Skin is the largest organ of the human body. It really is quite incredible to realize how important it is, not only in how we look, but also in how we function. Without skin, our bodies would be defenseless against the billions of microorganisms we encounter every day. Along with keeping harmful things out, skin also keeps everything else in: organs, muscles, blood, and regulates our body temperature. Our skin cells regenerate constantly; 30,000-40,000 old skin cells are shed and replaced everyday1!
Skin has a number of phenomenal qualities, and for the sake of this article, we will focus on its elastic quality. Pinch the skin on the back of your hand or wrist and pull it up—notice how stretchy it is? And when you let go of that piece of skin, it returns to its original length. That’s the elastic component which allows joints to move freely, muscles to flex and relax, and your tummy to expand (and eventually return to normal) after a large meal—all without having your insides bust through your skin. This elasticity is dependent on collagen within the layers of skin. As we age, collagen fibers are lost, causing the skin to stretch without retracting, hence wrinkles occur.
So with stretch marks, one of two things happens: there is an interruption to collagen formation and function (typically due to increased levels of cortisone in the body), OR the skin is forced to expand so rapidly that it does not have time to regenerate new cells to fill in the gaps. When this happens, underlying layers of skin are exposed, appearing pink or red, or a glossy gray or white2. This second reason is the cause of stretch marks after pregnancy. There are a number of factors that make women susceptible to stretch marks, including2:
- Being female
- Having light or pale skin
- Family history of stretch marks
- Being overweight
- Having dramatic weight loss or gain (including pregnancy)
- Prolonged corticosteroid use
- Having certain medical conditions (ex. Cushing’s Syndrome, Marian Syndrome, etc.)
More often than not, stretch marks fade on their own and become less noticeable around 6-12 months after giving birth3. There are proposed treatments to deal with stretch marks, however, very few are known to be successful. The use of a tretinoin cream can help restore collagen to the area, although it may cause skin irritation and works best on recent stretch marks. Also, it is not advised that this cream be used during pregnancy2. Self tanner can also be used on the lighter areas as a quick fix to reduce the appearance of stretch marks.
Procedures involving laser therapy (pulsed dye laser therapy, fractional photothermolysis, and excimer laser) can also be performed to encourage collagen growth and/or stimulate pigment production. Another option is microdermabrasion, which uses tiny crystals to reveal newer skin from underneath stretch marks2. These treatments have been successful on some people, there has not been enough evidence to support consistent effectiveness.
While there are some factors contributing to stretch mark formation that are out of our control, there are life style choices that can be considered as preventative measures. These include:
- Skin Protection: keep skin well moisturized and protected from the sun through SPF or clothing.
- Weight Management: make appropriate diet and exercise choices to reduce rapid or excessive weight gain or loss (in general, and during pregnancy). As you consider your diet, ensure that you are consuming suitable amounts of vitamins and minerals (particularly vitamins A and C, and minerals zinc and silicon), and staying fully hydrated with water.2,3
- Low Cortisone: avoiding having high levels of cortisone in the body if possible*. This pertains to excessive use of cortisone ointments in common stretch-mark areas, as well as adequately managing stress and sleep to keep your body from producing too much of its own cortisone.
Stretch marks may show up, or they may not after your pregnancy. The preventative measures listed above are good lifestyle habits to pick up, whether or not you think you may be at risk for developing stretch marks. It is certainly more challenging (and expensive) to attempt to reverse them! A former coworker of mine has had stretch marks since high school; they appeared during his growth spurt and have come back on and off as he gains and loses significant amounts of fat and muscle mass. The high demands of his fitness goals and military training regimens have him consistently yo-yo-ing, and honestly, he is not embarrassed because he is so dedicated to and proud of what his body can do. The message I’m trying to get across is this: growing tiny humans is a beautiful, grueling, and worthy experience. Your health, and your baby’s health, are more important than a few discolored lines. By all means, take care of your body, and LOVE your body not for how it looks, but for the miracles that it produces, big and small.
*Some prescribed medications contain cortisone. Always follow your physician’s instructions on medication dosing and timing. DO NOT alter or stop taking your medication to avoid stretch marks without talking to your physician.