Stretch marks are a common aesthetic concern that almost everyone experiences, and if you’re human, chances are you have a few of your own. Regardless of how you may feel about stretch marks, they are a normal part of life and occur for a variety of reasons.
Stretch marks most commonly appear when a lot of skin and tissue growth occurs. Some people develop stretch marks due to factors such as rapid weight loss or rapid weight gain. And others may see stretch marks arise during pregnancy or even after bodybuilding for long lengths of time.
So, do stretch marks go away? And what are the best treatment options to consider if you want to reduce these marks after weight loss?
In this article, we’ll explore why stretch marks develop and share evidence-based tips to reduce them.
Why Do Stretch Marks Happen?
Stretch marks, referred to as striae distensae in the medical field, are indented streaks that most commonly appear on or around the buttocks, thighs, chest, armpits, and back. These marks are considered a type of scarring that occurs due to a change in elasticity.
Most often, stretch marks appear as a result of significant weight change (either weight gain or loss), growth spurts, or an increase in corticosteroids (either taken externally or created internally through a condition such as Cushing’s syndrome).
For women, these marks may also develop as a result of pregnancy. Stretch marks can also be further categorized into a few different groups depending on their cause.
The Physiology Behind Stretch Marks
The causes of stretch marks are varied, and they can arise due to a mix of factors including physical skin stretch, hormones, and changes in collagen and elasticity. Certain hormones can change the structure of your skin’s layers and lead to the appearance of stretch marks.
Research has found increased levels of estrogen, androgen, and corticoid receptors in stretch marks. Increased levels of other hormones like adrenocorticotropic hormone can actually increase protein catabolism, or breakdown, and increase fibroblast activity.
Fibroblasts are involved in the wound healing process, which changes the structures of the skin’s layers. Relaxin, another hormone involved in wound healing (as well as collagen catabolism), is found to be elevated in skin with stretch marks.
The restructuring of your skin’s layers in stretch marks may look like:
- Increased levels of elastase, which are enzymes that break down the elastin (or elastic fibers) in your skin.
- Densely packed thin elastic fibers surrounded by thicker fiber, dilated vessels, and some swelling.
- Densely packed, thin scar-like collagen fibers.
Factors That Increase Likelihood of Developing Stretch Marks
While many factors that lead to stretch marks are related to physical changes, not everyone develops stretch marks. And there are also some people who develop more prominent stretch marks compared to others.
Here are some factors that may make an individual more likely to develop stretch marks:
- Gender. Females are more likely to develop stretch marks. This may be due to hormonal shifts experienced by some women.
- More common in certain races; dark skinned individuals in particular may have more prominent appearance of stretch marks.
- Family history of prominent stretch marks.
- Certain genes involving collagen and fibronectin genes. While research on the genetic component of stretch marks is limited, some evidence does illustrate that stretch marks are associated with decreased levels of collagen and fibronectin production in specific parts of the skin.
- Using topical corticosteroids.
- Excessive weight gain in a short period of time.
Tips to Improve Stretch Marks
Stretch marks behave a lot like wound tissue. And like wound tissue, there are ways you can help the skin heal. If you’re someone who has stretch marks, you may also want to visit a dermatologist to determine what skin care treatment option is best for your skin.
While it may not be possible to eliminate them altogether as this depends on your unique body, here are some evidence-based treatment options that may help.
There are a variety of topical products that have been marketed as treatments for stretch marks, such as peels, creams, lotions, and serums. Some of them have more evidence than others, although, based on a critical review, the evidence altogether is limited.
Stretch marks develop through a complex process that happens on a cellular level. So, using external products that cannot do deep within and target the root of the issue may not be as helpful for prevention.
However, stretch mark creams may help reduce the appearance of them through added hydration. One randomized controlled trial found that moisturizers with ingredients such as rosehip oil, vitamin E, vitamin C, cocoa butter, and centella triterpenes reduced the appearance of stretch marks.
The authors of one scientific review found some evidence to suggest that massaging skin with centella or almond oil may help prevent stretch marks. Another popular stretch mark remedy, the use of hyaluronic acid, may help although the evidence for this is also limited.
Microdermabrasion is an aesthetic cosmetic procedure that involves gently exfoliating or “sanding” the outermost layers of your skin. Although this is a non-invasive procedure, microdermabrasion can help in reducing stretch marks in the early stages of their development.
One study found that microdermabrasion was just as effective as tretinoin (at a dosage of 0.05%) for reducing early stretch marks.
In another study, combining microdermabrasion and a platelet rich plasma procedure (also known as a vampire facial) was found to have synergistic benefits for stretch marks. Together, these two procedures may reduce stretch marks more than when they’re used just on their own.
Microneedling is another cosmetic procedure that is commonly used for scarring and improving skin texture, though it’s more invasive than microdermabrasion.
One benefit of using microneedling as opposed to microdermabrasion is that it can also help reduce older stretch marks when paired with a topical ascorbic acid solution. It has also been observed to be beneficial in both light and dark skin types.
In fact, one study found that microneedling can be more effective than microdermabrasion in reducing the appearance of stretch marks. It may take up to four microneedling treatments to start seeing significant improvements in your stretch marks.
Laser therapy is perhaps one of the most popular treatments for stretch mark removal. There are many variations of laser frequencies, and some may be more effective than others.
Laser treatments work by targeting changes in blood vessels in early stretch marks. When done in later stages of stretch mark development, they target elastin and collagen changes in the layers of skin.
However, these treatments may not be a feasible option for everyone. It’s also important to note that it may take weeks to start noticing improvements in stretch marks when doing laser treatments-
Here are some of the most effective laser treatments for stretch marks.
Pulsed Dye Laser
A 585 pulsed dye laser reduced the appearance of stretch marks in a small study. The authors of the study found that this laser restored normal elastin structure to the skin. This benefit was observed to have a greater effect on red stretch marks as opposed to white ones.
Ablative CO2 Laser
An ablative laser treatment can also be beneficial in reducing the appearance of stretch marks, especially when combined with red light therapy. One study found the benefits of this laser type lasted up to 12 months after the completion of treatment (although participants with darker skin tones may experience temporary hyperpigmentation).
Fractional Glass Laser
Fractional glass lasers may also be beneficial in reducing the appearance of stretch marks. Research suggests that this type of laser results in the same improvements in stretch marks as ablative lasers.
Other Treatment Options
Finally, there are a few other options out there that you may want to explore if none of the other options. Some people may choose to undergo a plastic surgery procedure to reduce excess skin. This loose skin may be contributing to stretch marks after rapid weight gain or loss, so having it surgically removed may help.
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Heather is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN, LDN), subject matter expert, and technical writer, with a master's degree in nutrition science from Bastyr University. She has a specialty in neuroendocrinology and has been working in the field of nutrition—including nutrition research, education, medical writing, and clinical integrative and functional nutrition—for over 15 years.