Stretch Marks

Pregnant woman applying spray to her stretchmarks
Skin Problems Image Gallery Stretch marks can appear any time that your body undergoes rapid change, including pregnancy. See more pictures of skin problems.

While you can appreciate the beauty of the colors pink, purple and red, you don't necessarily want to wear them on your skin. Unfortunately, those deep, bright hues may become part of you in the form of stretch marks at some point in your life.

Stretch marks are often associated with pregnancy, which is why they are more common in women, but they can appear whenever your body is going through rapid changes, such as during puberty or times of great weight loss or gain.


Also called striae, stretch marks form in the dermis, or middle layer of skin. Stretch marks are often misunderstood. In fact, they have very little to do with skin actually "stretching." No one knows exactly what causes them, although some doctors believe they appear because of the hormones associated with certain changes in our bodies [source: Robertson]. Some people get stretch marks, while others don't. If someone in your family has had them, chances are you may experience the same fate.

If stretch marks started to appear when you were young, there is some hope. They can go away after puberty. Of course, the bad news is that if you got them as an adult, they're probably not going anywhere. The bright side in all of this is that stretch marks don't cause health problems. In time, they can fade, and there are treatments to help them along. There also are things that you can do to either avoid them or make them less severe.

If you have stretch marks or fear that they will soon become a reality in your life, this article is a good start. You'll learn more about what causes stretch marks, what you can do about them and how effective treatment can be.


What Causes Stretch Marks?

Not everyone finds stretch marks attractive. They may look like red, pink or purple streaks. They might show up as indented lines, or they can appear as bright streaks that fade to light pink, white, silver or gray. These colorful marks most commonly end up on several areas, including the stomach, thighs, hips, breasts, upper arms, lower back or shoulders.

Stretch marks often accompany a change in your body. Many pregnant women, for instance, develop stretch marks. Pubescent girls sometimes get them on their newly growing breasts. They can occur elsewhere in both girls and boys during puberty. If you've shed some extra pounds and tightened and toned your body, you may also see stretch marks. Bodybuilders sometimes get them on their shoulders from rapid muscle mass gain.


An excessive number of stretch marks can also indicate that something's wrong. They might appear when you gain weight, take oral corticosteroids, use topical steroids, or have adrenal gland disease, Cushing's disease, or one of several rare genetic disorders. If you start seeing widespread stretch marks on your body, see a doctor for a possible diagnosis [source: Kantor].

It seems fairly obvious that stretch marks, as the name implies, occur when the skin is stretched out. But some doctors suggest that they are caused by the hormonal changes our bodies experience during weight gain. This happens most often during pregnancy and the teen years, but it can also occur in obese people and weight lifters, in whom rapid weight gain is common. The marks usually occur when the body is producing extra cortisone, which is why people using corticosteroids, a medication related to cortisone, are susceptible.

If you have stretch marks and want to know how to get rid of them, read on.


How to Get Rid of Stretch Marks

You may be wondering if it's possible to get rid of stretch marks. Well, if you're a teen, there's some good news. Most stretch marks that are already making you feel a bit self-conscious should slowly disappear over time. For adults, it's a different matter. Stretch marks will fade over time, but they will not vanish completely. From the start, the best way to combat stretch marks is to avoid rapid weight gain. If you notice some popping up, however, it's a good idea to act as soon as possible. The faster you address the problem, the easier it will be to get rid of them.

Some lotions, creams or other products can cover stretch marks up. To help them fade, choose a cream with a retinoid, such as Retin-A, Renova, Tazorac or Differin. Retinoids work by increasing collagen and elastin production in the skin. Combining glycolic acid, a chemical peel, with retinoids might produce even better results. Pregnant or nursing women, however, shouldn't use products that contain retinoid. Although you may see creams containing peptide advertising the ability to repair stretch marks, there is little evidence to back up that claim [source: Robertson].


For extensive stretch marks, laser treatment a potential option. Different types of lasers work best on distinct types of stretch marks. A dual laser approach may be best to take care of all your marks. You will see results in three to five sessions, but the marks will not go away. They may be too faint for anyone to notice but you, however. If you're wondering how painful the treatment is, just be prepared for some mild bruising and swelling.

If you're worried about surgical procedures or spreading chemicals on your skin, or if you're just looking for an alternative, check out the natural remedies for stretch marks on the next page.


Natural Remedies for Stretch Marks

You don't have to stretch your budget on your stretched skin. Since lotions and creams can only help stretch marks fade, it might be worthwhile to try some homemade remedies.

Although many people suggest that vitamin E reduces or prevents scarring, there is no scientific evidence that it works [source: University of Miami Department of Dermatology].If you want to try taking matters into your own hands, there are a couple of things you can do. Some people say that a daily massage helps keep stretch marks at bay. And although there isn't a lot of evidence in favor of it, some studies suggest that wheat germ oil can reduce stretch marks in their early phases.


Moisturizing with cocoa butter or shea butter is another oft-mentioned remedy for stretch marks that has little scientific backing. Keeping your skin moisturized is never a bad thing, however, and many experts recommend doing it several times a day. Make sure you're not allergic to cocoa butter or shea butter before you try this recipe, and remember that stretch marks appear in the dermis, while lotions only penetrate the epidermis, or upper layer of skin. So don't expect any significant changes.

Although there may be several anecdotal claims concerning various home remedies, most sets of scientific data haven't been able to pinpoint anything in particular. Most over-the-counter products, such as glycolic acid, Vitamin C or retinoids, tend to perform better in tests than home remedies. Prepare to pay a little more for these products, however, if you choose to use one. Glycolic acid treatments, for example, can cost around $100.

Stretch marks don't only affect your looks; they can also cause pain and discomfort. Find out why on the next page.


Stretch Mark Burning and Itching

So it's not bad enough that you want to hide under lots of clothing because your skin looks like a stretched accordion, but now you're very itchy and feel a burning sensation.

Here's where those home remedies or over-the-counter creams and lotions may help. Stretched skin is often dry, and dry skin can itch and burn. Your best bet is to find a moisturizer that works well for your skin, and then use it liberally. Trying out a cocoa butter or shea butter recipe could also help.


To get the most out of a moisturizer, avoid hot showers or baths, and put lotion on when your skin is still damp. Make room in the refrigerator for your bottle of moisturizer, as cooling it can produce even better results [source: Blue Shield of California].

Check the ingredients in the products you use on your skin. You should avoid anything with alcohol, and stay away from heavily chlorinated water. That may mean you skip the community or health club pool, where lots of chlorine is added to kill potential germs. If you live in a dry region, think about using a humidifier to mist some moisture into the air.

Try not to scratch, as it only irritates your skin. Finally, take good care of your nail health by cutting them short often. You are less likely to break sensitive skin if your nails are short. If you experience severe burning or itching, call your doctor.

Unfortunately, you know by now that you cannot completely get rid of stretch marks. They also won't do you any harm, however, and if you catch them early, you may be able to make them less severe. For more research on stretch marks, see the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Baumann, Leslie. "The Effects of Topical Vitamin E on the Cosmetic Appearance of Scars." University of Miami Department of Dermatology. Aug. 1999. (Aug. 20, 2009)
  • Chang, Anne Lynn. "Risk Factors Associated with Striae Gravidarum." Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. May 26, 2004. (Aug. 20, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Stretch Marks." (Aug. 20, 2009)
  • Medline Plus. "Striae." (Aug. 20, 2009)
  • Robertson, Annabelle. "Stretch Marks Getting Under Your Skin? Smoother Skin Doesn't Have to Be a Stretch, Doctors Say, Because Treatment Options Abound." WebMD. (Aug. 20, 2009)