7 Ways to treat stretch marks
To every scar, is attached a story to tell, as the saying goes. But when it comes to stretch marks—those streaks that show up by the armpits, on the thighs, abdomen, chest, and groin when skin is overstretched during puberty, pregnancy, or rapid weight gain—most people would prefer to stay mum.
Here’s a good news for you if you’re among the 40 to 90% of people who developed stretch marks (they can also come from prolonged steroid use and endocrine conditions, and they definitely have a genetic component). The researchers, analyzed existing research to determine what works and what doesn’t to treat the stubborn lines. And a new device, making the treatment even easier. Below’s what you need to know.
1. Stretch marks may never disappear entirely.
Unlike scars from that time you fell off your bike or the cat scratched your nose, stretch marks are virtually impossible to erase. “We have success in improving the overall texture and appearance, but complete ‘clearance’ of stretch marks is often difficult to achieve,” says a dermatologic surgeon Jeremy Brauer, MD. “We can get rid of the pigmentation and try to stimulate new collagen and elastin to create a more normal appearance of the skin.” Improvement takes months—you’ll probably need more than one treatment, especially if you’re looking to smooth out the texture and not just lighten the discoloration. (Lose up to 25 pounds in 2 months—and look more radiant than ever—with the new Younger In 8 Weeks plan!)
2. Young stretch marks are easier to treat than older ones.
Brand-new stretch marks, called striae rubra, usually appear as raised red lines. At that point, a dermatologist, plastic surgeon, or vascular surgeon can use a pulsed-dye or NG-YAG laser to target the blood vessels. “The wider, deeper stretch marks with pigmentation and redness have the best shot of improvement,” Brauer says. Over time, usually after 6 months to 2 years, stretch marks fade to thinner, white-ish lines called striae alba that are notoriously hard to treat. The exceptions: If you have a thick stretch mark, it can sometimes be made thinner; a depressed stretch mark can sometimes be made flat.
3. One treatment stands out as most effective.
After poring over previous studies examining a range of stretch marks treatments, the researchers found one type of laser to be the most effective—a fractional laser such as Fraxel Dual. “Fractional lasers work by creating evenly spaced zones of injury within the skin, but also leaving areas of untreated skin that allow for rapid wound healing,” Brauer explains. When the body heals those micro injuries, it creates new collagen. While some lasers are ablative, meaning they take off the top layers of skin, Fraxel Dual is non-ablative, meaning it delivers energy below the surface of the skin without harming the top layer, so there’s minimal downtime. The study authors looked at both non-ablative and ablative lasers and conclude that although they work similarly, the ablative lasers seem to produce less consistent results.
4. Two is better than one.
Though fractional laser comes out on top in this study, the researchers acknowledge that you can further improve results by layering on a second treatment—such as a pulsed-dye laser to get rid of the red pigment or whatever else your skin might need. “Any time you combine therapies, it makes them both work better,” explains NYC facial plastic surgeon Jennifer Levine, MD. “It’s like wearing a belt and suspenders—they hold your pants up in different ways.” Levine says there’s no one dynamic duo of therapies that will help everyone. Instead, it depends on what’s going on with your skin. “Sometimes stretch marks look worse because of the surrounding texture of the skin,” she says. “You may focus on the stretch marks, but there could also be cellulite, fat, redness and bumps that could be treated to make that area look better.”
5. There’s a new therapy in town.
Levine is one of only a handful of practices in the country with an Ellipse machine, which is the gold standard of laser treatment in Europe. In January, the FDA approved use of a new hand-piece for Ellipse that will treat stretch marks deep beneath the skin without taking off the top layers, as the Fraxel Dual does. The advantage of Ellipse is its ability to target precisely the fibers being treated—and leave the surrounding tissue totally unharmed. That means less discomfort and faster healing. With any fractional laser, expect to need two to four treatments.
6. “Miracle” creams or lotions won’t make much difference.
Though many OTC formulas promise to fade stretch marks, only one active ingredient has been proven to deliver, and that’s tretinoin (you may have heard the brand name Retin-A), a derivative of vitamin A usually prescribed for acne or anti-aging. “Tretinoin encourages collagen remodeling, which helps heal scars—and stretch marks are a form of scarring,” says Elizabeth K. Hale, MD, a board certified dermatologist and clinical associate professor of dermatology. In clinical trials, patients with newer stretch marks, saw significant improvements in the length and width of the lines after applying Tretinoin once daily for 24 weeks. Mederma makes a stretch mark therapy using botanical ingredients—mainly onion bulb extract—that has shown some promise and may be worth a try. As far as using creams for prevention, Hale says that skin that’s well hydrated is more supple and better able to withstand the forces of stretch, which is why she encourages pregnant patients to moisturize their belly area daily with emollients such as cocoa butter or shea butter.
7. One (bigger) treatment will truly erase stretch marks.
Laser treatment does not always meet the expectations of patients, “because you need multiple treatments and the results are not that effective,” says NYC board-certified plastic surgeon Richard Swift, MD. For slam-dunk success with stretch marks appearing below the belly button, he offers a mini tummy tuck, which removes the stretch marks completely and tightens the skin. (A full tummy tuck would also tighten the ab muscles underneath.) “Although a mini tummy tuck is a surgical procedure, the downtime is minimal and the results are permanent,” Swift says.