Ask many women what they dread most about pregnancy and their answer may surprise you. It’s not morning sickness, lack of good sleep or even the potential, long-term weight gain – it’s the stretch marks. While you may here platitudes like, “wear them as a badge of accomplishment – you should be proud,” the reality is that pregnancy or not – most of us prefer to minimize the visibility of stretch marks as much as possible.
While there is no way to prevent their development – it’s part genetics and luck of the draw (more on that below) – there are things you can do to reduce their severity or diminish their appearance once they appear.
What Are Stretch Marks?
Collagen is a fibrous material that provides skin with elasticity. It lives in the middle layer of the skin. In fact, after menopause, reduced estrogen levels slow down collagen production, which causes skin to wrinkle. When you gain weight, whether it be from puberty, hormone fluctuations, pregnancy or even rapid muscle growth from exercising –skin stretches. The slower it stretches, the easier it can keep up with the collagen production required for structural support.
If the expansion occurs rapidly, these mid-layer collagen fibers break – creating telltale stretch marks that can be seen through the thinner, upper-layers of skin. In the beginning, the blood vessels underneath the skin are visible, giving stretch marks a reddish or purplish color. Overtime, this will fade to a more muted, silver hue – although the marks never go away completely.
While stretch marks affect both men and women, between 50% to 90% of pregnant women report getting stretch marks at some point throughout pregnancy and post-partum breastfeeding, most often on their bellies, thighs, bums and breasts.
The interesting thing is that some people seem to be more prone to developing stretch marks than others, and we aren’t exactly sure why. We think it’s a combination of:
- Age. Puberty is a common time to develop stretch marks, and younger pregnant women seem to get them more often than older women.
- Genetics. There does seem to be a genetic connection, so if your family members are more prone to stretch marks, you may be too.
- Steroids. Those who take steroids as well as those who use topical steroid creams seem to be more susceptible, or develop more severe stretch marks.
The good news is that stretch marks aren’t painful. The bad news is they can make you incredibly self-conscious and can diminish overall body image and self-esteem.
Can Stretch Marks be Prevented?
There is no way to prevent stretch marks. Multiple studies have done on pregnant women using all manner of moisturizers, cocoa butter creams, and other “home remedies.” So far, none have had any impact. However, there are some things you can do to prevent their severity.
- Watch your pregnancy weight. The more weight you gain during pregnancy, the more your skin will stretch. Typically, you’ll want to keep your pregnancy weight gain to between 25 – 35 pounds, if you were at a healthy weight to start. Overweight women should aim to gain 15 – 25 pounds and obese women should limit weight gain to 11 to 20 pounds.
- Limit sun exposure. Experts believe that sun exposure slowly breaks down collagen stores (excess sun exposure causes wrinkles, right?) so wear sunscreen, stick to the shade and limit full sun exposure before and during your pregnancy to keep your skin as healthy as possible.
- Live healthy. The better-nourished and healthier your body is, the better it can produce what it needs to be strong – and this includes your skin. Drink lots of water, eat nourishing foods, get plenty of exercise and eliminate unhealthy habits so your skin gets the benefit of a healthy lifestyle.
Treatments for Diminishing Stretch Marks
So far, there is no way to eliminate stretch marks once they have appeared. There are ways to diminish their appearance.
The same medication used to treat acne has had mixed results in diminishing the appearance of stretch marks by penetrating older layers of skin and generating new collagen production. The problem is that it works best on fresh stretch marks, not the ones that have faded to silver, and it’s not recommended for pregnant or nursing women.
Light or laser therapy
The use of light or laser therapy to boost collagen production and improve the appearance of existing stretch marks seems to be effective. This may be the only proven remedy for diminishing stretch marks, although they don’t go away completely. The downside is that the treatment is very expensive; it costs an average of $300 per session, and requires 20 sessions.
Platelet-rich plasma with ultrasound
Another new kid on the block, this procedure uses platelets from your own blood plasma, combined with ultrasound to fade existing stretch marks and replenish collagen. In recent trials, 71% of participants have reported “good” or “very good” results. However, costs may be prohibitive, often $2000 or more for treatment, and it is not recommended for women who are pregnancy, breastfeeding, or anemic.
Finally, there is full-blown plastic surgery. While it’s not used to treat stretch marks per se, plastic surgery is often used for breast lifts, thigh lifts and/or tummy tucks. Some sections of skin bearing stretch marks may be removed during these procedures. However, this is a full-blown surgery and not everyone is an ideal candidate. Again, cost may be prohibitive as cosmetic surgery costs thousands of dollars.
In most cases, stretch marks fade so significantly over time, there is no need to go to costly measures to try to eliminate them. Should you choose to treat them, we recommend discussing it with your doctor to make sure it’s a safe and healthy choice for you and your baby.
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