Stretch marks, or striae, are deep scars that appear as stripes on the skin. There is no known non-surgical treatment to completely remove them, though there are many products and treatments available that can help lighten marks and improve the overall look of the skin. The best way to minimize the appearance of stretch marks is to keep the skin exfoliated and moisturized. Skin peels or laser treatments may be used to resurface the skin, which can make them less noticeable for some people.
Prevention and Fading
Although there is little that can be done to prevent stretch marks in some cases, such as those that develop due to an illness or genetic factors, avoiding rapid weight gain whenever possible can stop them from developing. A healthy diet and regular exercise can usually stop a person from becoming obese or gaining a lot of weight. Building muscle mass more slowly can help prevent bodybuilders from getting striae. During a period of weight gain, moisturizer should be applied to keep the skin soft and hydrated so that it stays at its most elastic.
Stretch marks typically start out as red streaks, but usually fade to pink or white over time. Although it is unlikely that they will ever go away without surgery, for most people they become much less noticeable after a few months to a year. The texture of the scar usually remains, however.
Depending on the severity and location of the scar tissue, removing the layers of dead skin can help minimize their appearance. Manual exfoliation of the affected areas may be helpful, particularly with newer stretch marks. Homemade exfoliation treatments using ingredients, such as oatmeal or baking soda, or commercially prepared products may be effective for gentle exfoliation of the skin.
If exfoliating the skin by hand does not improve the appearance of striae, a more intensive treatment called microdermabrasion may help. This treatment involves using a device that shoots tiny, rough particles at the skin to remove the top layers. As new skin grows, the appearance of scars may be improved. Some studies suggest that, if repeated regularly, microderabrasion may allow the body to repair scars — such as stretch marks — that are deeper in the skin. This is not a good option for everyone, however, especially those with sensitive skin.
Creams and Lotions
Many different creams and lotions claim to improve the texture of the skin and make scarring less noticeable. Some will provide limited results, but most preparations are effective only on newer scars, if at all. Topical treatments, including those that contain vitamin E and vitamin C, may help to moisturize and promote healthy skin, but are unlikely to completely remove the marks. Studies on pregnant women using creams that contained a combination of ingredients — including Gotu Kola, vitamin E, panthenol, elastin, hyaluronic acid, and menthol — did show results in reducing the occurrence and severity of stretch marks. Despite its popularity as a treatment, many studies show that creams containing cocoa butter have little effect other than moisturizing the skin.
There are prescriptions creams available from a dermatologist or other medical professional that can improve the appearance of stretch marks. Prescription strength glycolic acid and tretinoin cream, which contains the acid form of vitamin A, can increase the production of collagen, which is what makes the skin flexible. These creams can damage the skin if not used correctly, however, and tretinoin should not be used by pregnant women because it can cause birth defects.
A chemical peel uses acid to remove the top layers of skin. In most cases, a surface peel using alpha hydroxy or beta hydroxy acid may even out the skin tone, but is unlikely to do much to get rid of stretch marks. A peel using phenol, also called carbolic or phenic acid, may be more effective, as it penetrates very deep into the skin. Phenol peels can be painful, however, although an anesthetic is usually used. In addition, this type of peel may cause scarring or infection, and should only be performed by a qualified medical professional.
Several types of laser treatments have shown some success with getting rid of stretch marks or at least improving their appearance, although these methods are often quite expensive. Pulsed dye laser therapy penetrates the top layer of the skin to stimulate the growth of new tissue directly in the dermis layer, where the marks are found. This method may cause bruising and change the color of the skin, and may need to be repeated for best results.
Fractional laser resurfacing, also called fractional photothermolysis, works by causing microscopically small wounds in the skin, prompting the body to make new collagen. Studies have found that this method is effective in reducing the appearance and texture of stretch marks in the majority of patients. Side effects include some redness and swelling, and it usually takes several months for improvements to be seen.
The only guaranteed option to completely remove stretch marks is through surgery, although this is not always practical, depending on where the marks are. Those on the lower stomach can be removed with a tummy tuck, or abdominoplasty, in which a portion of the skin on the abdomen is cut away. If the person has striae from gaining weight quickly and has since lost weight, stretch marks may be removed along with loose skin with body-contouring surgery. Surgery is often the most expensive of treatments, and will require a fairly extensive recovery time. Before resorting to cosmetic surgery, patients should discuss all appropriate treatments with a dermatologist.