Call them what you will – tiger stripes, mama scars, badges of courage, or even permanent lightning bolts – but stretch marks are a physical and, sometimes, emotional sign of change within the body. These etched-in lines represent tears in the dermis, and it’s estimated that 50 to 90 percent of women have stretch marks (men can get them, too). While they pose no threat to the skin or body, their presence may bother you.
We’re going to be totally transparent upfront: Stretch marks cannot be fully erased. But, with that said, the right mix of at-home skincare and professional intervention can help make them less noticeable. If you’re curious about what that entails, this article is for you. From serums and oils to in-office treatments and even plastic surgery, here's everything to consider if you wish to minimize the appearance of stretch marks.
Stretch Marks 101
From the early teenage years through adulthood, stretch marks can form at any time. These marks are medically known as striae and are technically a form of thin scarring within the dermal layer of the skin. Anything from a growth spurt during puberty to pregnancy to weight gain to weightlifting to even certain medications can cause stretch marks to form. Most often found on the stomach, thighs, butt, breasts, arms, and back, stretch marks pose zero threat to the skin's health. But, because they are technically a scar, they do tend to be permanent once they're there, says Corey Hartman, MD, a board certified dermatologist in Birmingham, AL.
Stretch marks are totally normal — some even call them a rite of passage when entering adulthood and motherhood — and about 80 percent of Americans have them in some shape or form. However, not all stretch marks are equal. Unbeknownst to many, there are six different types, although red (striae rubrae) and white (striae albae) stretch marks are most common and what most of us typically associate with the term.
All stretch marks follow the same development path. They start slightly raised. Depending on your skin tone, they can take on a pink, red, purplish, or dark brown hue. Typically, stretch marks are red due to the involvement of blood vessels when they first arise, and they can also be itchy before eventually maturing, says Mark Albert, MD, a board certified plastic and reconstructive surgeon in New York City. As they evolve, they transition to a lighter color. While older stretch marks may appear to be white, they're actually just a shade that’s lighter than your normal skin tone, explains Joshua Fox, MD, an NYC-based board certified dermatologist.
The Right Time to Treat Stretch Marks
New stretch marks that are still in their infancy and tend to be easier to correct than more mature ones. That’s not to say that older ones are resistant to treatment though. They’re not, but they do require a different course of action. “If they are still red, the goal is to treat the irritation and swelling,” Dr. Albert says. “If they are white, treatment aims to increase collagen production and improve hydration.”
While many people wait to treat their stretch marks – mainly in the hopes that they'll fade away on their own – Dr. Hartman says that it's best to treat them as soon as possible. “Remember, stretch marks are scars,” he explains. “Because they're not inflamed, there's no need to worry about pain, itching, or growth, as there may be with other scars.” New moms take note: “I always warn patients who have stretch marks from pregnancy and plan on having more kids to wait until they are done having children before treating them,” he adds.
Can You Prevent Stretch Marks?
Unfortunately, there's no surefire way to prevent your body from creating stretch marks, but there are a few best practices to follow to limit their development:
- Skincare During Pregnancy: If you're pregnant, regularly apply a hydrating oil to the belly, hips, or anywhere else your body is expanding. “Oils are great because they allow the skin to be more malleable, especially when pregnant,” Dr. Hartman says. He likes formulas with vitamin E, and the cult-classic Bio-Oil is always a good one to stock up on.
- Maintaining a Healthy Weight: The more weight gained, the more likely it is for the skin to stretch to accommodate swelling fat cells. Maintaining a stable, healthy weight can help keep the skin free of stretch marks.
Basically, any time the skin is abruptly stretched or forced to expand, collagen and elastin proteins in the dermis can rupture and leave scar tissue (i.e. stretch marks) behind. The more you can minimize such circumstances, the more likely you are to avoid striae.
The Best Treatments to Minimize Stretch Marks
There is no cure for stretch marks, and most plastic surgeons and dermatologists are transparent with their patients about what is and isn’t possible and the expected results. Remember, what works for one person may not be as effective for someone else, which is why there are a myriad of options available.
1. Load up on Hydrators
- Best For: White stretch marks
How It Works: Perhaps the most accessible and affordable option, at-home creams, serums, and lotions do have a place in a stretch mark treatment protocol. They probably will not produce as noticeable an effect as professional solutions, but, if you're looking for where to begin, stretch mark creams are always a good starting point. As Dr. Albert explains, brands market emollients as treatments, though hypothetically any ointment that improves skin hydration could improve white stretch marks. With that said, clinical evidence is often lacking.
Should you go the route of over-the-counter topicals, look for products with collagen-stimulating ingredients, clinical research, and proven results. Our pick? StriVectin SD Advanced PLUS Intensive Moisturizing Concentrate, which packs a powerful punch of concentrated copper tripeptides to target new collagen formation. Hyaluronic acid (HA) is another ingredient to consider. Data shows that the potent humectant may improve the look of stretch marks by improving skin elasticity.
It's critical to be fully compliant when using a topical. Make sure to thoroughly rub the chosen product fully into the skin every day, as instructed – and don’t expect an overnight miracle.
2. Silicone Patches
- Best For: Rough, white & red stretch marks
How It Works: If you’ve ever had a plastic surgery procedure, silicone strips and gels may very well have been part of your recovery process because of their ability to minimize the appearance of scarring. Silicone acts as a coating of sorts to help smooth out the skin texture. Like silicone sheeting used on post-surgical scars, it creates an occlusive environment that encourages the skin to heal and the striae to flatten. Products like Dermaclara SiliconeFusion employ silicone to add moisture to the area while simultaneously increasing skin elasticity and improving the appearance of existing stretch marks. Like all other treatment options, silicone sheets and patches will not fully eliminate stretch marks. They provide, at most, modest improvement.
3. Layer on a Retinoid
- Best For: Red stretch marks
How It Works: Vitamin A-derived retinoids help speed up the rate of skin cell turnover and stimulate collagen, thus evening out skin tone and texture so stretch marks are less perceptible to the naked eye. Studies show that using a prescription-strength retinoid, like tretinoin, nightly for upwards of six months can minimize the appearance of the marks. However, doctors do not recommend this option to women who are pregnant or breastfeeding because of the links between oral isotretinoin and birth defects.
4. Stimulate New Collagen
- Best For: White stretch marks (though it can be used for red ones, too)
How It Works: Microneedling (sometimes referred to as collagen induction therapy) is a procedure that aims to stimulate collagen and elastin production to tighten, lift, and rejuvenate the skin. “Microneedling involves a handheld device with a multi-needle tip attachment that creates controlled depth micro-injuries to the skin that allow for optimal absorption of topical products, enhancing their effects while stimulating the skin's natural repair process to produce collagen and elastin,” says Kristina Kitsos, RN, a skincare expert and cosmetic injector. As such, “it's an effective treatment that helps to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, minimize pores, scars, as well as stretch marks,” she adds.
Treatments like microneedling with radiofrequency (RF) can offer additional benefits. Beyond the traditional microneedling effects, RF works to tighten the deeper layers of skin so that it is firmer on the surface. “Besides collagen production, it also promotes elastin and proteoglycans, too,” Dr. Albert shares. His favorite device for this purpose? Morpheus8 by InMode. “The energy should deliver at a minimum of 3.5 millimeters below the skin surface, and this device has the capability of delivering energy up to 8 millimeters,” he explains. Cutera's Secret™ RF and Endymed's Intensif also utilize the combination of microneedling and radiofrequency to improve the appearance of striae.
Additionally, platelet-rich plasma (PRP) can also be used in tandem with microneedling to improve the healing process of fresher stretch marks. Other forms of microneedling use add-ons like exosomes, which help restore cells and enhance cell-to-cell communication for facilitating the exchange of RNA and other vital proteins between cells like fibroblasts that make collagen. Kitsos says the benefits of microneedling for stretch marks using exosomes and/or PRP – which is safe for all skin tones and minimally invasive – includes:
- An increase in collagen and improvement of the texture of stretch marks
- Reduced redness associated with newer stretch marks
Kitsos performs a so-called ‘MesoGlow’ treatment for stretch marks. “It takes microneedling to the next level by infusing skin with a proprietary mix of neuromodulators, exosomes, growth factors, peptides, coenzymes, hyaluronic acid, amino acids, and minerals,” she says. “It's a great way to combine the powerful effects of the treatment with the skin-strengthening and rejuvenating properties of exosomes and PRP.” The combination goes further than what any one piece of it can achieve. “Together, these ingredients help stimulate collagen production in the deepest layers of the skin in a way that microneedling alone can't,” Kitsos says. A series of treatments can garner pretty dramatic results depending on the severity of the stretch marks.
5. Beam Me Up
- Best For: White & red stretch marks
How It Works: Lasers are a long-practiced technique for reducing color and texture in stretch marks. Some devices, like the erbium YAG laser, are part of doctors' toolboxes for their ability to improve the appearance of older white striae. Despite the improvement that a laser can provide, each modality has a unique ability. “All lasers serve different purposes,” Dr. Hartman explains. “If it's a color and texture issue, a series of treatments with multiple lasers is probably going to be what your doctor recommends.” Here’s an overview:
- Vascular & Pulsed Dye Lasers: These lasers improve redness in stretch marks and help take down lingering swelling. As Dr. Hartman explains, red stretch marks usually have more blood vessels involved and show more redness either because the skin is inherently thin or it's trying to heal itself. “Red stretch marks are also a characteristic of lighter skin,” he adds. “You don't see them so much in people of color.” To effectively zap away any lingering redness, a pulsed dye laser or vascular laser, like the Cutera Excel® V (it has a stretch mark setting) or the V-beam laser, needs to be used to decrease the pigment. While these treatments can improve the redness, they will not amend the skin's texture.
- Fractional Lasers: Fractional lasers stimulate the production of collagen and elastin to make the skin more pliable and plump. “When there is a stretch mark, initially, if you rub your hand over it, your hand falls into a hole or indentation in the skin,” Dr. Fox notes. “Using a laser to stimulate collagen fills that dip.” Lasers are able to “remodel the scar and make it much less noticeable,” he adds.
Keep in mind that treating stretch marks with a laser will take a series of treatments and – in some cases – modalities, but they can be one of the more effective options available. “The only one I've had success with in improving skin texture is Fraxel®,” Dr. Hartman says. Providers often use a combo of fractional lasers and microneedling to improve more complex cases. “In some instances, we alternate between lasers and microneedling since microneedling alone takes a longer time to get to the desired result,” he shares.
6. Fill Them In
- Best For: Textured stretch marks
How It Works: Collagen-stimulating fillers like Radiesse® (for immediate volume) and Sculptra® (for longer-term plumping) can be injected off-label into deeper stretch marks to add volume to the area. Often prescribed in tandem with other skin-improving modalities, like lasers, biostimulatory injectables will markedly improve the depth of the marks. However, bear in mind that one session usually isn't enough. You'll need to repeat the treatment a few times every few months to see a change in the skin via collagen production. The upside? Once produced, the collagen is long-lasting.
7. Cut Them Out
- Best For: White stretch marks coupled with loose skin
How It Works: In cases where non-invasive or minimally invasive options do not provide ample results, surgery is an option. Usually reserved for patients with extensive stretch marks on an area of the body that is easy to treat (think: the stomach), surgical procedures can isolate stretch marks and trade them for a fine line scar. “There are situations where we can remove stretch marks as part of the removal of excess skin,” Dr. Albert says. Stretch mark removal frequently occurs as part of a tummy tuck, breast lift, breast reduction, body lift, arm lift, butt lift, and/or thigh lift procedure.
Not everyone who gains or loses weight or gets pregnant will develop stretch marks – genetics and the skin's suppleness influence their formation. Keeping your weight, hormone levels, and skin hydration as stable as possible can help minimize the change of stretch marks forming. From there, it’s up to your body. If your stretch marks bother you, there are an array of options available to make them less noticeable, but patience is required. “No matter what option or customized regimen you choose, it's not a quick fix and it's going to take time to see results,” Dr. Hartman says. And it’s also important to be realistic about what's possible. “If you get 75 percent improvement, that's what we are aiming for because, after all, these still are scars," he adds.
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