigger to accommodate a growing baby, the skin has to get bigger, too. The skin is fairly elastic, but during pregnancy (as well as adolescence and any period of major weight gain) it can be called on to stretch too much and too quickly. The result is tearing in the dermis, the middle of the three layers of skin. Tissue structures in the dermis are pulled apart, breaking collagen bundles embedded there. The result is a pink, red or purple, striating scar.

The term "scar" implies permanence -- so what's with all the stretch-mark products out there? Is there anything to be done about the lines that run across abdomens all over the world?

In this article, we'll look at some of the possible treatments for stretch marks, both preventive and therapeutic. We'll find out who is most likely to get stretch marks, what can be done about them and which treatments really don't do much.

While most women do get stretch marks, many don't. It's tough to know which group you'll fall into until the time comes. There are, however, some risk factors.

Preventing Stretch Marks During Pregnancy

You can help minimize the formation of stretch marks by eating healthily and staying hydrated during pregnancy.
You can help minimize the formation of stretch marks by eating healthily and staying hydrated during pregnancy.
©iStockphoto.com/lostinbids

Did your mom get stretch marks? Does your sister have 'em? Your cousin? If so, you're more likely to develop them yourself.

A possible genetic component is just one of the risk factors for stretch marks, but it's one that's beyond a woman's control. Large baby size, carrying twins or triplets and excess amniotic fluid are other factors that fall into that category. Some of the others factors, though, are more open to outside control.

How much and how quickly a pregnant woman gains weight, for instance, affects her chances of developing stretch marks and, if they show up, how severe they are. A 50-pound (22-kilogram) gain is going to cause the skin to stretch more than a 25-pound (11-kilogram) gain, and a 25-pound gain over three trimesters will give the skin more time to adjust than the same gain in the final month.

Another controllable risk factor is diet. A healthy one can decrease the severity of stretch marks. In particular, consuming lots of water along with a nutritious intake of silica, vitamins A, C and E, healthy protein, and zinc can increase skin's elasticity, while over-consumption of caffeine can decrease it [source: MedicineNet].

As far as spending money on stretch-mark prevention, you're not going to get that much of a return. Lots of people swear by over-the-counter creams, lotions and oils, but there's really no reliable evidence they work to prevent anything except itchiness -- which is no small feat [source: BabyCenter]. Skin irritation often strikes pregnant bellies as a side effect of the stretching and the hormones. Applying ingredients like lanolin and cocoa butter may not do much in the stretch-mark realm, but they can do wonders for other skin issues, so apply away.

If you're looking for positive side effects, all of these prevention methods are good prenatal choices. Lotions soothe the skin. Complete prenatal nutrition helps keep mom and baby healthy. Slow, moderate weight gain is easier on the body than the fast and extreme kind. Unfortunately, they may not prevent stretch marks. If your skin isn't elastic enough, you'll probably end up with some streaks.

That's when the post-natal action comes into play.

Minimizing Stretch Marks After Pregnancy

While it's not easy to prevent stretch marks, there are effective ways of removing them, or at least greatly minimizing them, after the fact -- especially if you're willing to go under the knife.

Surgery isn't necessary if what you're looking for is simply an improvement, as opposed to a cure. The least invasive approach is the topical-application route. Exfoliating products like tretinoin (Retin-A) and glycolic acid, which remove the top layer of skin cells to stimulate fresh skin formation, can reduce the severity of the scars. Less invasive means less effective, though. It's not going to work miracles.

For more significant results than topical treatments but still without the cutting, laser removal is an option. A dermatologist or cosmetic surgeon uses laser light to essentially burn off the scarred skin so new, unmarred skin will grow in its place. This will definitely reduce the appearance of the marks, and it's less traumatic than surgery, so it has a much shorter recovery time. However, it's also not a miracle worker.

For a cosmetic miracle -- or the closest you can get to such a thing -- you'll probably have to endure the scalpel. In what's basically a tummy tuck procedure, a cosmetic surgeon removes the scarred belly skin below the navel, basically folding the tummy. It literally gets rid of the stretch marks (and the pregnancy "pooch" along with it). The procedure has downsides, though. It's very invasive, so it requires a long, uncomfortable recovery period -- not ideal for a new mom with a demanding infant. It's also very expensive, thousands-of-dollars expensive. And since it's cosmetic surgery, it's not covered by insurance.

Laser therapy is less costly, but still not covered. Topical products are the least costly option.

Ultimately, unless the marks are particularly severe or you have a low tolerance for imperfection, you may prefer to save your money and wait it out. Stretch marks fade significantly over time. Within a year or less, they'll go from screaming red to pearly white, with a slightly depressed appearance, usually a shade or two lighter than your natural skin tone. They'll still be there, but you probably won't notice them much unless you go looking. And there's not much time to go looking when you're running around after a toddler.

For more information on stretch marks, pregnancy and related topics, look over the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Are Pregnancy Stretch Marks Different? American Pregnancy Association.http://www.americanpregnancy.org/commondiscomforts/PE-pregnancy-stretchmarks-different.html
  • Pregnancy -- Stretch Marks. SureBaby.http://www.surebaby.com/stretchmarks.php
  • Stretch marks. BabyCenter.http://www.babycenter.com/0_stretch-marks_1352276.bc
  • Stretch Marks. MedicineNet.http://www.medicinenet.com/stretch_marks/article.htm
  • Stretch Marks (Striae). DocShop.http://www.docshop.com/education/dermatology/body/stretch-mark-removal/