Updated 15 January 2016

Stretch marks and how to treat them

Stretch marks, also called striae, are narrow, streak-like depressions of the skin that form in areas of dermal damage produced by stretching of the skin.

Pregnancy as well as putting on lots of weight and diets that cause the weight to change rapidly, can cause stretch marks to form, because the skin is literally stretched by the sudden growth.

What you get are stretch marks, also called striae, which are narrow, streak-like depressions of the skin that form in areas of dermal damage produced by stretching of the skin.

While genetics mostly determine whether you get them, and how severe they are, you don't have to put up with these unsightly marks for the rest of your life. 

Is there a magic cure for stretch marks?

There is no specific medical treatment for stretch marks. Most treatment can help improve their appearance but do not take them away completely. In most cases they are not particularly noticeable and fade over time. One should focus on measures to prevent their formation.

Massaging the skin with moisturisers, helps improve circulation and encourage collagen growth. It also helps the skin to remain pliable, thus decreasing the extent of stretch marks.

During pregnancy, it is normal to put on a significant amount of weight in a short period of time. Stretch marks will form as a result of hormonal changes, however they can be minimised by gaining weight steadily.

The pregnant woman does not need to ‘eat for two’. It is important to have a balanced diet that is rich in whole-wheat, carbohydrates, such as bread and pasta, as well as fruits and vegetables.

One should not consume more than 2 500 calories per day. A normal weight woman should gain only between 11- 16kg during pregnancy and this should be very gradual.

Similarly, weight loss or gain should be approached slowly - no more than  half a kilogram per week. 

Treatments available

There are many creams, gels and lotions that claim to be able to remove stretch marks. These are essentially moisturisers and rubbing them on early stretch marks, can increase blood flow, leading to some improvement. However, none of these products will take away the stretch marks completely.

Treatment of early striae with tretinoin creams can help improve their appearance by decreasing their lengths and widths. These are medical creams and need to be prescribed by health professionals. Other topical combinations with glycolic and L-ascorbic can also help.

Laser treatment of extensive striae can help improve their appearance. The laser most commonly used is the 585nm pulsed dye laser. It helps only during the early stages.

Cosmetic surgery for striae is very expensive and rarely recommended. The operation is called a ‘tummy tuck’ which removes the excess skin and fat around the abdomen, as well as removing the stretch marks below the belly button. This is not practical for most people.

Stretch marks can be very distressing, however, one should know that most will fade with time. There is no need to waste money on expensive creams or oils that claim to help.

If somebody is distressed, it is best to consult the dermatologist at an early stage, where some treatment may make a difference.

Dr R Newaj, Dermatologist

Image: stretch marked skin from Shutterstock

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