Well, it's complicated. For starters, it's key to understand what stretch marks are in the first place. "Stretch marks are basically a loss of elastic tissue and collagen in discrete areas," says Forum Patel, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with Union Square Laser Dermatology. "It happens when we gain weight and then lose weight." So they're basically just what they sound like: physical marks from your skin stretching. They look like stripey marks that are either lighter in color than your skin, or have a reddish hue.
Certain factors can make you more or less prone to stretch marks, too. "There are certain genetic conditions that cause stretch marks, making someone more prone to it," she says. "And certain medications can cause it. So if you're on steroids for a really long time, that will predispose you to having stretch marks, because steroids essentially will digest collagen."
Then, of course, there's pregnancy—which is one very common time for women to experience stretch marks on their body. "During pregnancy, you expand to a certain amount and then, when skin retracts, not all of the areas are able to retract in the same way," says Dr. Patel. "And that will form those stretch marks, most commonly on the abdomen during pregnancy."
They're not like other marks on your skin, though—sure you can slather on a retinol to help plump skin and guard against fine lines, and chemical exfoliants to brighten up post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. But treating stretch marks is much more complicated than that.
Can you get rid of stretch marks, though?
If you want to fade your stretch marks, there are a few ways to go about it—though remember that plenty of songs nowadays are praising them and they've been showing up in ads like those for Outdoor Voices athleisure. There is nothing to be ashamed of if you have them. Reminder: They just simply show you've grown, which is a good thing because who wants to stay 13 forever? Not even Jennifer Garner.
The thing that makes stretch marks hard to get rid of is the fact that they're comprised of a texture change in your skin on top of the physical mark. "There are two components to stretch marks when it comes to treatment: There's the color, and then there's the texture," says Dr. Patel. "So the color is actually much easier to treat. But when it comes to texture, that's harder to treat because we're essentially trying to rebuild collagen in that area."
I never realized the texture aspect, but then Dr. Patel told me to run my hands over my stretch marks, and the difference is subtle but definitely there. "If there's a wide stretch mark and you put your fingers across it, it's going to feel like weaker skin," she says. "You can almost push against it and it forms a depression, whereas our normal skin bounces back." She notes that certain laser devices can help with rebuilding collagen, but "they're very subtle and take a long time."
For fading the color of stretch marks, Dr. Patel says there's a vascular laser treatment that gets the redness out, which blends the marks to look like your regular skin tone. Rachel Nazarian, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with Schweiger Dermatology Group, notes that other mechanisms can help too. "Deep radiofrequency lasers and deep resurfacing lasers like Fraxel, CO2, and microneedling can all stimulate collagen and elastin fibers to form under the skin," she says. "These are wonderful tools to improve and minimize the appearance of stretch marks, and I've had great success treating many of my patients."
Topically, you can turn to the skin-cell turnover superstar retinol. "Topical application of retinoids has also shown to help improve the appearance of early stretch marks," says Dr. Nazarian. Just note that these aren't safe during pregnancy or breastfeeding. You can also slather on the ingredients cocoa butter and vitamin E. "A lot of women who have been pregnant swear by these ingredients and say that they help [with stretch marks]," says Dr. Patel. "And you can try to treat them before they occur, with vitamin E oil, caffeine, and retinol, which all help to build collagen before it's actually lost."
Just remember that the stretching of the skin is sometimes unavoidable. "Although studies haven't shown it to have much effect, I still suggest to my patients to apply liberal moisturizer to their skin and massage it while pregnant—taking the opportunity to strengthen skin fibers like collagen and elastin certainly doesn't hurt."
To keep the skin on your body nice and moisturized, though, these are our editor-approved body lotions to slather on all year long. And here's why you might want to consider using a jade roller for your body.
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