The facts on stretch marks
Pregnancy is normally an exciting time, filled with preparations and dreams of the new baby. Pregnancy can also bring unexpected bodily changes. You may start to notice red or purplish streaks forming on your body, most commonly on your belly and breasts. They are a sign that the skin is stretching to accommodate and nurture the life growing inside. Photographs of pregnant women in the media typically present images of women whose skin is blemish-free. But the true picture is that up to 90% of women will have some stretch marks as a result of pregnancy.
What are stretch marks?
Stretch marks (Striae gravidarum) are formed when the tissue underneath the top layers of skin (dermis) expands at a faster rate than the skin above it (epidermis). There is a huge variation in the length, width and depth of these marks when they form.
The tissue tears and scars are formed in the epidermal surface. The scars may be a red or purple colour, and they will fade to a pale silvery colour over time. Some stretch marks may be silvery from the start. They can appear anywhere on the body, from the shoulders down.
Stretch marks might become itchy while they are forming. Occasionally, a pregnant woman may find that her stretch marks are so deep that they bleed; if this happens it is best to see a doctor for advice.
Who gets them?
Anyone can get stretch marks. A rapidly growing teenager may develop them. A bodybuilder may find them anywhere he or she has increased muscle mass. Many women are surprised when they notice that their husband has stretch marks - these stretch marks may be faded or in an inconspicuous place, such as the lower back, and he may not know that he has them. Stretch marks are most commonly associated with pregnancy.
When we asked for comments from male partners about stretch marks, the responses were almost unanimously in the 'don't care' basket!
To a large degree, genetics determine a person's susceptibility to developing stretch marks. If your biological mother or sister developed stretch marks during pregnancy, you are more likely to develop them as well. Some women start noticing them as early as the first trimester.
Corticosteroids and Cushing's syndrome may also cause stretch marks.
Can they be prevented?
- If your mother or your sister developed stretch marks during pregnancy, then you may be more likely to develop them as well. There are a few things you can do that may limit the number of stretch marks you get or minimise them.
- People who put excess weight also often get stretch marks. Avoiding putting on excess weight, whether you are pregnant or not, will mean you have a healthier lifestyle. It is true that some very slim new mums, or those who did not put on excess weight during pregnancy, have developed stretch marks during pregnancy. It is thought that there may be hormonal causes at work.
- Maintaining a healthy diet will also help to maintain skin elasticity. Eating well during pregnancy is of course extremely important. Pregnancy is not a time for a restricted diet, and dieting will not mean that you avoid stretch marks. Support your body and skin with a natural diet high in antioxidants and be sure to include healthy fats.
- Drink lots of water! Water helps your skin stay moisturised.
- Exercise during pregnancy is beneficial for the skin and good for you in general. Before you start any new exercise program in pregnancy it is wise to consult your doctor.
- Skin brushing - lightly brushing your body all over with a loofah or brush - can stimulate blood flow to the skin.
- Your breasts grow quite a few sizes during pregnancy and will need extra support, and so good, supportive bras are a must and will help minimise stretching of breast tissue, though there is no evidence they will prevent or minimise stretch marks.
Creams and potions
Despite the fact that there is not scientific evidence to prove that they work, there are many different creams and oils that are promoted as helping to prevent stretch marks. These include olive oil, aloe vera, cocoa butter, shea butter, rose hip oil, vitamin E, retin A and centella asiatica extract (a herb also known as Gotu Kola).
The skin on the belly area can become itchy during pregnancy and creams and oils may help with this. Pregnancy is also responsible for an itch known as pruritus gravidarum. If you are feeling unusually itchy, tell your doctor.
These are applied externally however it is important to consult your doctor if you are in any doubt about the possible effects of a product, especially during pregnancy. (Retin A cannot be used during pregnancy or breastfeeding).
Essential Baby member, Kellwa, did not find creams effective. " I don't believe that moisturising is the key - you will either get them or you won't. I moisturised every day during both pregnancies with a very expensive moisturiser, and got lots of stretchmarks. I also didn't get very many with my first daughter and I had put on 20kgs but got heaps with my second daughter and was 7kgs lighter - go figure."
There are ongoing studies into many substances, such as the plant-based Centella asiatica extract, and animal-based substances such as squalene, which is also found in olive oil. There has also been scientific research into treating stretch marks by using fibroblasts from a person's own skin.
What can be done to reduce their appearance?
For most women the treatment of stretch marks is not a priority after the birth of their baby. If you want to try something, it is thought that early treatment of stretch marks shows better results than leaving them until they are years old.
Retin A has shown some benefits in scar reduction, but must not be used during pregnancy or breastfeeding. In fact a doctor needs to be consulted at any time before using Retin A because of the potential serious side effects.
New and better ways of using lasers for stretch marks are being actively pursued. In the past, some laser treatments have resulted in worse scarring than the original stretch marks, especially when used by inadequately trained operators.
Some women have opted for mini tummy tucks, to tighten up this area. This reduces the appearance of stretch marks, and smooths the skin.
General good fitness and exercising the tummy area can help the tummy to become more toned and this can reduce the indented look of stretch marks, although it can be very difficult or impossible to return your abdomen to its pre-pregnancy state.
Pregnancy changes our breasts too. Breasts may be smaller and less firm than previously. Some find that their breasts are permanently larger. Others find that their breasts slowly regain fat and roundness, with stretch marks becoming barely noticeable, although the breasts do not gain their pre-pregnancy firmness.
Being scar tissue, stretch marks will not tan, and may become more visible under a summer tan. Using a tanning product may help to overcome this - and is safer than spending hours in the sun.
We can be sure that as long as there are celebrities and film stars becoming pregnant, there will always be a push for new treatments to reduce the appearance of stretch marks. And so we are sure to keep hearing of new treatments and procedures in the future.
In the real world
Although media images commonly depict images of pregnant or breastfeeding women with blemish-free bellies and breasts, real women know that stretch marks are very common.
Attitudes towards stretch marks vary greatly. Some women feel that their stretch marks are somewhat disfiguring, while others accept them as being part and parcel of pregnancy.
And yet others are proud of them because they are signs of the amazing process that took place in bringing a new life into the world. And what an amazing process pregnancy is!
For men, their partner's stretch marks are generally a non-issue. When we asked for comments from male partners about stretch marks, the responses were almost unanimously in the 'don't care' basket!
"Not worried by them at all. I love the woman, not (just) her various parts!"
"My wife got lace (you may call them stretch marks) on her tummy whilst carrying Michele now aged two and a half."
"I'm with everyone on this - stretch marks are not an issue to every bloke I know."
"The biggest problem a stretch mark or less 'toned' stomach is likely to create for a guy is that the woman in question is more likely to have body confidence issues... I can assure you we all care far more about the attitude and the way a woman confidently handles herself WAAAY more than any superficial details..."
"I remember after the birth of our second child I was really down about these huge, wide stretch marks I had on my stomach and hips. My husband said the usual, 'They are beautiful. You got them growing my child and I love you for it' and then he said the funniest thing I've ever heard. He said in a serious and concerned voice 'But darling, they are beautiful. They are like nature's embroidery'"
"For me, my girl's stretch marks are nothing to worry about. I still sometimes trace them with my fingers and we talk about her pregnancy. From my perspective, stretch marks are not something that are a negative issue. Neither is the fact that she now only has one breast. I love her for who she is, not just for what she looks like.'
"I am very self-conscious about my stretch marks on my belly (I also have them on my 12B boobs and thighs). I got very bad, red, wide ones all over my tummy when I was pregnant with my son. I wasn't very big at all and they didn't appear until around 35 weeks! I put cream (some quite expensive) on three times a day, but it did nothing. At the time my doctor told me that it was hormonal and you will get them if you get them... Needless to say, they are my bone of contention...I hate them with a passion but over time have come to realise they won't be going anywhere any time soon and that I got my dear son as a result... I asked my husband what he thought of my stretch marks and he said, "They are you" and "They don't worry me".
"My husband said that my body gave him the greatest gift and that is his son and it amazes him still that a woman's body can do that, and stretch marks are part of the beauty of being able to carry a child"
"My husband is the same - he couldn't care less that I have stretch marks (some in places I never knew you could get them).
I am proud of them - it means I have achieved something in my life that I am totally and utterly proud of - my three beautiful children. Stretch marks are a small price to pay for them!"
"He always rubs my belly and marvels at what was created in it, and only mentions stretch marks to exclaim at how much they've faded and how he can barely see them at all - I love him! I wouldn't care at all if he had them, so why should he care that I do?"
Anni Taylor 2007