The good news—they're not a result of an underlying issue. The bad news—they probably won’t go completely away, no matter how many expensive creams you buy.
But I’m Not Pregnant!
Ninety percent of pregnant women get stretch marks, which is why most treatments are targeted toward moms-to-be. But 70 percent of women who aren’t pregnant and 40 percent of men also bear these scars on their bodies. So what causes stretch marks on non-pregnant bodies?
Stretch marks occur when the elastic middle layer of skin, the dermis, is continuously stretched over a prolonged period. The collagen fibers that allow the skin to stretch and snap back into shape (the way it does when you’re 20, but not when you’re 40) break down and form scar tissue that shows through to the upper layer of skin, the epidermis. Initially, the blood vessels dilate, causing the reddish or purple color of early striae. Eventually, though, the loss of pigment-producing melanocyte cells leaves mature stretch marks almost completely white.
There may also be a hormonal connection. Stretch marks are most common during pregnancy and puberty and in those who are obese, lift weights frequently, or suffer from Cushing’s disease. In other words, they happen when the adrenal glands are secreting increased amounts of glucocorticoids, which stop inflammation but also impede collagen and elastin fiber formation. During these same periods when skin is being stretched to accommodate a growing tummy or bulging muscles, the dermis cannot generate enough supportive material and ends up tearing.
Rub Skin the Right Way
Dry skin is more prone to stretch marks because collagen and elastin fibers require moisture to stay strong. That’s why most stretch mark creams are really just good moisturizers. You can avoid their artificially inflated prices and instead opt for a quality cream with a cocoa butter, vitamin E, or sweet almond oil base. Extra virgin olive oil and mashed avocado are also great treatments for binding moisture to the skin.
To promote moist, healthy skin from the inside out, drink plenty of water (your RDA is eight to ten glasses) and eat a diet high in vitamin C, zinc, and protein. All are necessary for cell regeneration and maintaining collagen fibers.
Stretch marks are most common in fatty areas of the body: the lower abdomen, thighs, hips, butt, breasts, and arms. Getting plenty of exercise to keep your weight in check and improve muscle tone may help prevent them or reduce their appearance, although other factors are much more significant.
Even if you hydrate like a fish and have skin that glistens like a Greek god, you’re still probably going to get some stretch marks somewhere. Hormones and the wear and tear of aging don’t come with a quick fix.
Zap Away Your Stretch Marks for “Only” $199.95!
Laser treatments can improve the appearance of stretch marks, but they’re expensive and require several treatments. If you have severe striae due to extreme weight loss or an excess of glucocorticoids, this may be the way to go, but for most of us, it’s just easier to live with what we’ve got.
“Special” creams and lotions are the most popular treatment option for people who really want their marks gone, but those are even more expensive and haven’t been shown to work. Alternatives include dermabrasion and chemical peels, but these are cost-prohibitive for many and carry risks such as skin darkening, infection, and scarring. That means the treatment offers more complications than the problem itself.
So, if stretch marks are painless and harmless, what’s wrong with them, anyhow? Okay, maybe they’re not the prettiest things in the world, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Stretch marks result from gorgeous things like pregnancy and adolescent growth and building muscles. Why are they not considered gorgeous?
Unlike acne, another common skin condition, there’s no chance of a stretch mark getting infected, and they cause no pain whatsoever. There’s absolutely no biological reason to get rid of them, and yet we spend plenty of money, time, and agony trying to do just that.
They’re completely benign and totally natural, a condition that is only skin-deep. So instead of spending all your money trying to get rid of those “unsightly” lines, why not accept them as markers of how far we’ve grown in body and spirit?