What are stretch marks?
Stretch marks are scars that develop on the body due to the rapid stretching or shrinking of the skin. Skin is naturally elastic, but when stretched beyond its normal limits, the ability to produce collagen is interrupted, leading to the formation of stretch marks.
These scars are referred to as striae distensae by medical professionals and can occur at any stage of life. They are more frequently seen in women than in men and can appear on almost any area of the body.
New stretch marks may appear as a light pink or red, depending on your skin tone. Over time, they become lighter and more faded. Stretch marks can also cause itchiness and have a raised texture.
What causes stretch marks?
Stretch marks are commonly caused by skin stretching during growth spurts, rapid weight changes, muscle growth from weightlifting, or pregnancy (stretch marks from pregnancy are known as striae gravidarum).
The rapid expansion of the skin leads to the rupture of collagen and elastin fibres, and as the skin heals, scar tissue forms as streaks on the skin.
Certain medical conditions e.g. Cushing's syndrome or Marfan syndrome can also have stretch marks as symptoms.
How to get rid of stretch marks
While all scars are permanent, there are methods to reduce their appearance and make them less noticeable. Doctors advise that stretch marks can be challenging to address, and most treatments only lead to a 30 to 50% improvement.
The most suitable option for you will depend on the age of your scars, their location, and your skin type. While some people have had success with creams and oils, in-clinic procedures have been proven to be more effective than topical lotions, and gels.
According to medical professionals and patients, these are the most effective treatments for getting rid of stretch marks.
Stretch marks and other scars can be smoothed out or faded with CO2 laser therapy. These treatments can be fractional, targeting only certain areas of the skin, or fully ablative, removing the entire epidermis to treat the deeper layers (the majority of modern CO2 lasers are fractional). Both approaches to CO2 laser therapy initiate the body’s healing process and increase collagen production, filling in the recessed scars.
Before undergoing CO2 laser treatment, your provider will numb your skin with a topical cream. Afterwards, they will use the laser over the targeted area for approximately one hour. Following treatment, you may experience temporary side effects such as tenderness and scabbing. Recovery time varies depending on whether you received fractional or traditional CO2 laser therapy, possibly taking up to a few weeks, though you should start seeing results once scabbing stops. More than one treatment may be necessary to achieve optimal results.
Micro-needling improves the appearance of stretch marks by promoting collagen and elastin production through microscopic injuries to the skin's surface.
After applying a numbing cream, your practitioner will use a handheld device with delicate needles to penetrate the top layer of your skin. Swelling, tenderness, and redness are expected for 2 to 3 days following the procedure.
Typically, to fade stretch marks you will need 3 to 5 micro-needling sessions and noticeable progress can be expected after the first 3 treatments. Annual maintenance appointments are required for those with younger more elastic skin, whereas those over 40 will need more frequent sessions, every 4 to 6 months.
To enhance and prolong the effects of micro-needling, you may want to try treatments like Vivace, which blends micro-needling with radiofrequency energy for an added collagen boost.
Another option is to apply PRP, or platelet-rich plasma, topically, which promotes cell renewal. The regenerative cells and growth factors in PRP penetrate deep into stretch marks, stimulating the production of elastin and collagen.
Tummy Tuck Surgery
Abdominoplasty, also known as tummy tuck surgery, is a procedure designed to enhance the shape of the stomach and tighten the ab muscles. During the surgery excess skin and fat are removed, including stretch marks on the lower abdomen caused by pregnancy or significant weight loss.
Tummy tuck surgery is a significant procedure that requires general anesthesia and a recovery period of up to three weeks. It has a higher chance of complications compared to other plastic surgeries and comes with significant financial costs. The procedure also leaves a large permanent scar that can be concealed, even in a bikini.
Although there are potential risks and drawbacks, tummy tuck surgery can produce dramatic results and may be worthwhile if you have others concerns besides stretch marks (or if the scars on your abdomen are particularly noticeable and pronounced).
Other ways to get rid of stretch marks
Fraxel lasers help to improve the appearance of stretch marks by promoting collagen and elastin growth. They are effective not just on recent stretch marks, which are easier to treat, but also on older ones.
You will receive a topical or local anesthetic from your doctor prior to the treatment. Unlike ablative CO2 lasers, the Fraxel Dual laser is non-ablative, which means it does not remove the top layer of skin, resulting in fewer side effects and less downtime (just one week). Results from this procedure can be seen 8 to 12 weeks after treatment and will continue to improve for half a year.
The Vbeam laser and other pulsed dye lasers are effective for treating new stretch marks as they target the redness in the skin. Vbeam has long a history of successfully removing red birthmarks on children, as well as fading acne scars, dark spots, and hyperpigmentation.
The sensation during a Vbeam treatment is often described as a rubber band snapping back on the skin, though discomfort is usually mild. After treatment, you may experience slight swelling and redness, which should subside within a week.
In order to treat stretch marks with Vbeam, you will need five sessions, spaced a month apart and the results will last for years to come.
Do stretch mark creams work?
Retin-A, a retinoid that increases collagen production and skin cell renewal, can help lighten new stretch marks when applied nightly for 24 weeks. Retin-A can be obtained through a prescription from a doctor or dermatologist, in the form of a cream, gel, or liquid, with varying strengths of 0.01% to 0.25% tretinoin.
Research has also demonstrated that incorporating hyaluronic acid into your routine can lead to a reduction in the severity of new stretch marks.
While other topical lotions may not have the same level of efficacy as Retin-A or hyaluronic acid, using them early on, daily, and massaging them into the skin can still yield positive results.
According to the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, home remedies such as almond oil, cocoa butter, olive oil, or vitamin E have no effect on fading stretch marks. Although these remedies may increase skin suppleness, more intense procedures are necessary to effectively reduce the appearance of stretch marks.
Studies & Sources
Hague, A & Bayat, A 2017, ‘Therapeutic targets in the management of striae distensae: A systematic review’, Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, vol. 77, no. 3, pp. 559-568.e18, viewed 8 February 2023, <https://www.jaad.org/article/S0190-9622(17)30300-6/fulltext>.
Mysore, V & Lokhande, A 2019, ‘Striae distensae treatment review and update’, Indian Dermatology Online Journal, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 380–395, viewed 8 February 2023, <https://journals.lww.com/idoj/Fulltext/2019/10040/Striae_Distensae_Treatment_Review_and_Update.2.aspx>.
Ud-Din, S, McGeorge, D & Bayat, A 2015, ‘Topical management of striae distensae (stretch marks): prevention and therapy of striae rubrae and albae’, Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, vol. 30, no. 2, pp. 211–222, viewed 8 February 2023, <https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jdv.13223>.