The first time I noticed that stretch marks had surfaced on my larger-than-average baby bump, I was four months pregnant with my first. By the time I gave birth, I’d broken out in countless eggplant-, cherry- and blackberry-toned streaks across and underneath my mammoth tummy. And my bosom. And my thighs.
At first, I blamed myself for not slathering my growing midsection with cocoa butter, expensive miracle creams or even olive oil every night before bed. But 15 months later when I tried to take more preemptive measures the second time around to no avail (another set of dark stripes eventually sprouted), I stopped stressing. After three years, my marks have faded, leaving my once baby-soft belly full of silvery-white scar-like lines.
While pregnancy — and all that stretched-out skin — is the most common culprit behind stretch marks (medically known as striae distensae), they can also appear with rapid weight loss, weight gain and during growth spurts, says Karen Edstrom, a dermatologist in Dundas, Ont. “Hormones, physical stress and genetics also play a role,” she adds. About 75 percent of pregnant women end up with them, usually showing on the belly, breasts, thighs, derrière, arms, lower back and hips. And, we hate to break it to you, but they are indeed permanent.
Here’s the good news: Stretch marks are completely harmless, and many mamas actually wear them as a badge of honour. (If you missed the message that went viral last year, google it: “Your body is not ruined. You’re a tiger who earned her stripes!”) That said, if you’re not too rip-roaringly happy (pun intended) about your lingering lines, you can mask them by using certain creams or in a dermatologist’s office.
“There are various options to help treat stretch marks. It doesn’t matter where they’re located — what’s more important is their colour,” Edstrom says. If you’re willing to pay for treatment, she recommends intense pulse light therapy (IPL), or pulsed dye laser — both can change red marks to white. You’re looking at four to six visits that start at about $300 per session, depending on your scars and the clinic. Microdermabrasion also works, and costs about $150 per session.
Anatoli Freiman, a dermatologist in Toronto, adds that he’s had success using a ProFractional resurfacing laser (also used to reduce the look of acne scars, wrinkles and brown spots caused by sun damage), which uses a laser to enhance collagen production and smooth the skin. It also takes a few appointments, and costs about $500 per session.
If you’d rather go the doctor-free route, Edstrom suggests using creams with vitamins A and C, as well as alpha-hydroxy acids, to fade purplish-hued marks. Or, if you’re really self-conscious you can use makeup. “Cover-up may also conceal them. Often a green-based foundation under your regular colour can help hide the redness,” she says.
Tip: Avoid using creams with Retin-A if you’re pregnant or nursing as there hasn’t been enough research on whether it can harm your little one. Ask your doctor about potential risks.
A version of this article appeared on our September 2013 issue with the headline "Tiger Stripes," p.46.