Stretch Marks

Written by Elea Carey | Published on July 12, 2012
Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Wider, MD

What Are Stretch Marks?

Stretch marks, or striae gravidarum, typically appear as bands of parallel lines on your skin. These lines are a different color and texture than your normal skin, ranging from purple to bright pink to light gray. When you touch stretch marks with your fingers, you might feel a slight ridge or indentation in your skin. Sometimes, stretch marks feel itchy.

These lines commonly appear during or after pregnancy or after a sudden change in your weight. Stretch marks are not dangerous, and they often disappear over time.

Where Do Stretch Marks Occur?

You can have stretch marks just about anywhere, but they are most common on your stomach, breasts, upper arms, thighs, and buttocks.

Who Is at Risk for Developing Stretch Marks?

The following put you at greater risk for developing stretch marks:

  • being a woman
  • being Caucasian (pale skin)
  • having a family history of stretch marks
  • being pregnant
  • having a history of delivering large babies
  • being overweight
  • having dramatic weight loss or gain
  • using corticosteroid medications

What Causes Stretch Marks?

Stretch marks seem to be caused by a stretching of the skin and an increase of cortisone in your system. Cortisone is a hormone naturally produced by your adrenal glands. However, too much of this hormone can make your skin lose its elasticity.

Stretch marks are common:

  • During pregnancy: Stretch marks typically occur between the sixth and seventh month of pregnancy (AAD). During pregnancy, the skin is stretched in numerous ways to make room for the developing baby. This continual tugging and stretching can cause stretch marks.
  • After gaining or losing weight: Stretch marks sometimes appear when you rapidly gain or lose weight. Teenagers may also notice stretch marks after a sudden growth spurt.
  • When using steroid medications: Corticosteroid creams, lotions, and pills can cause stretch marks by decreasing the skin’s ability to stretch.
  • If you have certain diseases: Cushing’s syndrome, Marfan syndrome, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and other adrenal gland disorders can cause stretch marks by increasing the amount of cortisone in your body.

How Are Stretch Marks Diagnosed?

Your doctor can tell if you have stretch marks by simply looking at your skin and reviewing your medical history. If he or she suspects your stretch marks may be caused by a serious illness, blood, urine, or imaging tests may be ordered.

What Medical Treatments Are Available for Stretch Marks?

Stretch marks often fade with time. If you don’t want to wait, there are treatments that can improve their appearance. However, no treatment can make stretch marks disappear completely.

Treatments for stretch marks include:

  • Tretinoin cream (Retin-A): This works by restoring collagen—a fibrous protein that helps give your skin elasticity. It is best on recent stretch marks that are red or pink in color. Tretinoin cream should not be used during pregnancy, and it may cause skin irritation.
  • Pulsed dye laser therapy: This therapy uses a laser to encourage the growth of collagen and elastin. It is best on newer stretch marks. Darker-skinned individuals may experience skin discoloration.
  • Fractional photothermolysis: This is similar to pulsed dye laser therapy in that a laser is used. However, it works by targeting smaller portions of your skin, causing less skin damage.
  • Microdermabrasion: This therapy polishes the skin with tiny crystals, revealing new skin under the stretch marks that may be more elastic. This may improve the appearance of older stretch marks.
  • Excimer laser: This stimulates skin color (melanin) production so that stretch marks better match the surrounding skin.

Medical procedures and prescription medicines for stretch marks are not guaranteed to cure them, and they can be expensive.

What Can I Do on My Own to Treat Stretch Marks?

There are many products and procedures that promise to remove stretch marks, but none has proven effective so far. Moisturizing your skin may help to relieve the itchiness of stretch marks. Applying self-tanning lotion to your stretch marks is a temporary way to minimize the difference in color between your normal skin and your stretch marks.

How Can I Prevent Stretch Marks?

There is no way to prevent stretch marks, even if you regularly use lotions and creams. However, keeping your weight in a healthy range by eating well and exercising regularly can help to prevent stretch marks caused by sudden weight gain or loss.

In addition, while it is healthy for you and your baby to gain weight when you are pregnant, ask your doctor how much pregnancy weight gain is right for you.

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