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Many people associate stretch marks with pregnancy, but anyone who has experienced dramatic weight gain or weight loss, male or female, can develop them. Often, people who have stretch marks want to find ways to minimize the appearance of them. While no product can completely remove stretch marks, many options are available for improving their appearance.

What are stretch marks?

Stretch marks, known medically as striae, are the result of skin stretching past the point of its resiliency. The lines are caused by the tissue underneath the skin tearing. While the stretch marks themselves are not dangerous in any way, they can cause some people concern about their aesthetic appearance.

Stretch marks can occur anywhere on the body, but the most common places include:

  • The belly, especially in pregnant women
  • The buttocks
  • The breasts
  • The shoulders, usually in weight lifters

Fresh stretch marks are often reddish or purplish lines that appear on the surface of the skin. Right before a stretch mark forms, the skin may feel taut and itchy. Over time, the marks fade until they develop a silvery or flesh-toned shade.

How do stretch marks form?

When stretched, the middle layer of skin, the dermis, breaks down and collapses. Often this happens in conjunction with an increase of the hormone cortisone, which can cause the skin to become less pliable and resistant. This can be caused by a number of factors.

  • Pregnancy is a leading cause of stretch marks. The skin, particularly on the woman’s belly, must expand quickly to keep up with a developing fetus and simply gets pushed beyond its limits. At the same time, the woman is experiencing a dramatic increase in hormone production. Genetics also come into play. Women whose mothers developed stretch marks are far more likely to develop them as well. Approximately 90 percent of all pregnant women will develop stretch marks during their pregnancy.
  • Many other people will develop stretch marks because of rapid weight gain or loss. People who lose weight suddenly because of surgery are especially prone to stretch marks. As adolescents rapidly grow and develop, they may also develop stretch marks as their skin struggles to keep up. Weightlifters may also develop stretch marks, particularly across the shoulders and arms.
  • Certain medications, including topical corticosteroids can cause stretch marks to develop. Chronic use of oral steroids has also been known to lead to stretch marks.
  • Some medical conditions, primarily those linked to disorders of the adrenal glands, can cause someone to develop severe stretch marks, which may appear anywhere on their body.

How can stretch marks be minimized?

How much can be done about stretch marks depends a great deal on how fresh the marks are as well as how resilient your skin is. No treatment will remove the stretch mark entirely, although many can cause it to fade considerably.

1. Prevention

Although sometimes stretch marks may be inevitable, certain steps can be taken to prevent them from developing in the first place. Pregnant women may be able to dodge stretch marks by keeping their skin well-moisturized with a product containing ingredients like shea butter and collagen.

For others, eating right and avoiding weight gain may be the key to preventing stretch marks from developing. People who are overweight can avoid developing stretch marks by following a diet and exercise plan designed to keep weight loss slow and steady, which is typically considered the healthier route.

2. Home remedies

A number of remedies for removing stretch marks have been touted that use products found at the local grocery store. The effectiveness of these remedies may vary depending on a number of factors including the age and severity of the marks. Some home remedies for stretch marks include:

  • Rubbing wheat germ oil on the stretch marks
  • Taking Vitamin C supplements and applying vitamin C creams
  • Applying Vitamin E oil to the stretch marks
  • Massaging the skin

While some people swear by home remedies, they are unlikely to provide more than a moisturizing benefit. When it comes to home remedies, time may be the deciding factor in the fading of the marks.

3. Medications

Some medicated creams and ointments can help minimize the appearance of stretch marks. Tretinoin cream is primarily known for its effectiveness in treating acne and wrinkles, but it has also been used to help improve more recent stretch marks. This treatment cannot be used during pregnancy or while nursing, so it may not be an option for women who developed stretch marks while pregnant since it loses its effectiveness once the marks are over 6 weeks old. Tretinoin helps to rebuild the collagen in the skin, so it can repair itself.

4. Cosmetic procedures

More dermatologists are offering procedures that can help fade stretch marks. These include:

  • Glycolic acid, which needs to be applied by a dermatologist and may require three or four office visits before results become noticeable.
  • Microdermabrasion, which polishes the skin to remove the top layer and help new skin rebuild. This treatment is effective on older stretch marks.

5. Medical procedures

Cosmetic surgeons also have a number of tricks up their sleeves to help restore skin that has been damaged by stretch marks, such as:

  • Pulsed dye laser treatment, which stimulates growth of both collagen and elastin and can help repair the skin under the stretch mark. This treatment can be effective even on older stretch marks, but it may cause changes to skin pigment in darker-skinned people.
  • Excimer laser, which works to stimulate the production of melanin under the stretch mark so that it develops a color that more closely matches the person’s natural skin tone, allowing the stretch mark to blend in.

Fraxel laser therapy is a new solution for stretch marks. It works by inducing the skin’s own healing process to repair itself. About three to six treatments are required to restore moderately to severely damaged skin. The laser creates tiny wounds deep in the skin to trigger an immune response, which causes the body to produce extra collagen and elastin. The treatment is highly precise, so unlike older systems, the laser can target a very specific area, leaving the surrounding tissue free from damage.