You peed on the stick and waited with bated breathe for the answer. Those were the longest few minutes of your life. When the little plus sign showed up, you never knew you could feel so much joy.
With this most exciting time in your life comes the not-so-exciting hormonal changes and inevitable weight gain. While not everyone will experience nausea, heartburn or any of the many other annoying symptoms associated with pregnancy, almost everyone will experience stretch marks.
What are stretch marks?
Stretch marks that develop during pregnancy are called striae gravidarum. They are a form of scar that develops when the skin is stretched beyond its breaking point. This usually occurs around the third trimester but can really happen at any time. They look like red to purple streaks and can show up on the abdomen, breasts, hips, thighs and butt. Although the most common site is the abdomen.
The exact cause of stretch marks is still not really known. Researchers initially believed the cause to be stretching alone. Newer research has suggested that hormones are at play as well. There really hasn’t been enough research done to prove definitively what the exact mechanism of action is.
How Common Are They?
Depending on which study you look at, it’s estimated that between 50% to 90% of pregnant women will develop them. One study (Risk factors for the development of striae gravidarum) performed in Beirut, Lebanon found the prevalence to be 60%.
There are no real true risk factors that have been proven. There is a lot of conflicting data out there but here are some suggestions of attributes:
- Family history of stretch marks
- Personal history of breast or thigh stretch marks
- Larger birthwieght of baby
- High body mass index of mom
- Age of mom (several researchers found younger women were more likely to develop stretch marks than older ones while other researchers found age did not make a difference)
Can They Be Prevented?
That is the million dollar question. The answer is probably not. There have been some studies done, but not a lot, that tested topical products like creams, lotions and ointments but nothing so far has made a significant difference. The products on the market now that claim to help prevent stretch marks are likely great hydrators but do little to prevent actual stretch marks.
One double-blinded study had 91 pregnant women apply cocoa butter and 84 women apply a placebo daily (cocoa butter lotion for prevention of striae gravidarum: a double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled trial). In the end, there was no difference in the development of stretch marks or the severity of stretch marks between the two groups.
A Cochrane Libray review looked at topical preparations for prevention of stretch marks and included six trials involving 800 women. The products used included Alphastria (containing hyaluronic acid, allantoin, vitamin A, vitamin E and dexpanthenol), Trofolastin (containing Gotu kola extract, vitamin E and collagen-elastin hydrolysates), Verum (containing vitamin E, panthenol, hyaluronic acid, elastin and menthol), olive oil and cocoa butter.
The conclusion was that the topical preparations did not prevent the development of stretch marks in women during pregnancy.
If I Have Them Will they go away?
Bad news: Stretch marks don’t go away on their own.
Good news: They will gradually fade from that reddish, purple hue to white or pale wrinkly lines. Sometimes they fade so much they aren’t really noticeable.
Also good news: They can be treated.
The evidence for preventing stretch marks is pretty weak but there is promising evidence for treatment. The greatest effect happens when stretch marks are fairly new, in the red/purple stage (called striae rubra). Older, faded stretch marks (called striae alba) are more difficult to treat but it can still be done.
Several different treatment options are available and include topical tretinoin, chemical peels, microdermabrasion, microneedling, and lasers (Striae Distensae (Stretch Marks) and Different Modalities of Therapy: An Update).
Most treatments work on new stretch marks and have little to no effect on older ones. Topical tretinoin falls into this category, but can’t be used by pregnant or breast feeding women, so not much help there.
The most effective treatment found so far for treating new and old stretch marks is laser treatment. There are several different types and some of them can’t be used on darker skin tones. Lasers also require several treatments to be effective so it won’t happen overnight.
All of the treatment options have to be performed by a professional. This also means they are not going to be cheap. Consult a dermatologist to figure out the best treatment for you.
My Own Experience:
I have the great privilege of being mom to two amazing kiddos. During my first pregnancy I made it to my third trimester without any sign of a single stretch mark. I was using vitamin E rich oils and lotions daily. My weight gain was moderate at 30 pounds total. I was eating well and exercising daily. I was bragging about how lucky I was, and then there they were. The skin on my belly suddenly, it seemed, exploded with stretch marks everywhere. I continued to use my lotions and oils but it didn’t change anything.
Fast forward 7 years and I am pregnant again. My second pregnancy was very similar to my first. I ate well, exercised daily and gained roughly the same amount of weight. I used lotion and oil every day. This time I used Rodan + Fields Active Hydration Body Replenish (lotion) and OSEA Malibu Undaria Algae Oil. I was waiting for those belly scars to show up again but they never did. I have no idea if it was the lotion and oil I was using, if it was my hormones, a combination of both, none of the above, or something else entirely.
My stretch marks have faded to that pale hue but they are still noticeable. I would like to have fewer of them and I’m not opposed to pursuing laser treatment in the future. We’ll see what happens, and be assured that I will let you know how it worked if I ever do.
If you plan on becoming pregnant you can pretty much plan on having stretch marks to go with it. The best thing you can do is to keep your skin hydrated and maybe you’ll get lucky. But if you do get stretch marks treatment does exist.
P.S. At the end of the day these ugly red, purple, or white lines on your belly are a reminder of the power & strength of your amazing body. You can grow a precious baby and that’s pretty incredible! Be gentle and loving with yourself because you deserve it.