Everything you’ve always wanted to know about stretch marks
Oh those pesky stretch marks! Together with cellulite, they’re the biggest bugbear for many of us. They’re so common that I decided to do some research about this problem and I’m going to share it with you now..
What is a stretch mark?
It’s a kind of scar, a crack which appears in the skin after it’s been stretched in a major way, in general due to a rapid weight gain.
In French, it’s called “vergéture” and this takes its name from the marks left by the “verge”, a kind of rod that was used to beat slaves! I much prefer the English name, stretch mark; it’s a logical name and doesn’t have any negative connotations.…
What do they look like?
The first ones to appear are red, pink or purple but they fade with time and turn whitish or skin-coloured. They look like crevices, cracks, lines or stripes. To me, they look like insects have made little tunnels through your skin (yuck!) They can vary in length and width. But in spite of the fact that they are visible, they’re quite difficult to feel. They’re not usually raised so when you touch them with your hand, you can’t really tell if they are stretch marks. This is normal because stretch marks are formed in the second layer of skin, the dermis. (The outer layer is called the epidermis).
How are stretch marks formed?
The stretch mark appears when there is a rupture of the skin’s matrix in the dermis. It’s a scar. To put it simply, the skin is « broken ». But the scar appears in the epidermis, and this causes what constitutes an unsightly appearance for many. The rupture of the skin’s matrix is caused by a distension of the skin’s fibres which break or become fragile in certain places.
Who can get stretch marks?
Anybody can get them, men or women. Around half the world’s population has stretch marks. But women are usually more affected than men (around 70% according to certain studies). Pregnant women suffer the most. Around ¾ of them will have stretch marks at one time or another. Lighter skins tend to be more affected than dark skins.
What causes stretch marks?
As I said previously, a rapid weight gain (or rapid growth in height) is the main cause. Puberty is the second leading factor after pregnancy. Around ¼ of young girls in puberty will develop stretch marks. Other influencing factors include heredity, certain health problems, hormonal changes, use of certain medications, intense body-building, and the use of lightening creams for dark skins.
There is no direct link with the simple fact of « stretching » the skin. If this was the case, everyone would have them. Nobody knows the exact cause or causes, but specialists often blame certain hormones which together with body changes, can be responsible.
For example, glucocorticoïds are often cited as a possible factor. In large quantities they prevent the dermis (particularly the fibroblasts) from producing sufficient quantities of collagen and elastin fibres (the two fibres which make up the skin’s matrix). As with wrinkles, when one or the other of these fibres is deficient, the skin can’t support itself properly, and loses its resistance. So if, in addition, the skin is stretched, this deficiency will leave its mark.
Glucocorticoïds are produced by the human body but the synthetic version is cortisone. That’s why people who take medication containing cortisone are more subject to stretch marks.
If the fibroblasts don’t work properly, there can be several causes for this. The breakdown of collagen and elastin can also have several causes and the degree of resistance in these fibres can vary considerably from one person to another. That’s why it’s difficult to prevent stretch marks efficiently. There are many ways you can try; some work, others don’t.
Which areas of the body are the most affected?
Stretch marks appear in areas where the skin has been stretched and where fat is stored (but you can find them anywhere on the body). They’re usually found on the breasts, stomach, sides, thighs, hips, buttocks; lower back, upper arms, especially the inside, calves and sometimes knees.
Are stretch marks harmful to the body?
It’s purely an aesthetic issue. They’re not at all harmful to your health and have no effect on the body’s functions.
How to prevent stretch marks?
There are lots of anti stretch mark creams on the market. But even if they often have disappointing results on existing stretch marks, they can be useful for prevention. Many studies have shown good results. For example, there were considerably fewer stretch marks on subjects that had applied cream than on those who hadn’t. But not all creams are created equal. It all depends on the ingredients. The most effective are those that work on the suppleness and elasticity of the skin, or which stimulate fibroblast activity. Centella asiatica, an oriental plant, is a very effective ingredient for its ability to stimulate collagen production. Other ingredients include vitamin E and sweet almond oil. But there’s a huge variety of ingredients found in these products; plant extracts, fruit acids, hyaluronic acid, various oils, amino acids, marine extracts etc..
If you’re still growing, losing weight or pregnant, now’s the time to start applying these creams. Pregnant women beware: some creams are not advisable during pregnancy and others only from the second trimester. Anyway, stretch marks rarely appear during the first trimester. They usually appear during the third trimester…
For best results, exfoliation is a must. Ingredients can penetrate the skin more easily because dead skin cells have been removed. Exfoliation also has a stimulating and tonic effect on the skin.
Massage can also produce good results. The best technique is kneading the skin, gently and painlessly of course. Take small sections of skin with the thumb and index finger and move the thumb to perform a rolling motion on the skin. Do it while applying moisturising cream. This works well for most areas of the body but for a pregnant woman in her third trimester it won’t work because the skin is too taut. Just apply the cream in circular movements. This type of massage will have a stimulating or toning effect on the skin.
How to treat existing stretch marks?
If you already have stretch marks, there are several ways to reduce their appearance. (Don’t expect total disappearance; decrease is more realistic). Results can be variable, as with scars. Along with cellulite, stretch marks are difficult to get rid of. Unfortunately, there are no miracle cures.
You’ll get better results on newer stretch marks (pink or mauve) than on old ones (whitish). And it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t use theses methods during pregnancy or breast-feeding.
The most effective ones contain retinol which stimulates collagen production. Some also use AHA as well for optimal results.
There are many types of lasers, Used for scars and wrinkles, the Fraxel laser is very popular now and produces much better results than the older kinds. You have to have around 5 or 6 treatments to make a difference. Here’s a before and after photo from the Fraxel web site:
This is created using LED lights. Different colours are used depending on the type of problem but in the case of stretch marks, red is most often used. Waves of light or vibrations « wake up » those famous fibroblasts to help them to get back producing collagen and elastin. These newly created fibres fill up the stretch mark and make it less apparent. Again, several sessions are needed. You have to lie on a large Plexiglas table with hundreds of LED lights underneath it.
This invasive method is a last resort because the affected skin is literally removed. It’s often performed on the abdominal area which can give you a flat stomach at the same time.
Radio frequency generates a high frequency electric field which penetrates the skin and increases the heat of the deeper layers of skin. This reaction, called “endothermic reaction”, repairs the existing collagen fibres and also stimulates the fibroblasts to produce new ones. Electrodes are placed on the affected area and again, several sessions are necessary.
Obviously, these methods have their price and it can be extremely expensive. You might just find the best way is to accept these little imperfections. But if, like some women, you have a lot of visible stretch marks that you can’t tolerate, it’s best to start with more economical methods. For the rest of you, remember that you notice them a lot more than the people around you do. They probably show a lot less than you think. Anyway, 70% of us will have stretch marks at some time in our lives! The red or purple marks will fade and become skin-coloured eventually……….just be patient! :-)