As summer approaches, itâ€™s time to dust off the tank tops, flip flops, and swimsuits that youâ€™ve been storing in the back of the closet since last year. But, if you feel shy about wearing a bathing suit because of stretch-mark- scarred skin, youâ€™re not alone â€” women have been fighting the battle for centuries.
Stretch marks â€“ also known as striae â€“ are silvery white bands of scar tissue that stripe the skin in areas where growth has outpaced the skinâ€™s ability to stretch. Areas particularly prone to scarring are the hips, thighs, lower belly, and breasts.
The cause: Any number of triggers can result in the squiggly lines, including a growth spurt, rapid weight gain or loss, bodybuilding, and pregnancy. Those who use cortisone cream or take steroid pills are also at risk for developing stretch marks, as steroids break down connective tissue in skin. And, for the unlucky few who are especially prone to stretch marks, genetics are to blame, while others can slip by with nary a streak, says Doris Day, MD, a New York dermatologist.
Whatâ€™s actually happening: In their infancy, stretch marks can look pink or purple, appear raised, and feel itchy due to a tearing of blood vessels as skin rapidly stretches. After the damage has been done, the dermis heals with scar tissue, and the lines turn a silvery white shade that is a closer match to the surrounding skin.
Treatment options: Unfortunately, proven and effective treatment options for stretch marks are still limited today. â€œDespite the great advances we have in topical medications for skin conditions, none have been shown to significantly improve stretch marks,â€ says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in the department of dermatology at New Yorkâ€™s Mount Sinai Medical Center.
Your best bet is to beeline it to a dermatologist when stretch marks are still in the baby stage of pink and purple discoloration. Applying tretinoin cream (like Retin A) daily for a period of six months gives you the best shot at healing the marks, says Wu. Tretinoin works by stimulating new connective tissue, which in turn helps repair the stretch marks.
Once stretch marks have turned pale white, theyâ€™re more challenging to treat. Lasers like the Fractional CO2 can help improve and minimize appearance, while vascular lasers like the Vbeam that use light energy to dissolve blood vessels can treat pinkish discoloration.
Itâ€™s not unusual to see a bevy of creams purporting to heal stretch marks on beauty shelves, but Day warns that this is one situation where the only visible results you see will likely be in a dermatologistâ€™s office. â€œI have not seen any creams that truly eliminate stretch marks,â€ says Day. â€œKeep in mind that with any dermatologist treatment, it takes several visits to see improvement.â€
Preventative measures: While many of us are genetically destined to meet a stretch mark fate, there are some things you can do to curb your chances of ending up with the pesky stripes. Avoid rapid weight gain or loss, and make sure your diet is rich in protein, since it comprises the elastic tissue necessary for skin to stretch, says Wu.
There is also significant anecdotal evidence that generous and frequent applications of cocoa butter can stave off stretch marks, particularly during and after pregnancy. Some experts also believe that keeping skin well moisturized allows for more give and stretch without trauma to the skin.
Prevention, as it turns out, is the only true cure.
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