What You Can and Can't Do About Stretch Marks
Most women have stretch marks. Celebrities like Chrissy Teigen have them, models for brands like Missguided and Asos have them, and so do thousands of others (just check out #stretchies on Instagram for proof).
"Stretch marks, known in medical terms as 'striae distensae,' are caused by rapid changes in skin tension or hormonal changes that affect the second layer of the skin, the dermis," says Dr. Melanie Palm, board-certified dermatologist, cosmetic surgeon, and founder of the Art of Skin MD, in San Diego, CA.
Most often, stretch marks develop during times of quick weight gain and growth such as pregnancy or puberty. They're also genetic. Dr. David M. Amron, founder and medical director of The Roxbury Institute and board-certified dermatological surgeon in Beverly Hills, says that stretch marks often run in families, but ultimately their cause is exacerbated by sudden changes in weight.
Even though stretch marks are common, and there's nothing wrong with your body or skin if have them, it's also normal to get hung up on them. If you don't like how they look, you've probably Googled what products will minimize stretch marks—or even better, get rid of them entirely.
The hard truth is that no matter what any cream, oil, or serum promises, there's no over-the-counter product that will completely erase stretch marks, and they can't be prevented. Dr. Palm says that includes commonly touted stretch mark treatments like using emollient-rich creams during pregnancy, massaging and dry-rubbing skin, and even taking oral collagen supplements. None have been proven to improve the appearance of stretch marks.
"Topicals really do not have any appreciable or significant change in the stretch marks because it is a tear in the actual collagen fibers. No topical product can not provide that level of cellular repair," explains Dr. Amron. "They can moisturize the area, and perhaps make [the marks] less noticeable because the skin's intensely hydrated. But even that is minimal. The tear, the discoloration, and the stria as well the groove from the layer tearing in the area will still be there."
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So, what does work? We've broken down three ways that you can actually treat stretch marks.
1. RETINOID CREAMS
One cream that can potentially reduce the appearance of stretch marks is a retinoid—but there's a catch. These products have only been shown to work on new marks. "For newer, red stretch marks, topical tretinoin cream, a retinoid, has been shown to fade stretch marks and reduce the size of stretch marks," says Dr. Palm. "One retinoid, Differin Gel ($12; target.com), is now available over-the-counter, but stronger retinoids such as tretinoin and tazarotene require a prescription.
Using a retinoid will make your skin extra-sensitive to UV/UVA rays—even when you're not applying it to your face. If you do decide to try a retinoid to minimize your stretch marks, make sure to apply SPF before going outdoors.
2. SILICONE SCAR CREAMS
Silicone creams have been proven to reduce the size and improve the appearance of early surgical scars. Since stretch marks are essentially scars, these creams can have a similar effect on them. "As stretch marks are essentially dermal scars, treating early stretch marks (when they are still red, pink, or purplish) with silicone gel or creams may have a similar effect on aesthetic improvement of striae," says Dr. Palm.
3. IN-OFFICE LASER TREATMENTS
A dermatologist-administered laser treatment is perhaps the most effective (albeit the most expensive) way of reducing the appearance of stretch marks. What laser a doctor uses depends on the color of the stretch mark and how long it's been there.
Here are the options to consider:
For red stretch marks: Since marks this color are usually recent, they can be treated most effectively. Dr. Amron says that vascular lasers, which eliminate their color from red or purple back to original shade of skin, are commonly used.
For white stretch marks: "These stretch marks are actually the most difficult to treat," says Dr. Amron. "Their loss of pigment in that area is an added issue and and not something lasers can attend to. There are some good improvements with various kinds of radio frequency lasers for tightening and supporting more collagen production."
Dr. Palm says that non-ablative infrared lasers like Fraxel, CO2 and erbium laser resurfacing are usually used. "These devices focus on building new collagen and improving the textural change between stretch-mark skin and unaffected, adjacent normal skin," she explains.
Additionally, microneedling techniques can be used in conjunction with lasers. Dr. Amron says that this can also help tighten up the laxity in the skin and the surrounding area to improve the texture and tone.