As your belly grows and your body changes, you may find that you really welcome and enjoy your pregnant body. Or you may be in the group of women who will be eager to get their non-pregnant bodies back again. No matter what “side” of the camp you’re on, most women agree that stretch marks aren’t a particularly welcome sign of pregnancy. Let’s learn about what causes them and if there’s anything you can do to decrease your chances of getting them.
What are Stretch Marks?
Stretch marks–technically called striae, or striae gravidarum when they happen during pregnancy–are lines on the skin that look like streaks, stripes, or scars. They may be pink, red, blue, purple, or brown depending on the color of your skin. They are usually darker than the skin in those who have lighter complexions and may be lighter than the skin in women who have darker complexions. Over time, they will fade to a color closer to your normal skin color. Though, like any scar, stretch marks may be a lighter or silvery color compared to the surrounding skin.
What causes stretch marks?
Stretch marks are caused by skin stretching too quickly for your body to adjust to the growth (1). The collagen and elastin in the middle layer of skin tear or rupture due to the quick change (2), and stretch marks are the scars that result from that damage.
Because stretch marks are caused by skin stretching quickly, they do commonly happen during pregnancy. However, it’s also not uncommon to develop them at other times in life, such as when your body grows during puberty, if you gain weight rapidly, or if you build muscle quickly through weight training or bodybuilding.
Stretch Marks in Pregnancy
With the understanding that rapid growth or stretching of skin causes stretch marks, it definitely makes sense that they might occur during pregnancy. In actuality, pregnancy is a double-punch against your skin when it comes to stretch marks. Not only is your skin stretching as your little one grows, but the collagen in your skin may be weaker to begin with during pregnancy because of the influence of pregnancy hormones.
In your third trimester, or even in the second for some women, it’s common to see stretch marks appear on your growing belly. For many women, though, it’s not limited to the belly. As you experience weight gain, increased blood volume, breast changes, etc., you may see stretch marks develop on your breasts, hips, thighs, buttocks, and arms (3).
While stretch marks aren’t harmful, and the development of them doesn’t cause pain, you may find that your skin is itchy. The best way to combat the itchiness is to keep your skin well moisturized.
Some suggestions to moisturize itchy stretch marks include:
- Use a perfume-free, alcohol-free moisturizer
- Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water
- Avoid hot showers or baths
- Don’t use skin products that contain alcohol
- Avoid chlorine, or shower immediately after activities like swimming
Can I Prevent Stretch Marks?
The short answer is that unfortunately, there’s no way to prevent stretch marks. You may see advertised creams or lotions or hear of home remedies or old wives’ tales. But studies haven’t found any products to be effective in preventing stretch marks. (And it isn’t safe to randomly try skin products during pregnancy without first discussing it with your doctor or midwife.)
If you do develop stretch marks, you’re in good company. Around 80-90% of women develop them (2, 4). And there does seem to be a genetic component. If your mother and grandmother have them, there’s a good chance that you will as well (1, 5). If you avoid them, you’re likely just one of the rare lucky ones whose skin has good natural elasticity.
Is There Anything I Can Do to Decrease My Changes of Getting Stretch Marks?
While there is no way to assure that you won’t develop stretch marks during pregnancy, there are ways to take care for your body and skin that can minimize your chance of getting them.
Slow, Steady Weight Gain
Gaining pregnancy weight steadily — avoiding quick jumps in weight — may help minimize the development of stretch marks. Also, gaining the recommended amount of weight may help, as excessive weight gain could obviously lead to more stretch marks. However, it’s important to note that you should never restrict calories or attempt not to gain weight during pregnancy. Your baby needs appropriate nourishment to stay healthy.
A Healthy Diet
Eating healthy foods is important for so many reasons during pregnancy, and here we’ll add another to the list. Eating well provides your skin with the nutrients necessary to heal and repair. Eat plenty of foods that are high in antioxidants, like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Make sure you’re getting enough lean protein. Eat things like fish or flax for omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for your baby’s brain development and will also help support your skin (6). And, as always, drink plenty of water.
Lotions and Creams
Unfortunately, studies haven’t reliably shown that any particular lotion, cream, or oil can prevent stretch marks. They don’t penetrate deeply enough to stop the damage where it’s happening–in the middle layer of skin called the dermis (4). However, some doctors believe that certain products may have an effect, at least some of the time. Ask your doctor if he or she has any recommendations.
If you do use any lotions or creams, follow these tips from The American Academy of Dermatology Association:
- Use the product on early stretch marks, because mature marks are unlikely to change
- Take time to massage the product into your skin
- Use the product every day and know that even if it helps, it will take weeks to see results (1).
Remember that when you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you should consult with your doctor before trying new products on your skin that claim to fix or eliminate stretch marks. Even though you’re not taking the product internally, your body does absorb some of what you put on your skin. Beware of products that contain ingredients like retinol, that could harm your baby.
Stretch Marks After Pregnancy
After your baby is born, your stretch marks will begin to fade. They will likely end up a similar color to the surrounding skin, but perhaps lighter or with a slightly shiny or silvery appearance. The skin may feel slightly sunken in. They will not disappear altogether, but will become much less noticeable. The slight difference in the color or texture of the skin may be noticeable to you, but is unlikely to be noticeable to others.
Many women are able to accept stretch marks as a fact of pregnancy. Some even feel a sense of pride and accomplishment, and claim them as tiger stripes or badges that they earned with their entrance into motherhood. But,if you find that you’re particularly bothered by what remains once your stretch marks have faded, talk to your doctor or visit a dermatologist. There are no certain fixes, however there are some treatments that may help improve the appearance.
It’s easy to feel self-conscious about your body after pregnancy, as it shifts and works to get back to something closer to your pre-pregnancy form. And you may not be one to consider your stretch marks beautiful. Just know that the skin you’re in is beautiful to your loved ones, and remember the prize you got from your pregnancy journey — a precious baby.
- Stretch marks: Why they appear and how to get rid of them. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.aad.org/public/cosmetic/scars-stretch-marks/stretch-marks-why-appear
- Stretch marks in pregnancy. (n.d.). https://www.nhs.uk/pregnancy/related-conditions/common-symptoms/stretch-marks/
- The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (2010). Your Pregnancy and Childbirth Month to Month, 5th edition.
- Glade, B.C., Schuler, J. (2011). Your Pregnancy Week by Week, 7th edition. First Da Capo Press
- Barratt, J., Cross, C., Steel, S., & Biswas, C. (2016). The pregnancy encyclopedia: All your questions answered. London: Dorling Kindersley Limited.
- Coletta, J. M., Bell, S. J., & Roman, A. S. (2010). Omega-3 Fatty acids and pregnancy. Reviews in obstetrics & gynecology, 3(4), 163–171.
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