With more celebrities and influencers posting photos of their tiger stripes on social media every passing week, stretch marks have never held a more prominent place in everyday conversation. But applauding pictures of Chrissy Teigen's striated thighs and Lady Gaga’s stretched breasts isn’t the same as being comfortable with the markings on your own body. If worries about your stretch marks (or future stretch marks) take up too much space in your brain, it’s time for a little education.
Everyone has skin that’s genetically predisposed to withstand a certain tensile load, or amount of stretching and tightening. If you gain weight during a growth spurt or pregnancy, your skin will stretch as far as it can and then begin to tear through the collagen and elastin fibres that give your skin shape, texture and elasticity. However, the size of your baby and amount of postpartum weight loss are other factors that play a role in the appearance of stretch marks. “Some women heal these tears with beautiful scars and you can hardly see them, while others heal with bad scars,” says Stephen Mulholland, a plastic surgeon based in Toronto. “The difference is in your DNA and the quality and resiliency of your collagen. Ultimately, you’re fighting the genetic code of your parents and what they gave you.”
There are red or purple stretch marks, which are fresh, blood-vessel-filled tears that are newly inflamed and trying to heal. Silver or white stretch marks are older markings that have healed to create scars
Thanks to rapid, concentrated weight gain across the belly, pregnancy often results in stretch marks on the stomach. Other common causes are fast growth during puberty or bodybuilding, oral and topical steroid treatments and some medical conditions that affect hormones, such as Cushing syndrome and liver disease.
If your parents or grandparents developed them during puberty or pregnancy, there’s a good chance that you will as well. Age can also be a factor. “Generally, younger people are more prone to stretch marks,” says Mark Lupin, a dermatologist based in Victoria. “Stretch marks are less likely to occur in our later years, unless they are caused by medications or medical conditions.”
Every woman has heard that if she religiously smears cocoa butter or vitamin E over her pregnant belly, she’ll have unmarked skin after she gives birth. “Unfortunately, there has been no randomized, double-blind study that suggests moisturizing prevents stretch marks,” says Mulholland. “It’s not going to hurt, but it also might not make a difference.” For the best odds, Lupin suggests using creams with glycolic acid or lactic acid, which have been shown to improve collagen generally, despite no evidence that they will affect stretch marks.
Another way to prevent them is to minimize weight gain during pregnancy, especially if they run in your family. Stick to your doctor’s recommendations, which is usually 25 to 35 pounds for the average person.
If you’re a planner with money to play with, consider completing a course of radiofrequency treatments (with a device like Forma, Venus Freeze, Exilis or Evolve) once a month for six months in the year before you try to conceive, says Mulholland. For about $1,000 to $2,000 for six sessions, the device will heat your skin to 43C for 45 minutes to “create more elastin and collagen so that your skin has reinforcements,” he says.
If you’re lucky, your body will heal well and your scars will barely be visible over time, which is sometimes the case for fair skin because mature stretch marks are white. If you don’t want to take the gamble or have darker skin (which means that your yours may be less noticeable when they’re fresh but become more prominent as they lighten), there are in-office cosmetic procedures that can minimize the appearance of them by 50 to 75 percent. Of course, some women have even better results, while others may be disappointed with only 30 percent reduction. For any of the following treatments, laughing gas, topical numbing creams and air-cooling devices can offer bearable discomfort rather than pain. Each treatment will likely require three to six sessions, spaced one month apart.
Ultimately, there are proactive steps that many women can take to minimize stretch marks or treat them if they crop up. But all of the prevention and correction in the world might still result in prominent scarring for women who are genetically predisposed to them. In these cases, as in so many others, body acceptance is the only way forward.