Stretch marks are completely natural. Moreover, most of us will develop these red and silver stripes at some point in our lives, especially at various stages of development and during pregnancy.
Thankfully there's now growing acceptance on social media of our body's little quirks. There has been a surge of images promoting the normality of stretch marks, noticeably from celebrities with huge Instagram followings. Khloe Kardashian posted about her stretch marks with the caption: 'I love my stripes', and younger sister Kylie Jenner and supermodel Ashley Graham have also posted photos of their stretch marks in the past.
Whether you choose to embrace them is up to you. And if you're not ready to reveal them, that's OK too. But to help us better understand stretch marks, we’ve called upon a raft of skin experts to explain exactly what they are, why they occur and the best way of preventing them, as well as how to reduce their appearance (should you want to).
What are stretch marks?
“Stretch marks, or striae, occur when the skin is stretched beyond its natural elasticity," says Alexandra Mills, cosmetic nurse and owner of AM Aesthetics. "When this happens, the collagen and elastin fibres in the dermis can break, leading to visible marks.”
Stretch marks are essentially a form of skin scarring, which can occur anywhere on the body, although they tend to affect areas that have endured a growth spurt. These include the stomach during pregnancy, breasts during puberty, upper arms, thighs and buttocks.
They can be identified by their distinct stripe-like appearance, which some liken to claw marks. “When stretch marks first appear, they tend to be red, purple, pink, reddish-brown, or dark brown, depending on your skin colour,” says Dr Anastasia Therianou, consultant dermatologist. “With time, the colour fades and the narrow bands sink beneath your skin.”
Why causes stretch marks?
“When the skin is stretched during periods of rapid growth, such as puberty or pregnancy, or due to rapid weight gain or loss, you can be left with stretch marks,” says Alexandra.
Pregnancy: Your skin stretches to accommodate your growing baby.
Hormones: This is especially relevant if there is a sudden change in certain thyroid and adrenal disorders, or for those taking anabolic steroids with excessive levels of testosterone. “Puberty, pregnancy and polycystic ovarian syndrome are states that also predispose to the development of striae, all because of the stretch on tissue combined with the hormonal changes,” says Dr David Jack, aesthetic doctor and founder of Dr David Jack Clinic.
Puberty:“Stretch marks occur where the child experiences a sudden growth spurt,” says Dr Therianou.
Weight training: Rapid muscle growth can cause stretch marks on the arms and legs.
Rapid weight loss or gain: Stretch marks occur when the skin rapidly shrinks or stretches.
Do stretch marks go away?
Just like with other scars, stretch marks will fade over time. However, they are permanent and may still be slightly visible.
“Redness in new stretch marks will generally turn pale white with time, but once the damage is done, it’s done,” says Dr Jack.
Are stretch marks healthy or not?
Stretch marks are totally harmless to physical health. “Stretch marks aren’t dangerous and are widely considered to be a purely cosmetic issue,” notes Dr Therianou.
However, there’s no denying that any type of skin condition has the potential to negatively impact someone's mental health as well as their self confidence. It’s important to seek support and advice if you feel down about your stretch marks - even though your doctor may not class stretch marks as requiring physical intervention, they will be able to provide mental health support.
Why do some people get stretch marks?
Aside from scenarios that cause the skin to stretch, a couple of other factors explain why some people get stretch marks and others don't. “Hormonal changes and genetics may also play a role in their development,” Alexandra notes.
For example, the hormone cortisol can weaken elastin fibres in the skin, so if you have higher levels in your body you may be more prone to stretch marks vs someone who does not.
“Additionally, certain factors like corticosteroid use and underlying medical conditions [for example, cushing syndrome] can increase the likelihood of developing stretch marks,” she adds.
What do purple stretch marks mean?
Stretch marks typically come in several different hues – each indicating how new or old the stretch mark is.
“Purple stretch marks typically indicate that they are relatively new or recent," says Alexandra. “When stretch marks first develop, they often appear as red or purple marks on the skin. The purple hue is a result of inflammation and increased blood flow in the affected area, and this discolouration is due to the underlying blood vessels being more visible in the early stages.”
Over time, these marks may fade to a lighter silver colour, and sometimes a dark grey on black skin.
Can you prevent stretch marks?
“Generally speaking, no, you can't prevent stretch marks,” says Dr Therianou. “However, researchers have found that using products containing the herb centella or hyaluronic acid, which is naturally present in our skin, may help to prevent stretch marks.”
Dr Jack also notes that maintaining a steady weight may help to prevent them. “Weight gain and body building will often result in the formation of stretch marks. However, other than by not taking steroids, keeping your weight stable and treating any hormonal disorders early on, you can’t really prevent them.”
How to get rid of stretch marks with creams
“While no one product seems to help all of the time — and some don’t seem to help at all — researchers have discovered some helpful hacks,” says Dr Therianou.
The most important thing is to apply your choice of the best stretch mark creams early. “Certain creams, gels, or oils containing ingredients like retinol, hyaluronic acid, or vitamin E may help improve the appearance of stretch marks by promoting skin regeneration and elasticity,” Alexandra adds.
Pregnancy-safe stretch mark creams: It's worth noting that you should not use retinol or retinoids while pregnant or breastfeeding, as these ingredients can harm your baby. Safe-for-pregnancy options include Burt's Bees Mama Bee Belly Butter and Mama Mio Tummy Rub Butter but always consult your GP first.
If your stretch marks are not pregnancy-related, ideally treat them as soon as you see the mark developing with:
“Retinoids such as tretinoin have undergone extensive research and are approved by regulatory bodies for specific dermatological conditions, including the treatment of stretch marks,” says Alexandra. “They encourage the production of collagen and help to strengthen and rebuild the damaged collagen fibres in stretch marks, making them less noticeable over time.”
Crucially, retinoids also speed up exfoliation. “This process helps to renew the skin's surface and fade the colour of stretch marks, making them less apparent,” she adds. “They also smooth the texture of stretch marks, making them appear less raised or indented.”
Prescription retinoids should be used under the guidance of a healthcare professional and because they can cause irritation, you should always use them as directed. Don't expect results overnight either. “It can take several months of consistent use to see noticeable improvements,” notes Alexandra.
Over-the-counter body lotions with retinol and retinyl palmitate
As with retinoids, both retinol and retinyl palmitate are derived from vitamin A. While they have similar properties, they are less potent - hence you can buy them without a prescription.
They will still make a difference to your skin but Alexandra says “they have a milder formulation and lower concentration of active ingredients, so the effects may be less pronounced as with tretinoin.”
How to get rid of stretch marks with non-surgical procedures
Luckily there are also a number of in-clinic, non-invasive procedures that are able to help reduce the appearance of stretch marks - but these require commitment and often come at a price.
Laser therapy: Fractional laser therapy or pulsed dye laser can stimulate collagen production and fade the colour of stretch marks.
Microdermabrasion: “This procedure involves exfoliating the outer layer of the skin to encourage new skin growth and reduce the visibility of stretch marks,” says Alexandra.
Chemical peels: During a chemical peel, acids are applied to remove the top layer of skin, revealing fresh cells and reducing the appearance of stretch marks.
Microneedling: “Tiny punctures are created in the skin with fine needles, promoting collagen production and improving the texture of stretch marks,” Alexandra notes.
Morpheus 8: The same tiny needles used in microneedling emit radiofrequency to both tighten the skin and trigger a wound healing response. “Fractional resurfacing, particularly with deeper treatments such as Morpheus8, works by creating micro injuries on the skin and then stimulating the fibroblast cells in the dermis to produce new collagen and elastin fibres in the damaged areas," explains Dr Jack. “Usually 4-6 treatments are needed, once per month to really see a difference in this.”
Carboxytherapy: "Similarly, carboxytherapy has a stimulating effect and involves superficial injection of heated carbon dioxide gas, which activates the fibroblast cells - usually once per week for twelve weeks is the recommended treatment schedule,” says Dr Jack.
You would need to pay for these treatments as they're not available on the NHS.
This article was originally published on Glamour UK.