Understanding what stretch marks are can better prepare you to take care of your skin—before, during and after pregnancy. Here’s an overview of what stretch marks are and why pregnant women get them.
What Are Stretch Marks?
Stretch marks are vertical lines in the skin that have different colors based on their severity. Deeper, more severe stretch marks are reddish or purplish in color and make noticeable indentations in the skin, sometimes as wide as ½” though usually more like ¼”. Severe stretch marks can also be very long—up to a foot long or more if they run from the top of your abdomen to your thighs. Less severe stretch marks are white or silver and have less indentation to them, almost leaving the surface texture of the skin still smooth. Stretch marks usually appear clustered together and resemble the jagged stripes of a tiger or zebra.
As I said, the deeper, more severe the stretch marks will be more indented and they can also feel itchy or even burn. Otherwise, stretch marks tend not to hurt or cause a physical sensation. Some people, for example, may have stretch marks on parts of their bodies they can’t see, say the backs of thighs or buttocks, and not know they’re there. I also read a blog post recently by a mom who thought she didn’t have any, but at her 37 week prenatal appointment was told by her caregiver that she had tons of them—under her abdomen where she couldn’t see.
What Causes Stretch Marks?
To understand more about what stretch marks are, it helps to understand how our skin is structured. Skin is basically three layers: epidermis, dermis and subcutaneous. The epidermis is the top, dermis is middle, and subcutaneous is deepest part of your skin. Stretch marks are the result of tearing in the dermis, or middle, layer of the skin, but they also affect the epidermis, too.
Inside the dermis of our skin are three main components that give our skin resiliency, or elasticity—allowing it to grow, move, stretch and contour around our bones, fats and muscles. These three parts of the dermis are:
1. collagen, which gives strength to our skin
2. elastin, which gives it elasticity and stretchiness
3. extracellular matrix, which gives our skin its structure or shape
Change in weight (gain or loss) will result in our bodies having too much skin or too little to cover the surface area needed. When the change in weight happens faster than our bodies’ natural production of collagen and elastin, the dermis doesn’t have enough strength or elasticity to stretch and it rips.
Will Stretch Marks Go Away?
Stretch marks are often described as scars. Like scars, once you have stretch marks, they’re very hard to get rid of. As stretch marks heal, they fade, but do not disappear. The deeper red or purple stretch marks will eventually turn to silver. The stretch marks that start as white or silver usually stay that way.
Who Gets Stretch Marks and Where
While many people associate stretch marks with pregnancy and automatically think of stretch marks that appear on the abdomen of a pregnant woman, the reality is that anyone can get stretch marks. Surfaces of the body that are rounded or padded in fat are going to be most susceptible to stretch marks because the skin is already more taut in those spots.
Anyone—man, woman, or teenager—who rapidly gains weight can see stretch marks on affected parts of their body, including underarms, thighs, buttocks, breasts and hips. Teenage girls often get stretch marks on their breasts as they go through puberty. Weightlifters frequently get stretch marks on their arms when they rapidly build muscle. Overweight men and women get stretch marks on thighs, stomach, breasts, arms and buttocks—any parts of the body with too much weight.
And yes, many pregnant women—some say up to 70 or 90% of pregnant women—get stretch marks on their lower abdomen, hips, buttocks and breasts as those parts of the body gain weight and grow rapidly as baby grows.
Can You Prevent Stretch Marks?
If you’ve been told that your chances of getting stretch marks is all genetic, the reason is because your body’s speed and ability to generate new collagen and elastin is part of your genetic makeup. And we can’t change that programming—or can we?
What we do know is that we can influence collagen and elastin production in our skin—by eating nutritive, skin-healthy foods, keeping our bodies hydrated, exercising, and applying topical collagen/elastin builders on our skin. And while none of those things can completely reset a body’s ability to create collagen and elastin, they do all improve it. Vitamin E, for example, has been clinically shown to stimulate collagen production in our bodies.
In addition to products that get our body’s own collagen and elastin output improving, we can also find products that mimic the effects of collagen and elastin. With other intense moisturizers that reach down to the dermis, we’re adding some support to our skin’s resiliency.
The moral of the story: now that you know what stretch marks are and what causes them, I hope you’re inspired to drink some water, eat some salmon (rich in vitamin E), work up a sweat and keep your pregnant body moisturized!
To your beautiful skin,