STRETCH marks affect up to 90 per cent of pregnant women. It therefore comes as no surprise that most people associate them with pregnancy.
However, obstetrician/gynaecologist Dr Robyn Khemlani has said that stretch marks also affect women who have never been pregnant, men, and children too.
“Stretch marks are basically small scars located in the middle layer of your skin (dermis) that are visible in the top layer of skin (epidermis). They form with rapid weight gain or loss, hormonal changes — such as during puberty when there is a growth spurt — and when the skin goes beyond its ability to repair itself, such as during pregnancy or when muscles grow rapidly in weight training. That's why they're called stretch marks,” Dr Khemlani explained.
She said that the unattractive scars, which are most common on the abdomen, chest, hips, bottom, and thighs, affect such a wide cross section of people that they have inspired the development of dozens of products that marketers claim can effectively prevent stretch marks and get rid of mature ones.
However, according to Dr Khemlani, this might not be the case.
“There are many products, mostly topical creams and oils, that are marketed as being effective in the prevention and removal of stretch marks — but numerous studies have revealed that many of them don't actually work,” Dr Khemlani said.
She pointed out that while there is no guarantee that you will manage to keep all the stripes away, the most effective way to prevent stretch marks is to treat them early.
“Even before they appear, [in the case of pregnancy] you want to treat them. You also want to make sure that you do so often; this is important because once stretch marks have been formed they are more difficult to get rid of,” Dr Khemlani advised.
To achieve this, Dr Khemlani recommended that you adhere to the following guidelines:
Maintain a healthy weight
Eat a healthy diet and exercise during pregnancy so you can maintain a healthy weight.
“This is recommended since stretch marks occur when your skin pulls apart quickly due to rapid weight gain. Therefore, you want to aim for a normal body mass index gain — a total of 25-35 pounds during pregnancy,” Dr Khemlani advised.
She said, too, that even outside of pregnancy, maintaining a healthy weight will also reduce the chances of you getting stretch marks.
“Staying hydrated and drinking enough water may help keep your skin hydrated and soft, and help prevent stretch marks as well,” Dr Khemlani said.
Use balms and creams frequently
Dr Khemlani noted that, in addition to keeping hydrated in pregnancy, applying an all-natural, soothing, moisturising balm to areas stretch marks frequent — such as your stomach, hips, thighs, and chest — at least twice a day could help.
“Hydrating balms and creams work by increasing your skin's elasticity. This allows your skin to expand and grow without tearing and forming stretch marks. Moisturisers can often help reduce itching that happens as the skin stretches,” Dr Khemlani explained.
She also said that during pregnancy women should make sure that they choose a balm that is safe in pregnancy.
Creams and oils to prevent stretch marks
Stretch mark-prevention creams and oils — such as almond oil, cocoa butter, olive oil, or vitamin E, or some other products like steroids — can be used to keep stretch marks at bay.
“When applying these products you should gently massage the stretch mark-prone areas to push the cream deep into your skin, where it can do the most good,” Dr Khemlani instructed.
She pointed out, however, that several studies have demonstrated that even with the use of these products, stretch marks may still appear. However, some people claim to have seen much improvement.
Dr Khemlani said when stretch marks are mature, the scarring is permanent and as such, while you may be able to make them less visible, you will not get rid of them altogether.
“In the case of existing stretch marks, your ob-gyn will enlist the help of a dermatologist. He/she will tell you what treatments, especially in the form of topical creams prescribed, will help the stretch marks to fade and therefore become less noticeable,” Dr Khemlani explained.
In the case of stubborn stretch marks and as a last resort, Dr Khemlani said that your dermatologist might invite you to explore invasive treatments like microdermabrasion and laser therapy. Some other treatment options include chemical peels and radio frequency, she said.