The Truth About Stretch Marks During Pregnancy -- Causes, Prevention, and Treatment
Have you heard the horror stories about stretch marks during pregnancy? Are you wondering if you’ll be lucky enough to dodge that bullet or are you already planning to buy one-piece swimsuits for the rest of your life?
With my first pregnancy, I was worried about stretch marks — not insanely worried like some other moms I knew, but concerned enough to think about it on a regular basis. But unlike some other moms, I wasn’t slathering cocoa butter all over my belly in hopes of avoiding them.
I figured there wasn’t much I could do about it either way. That was a big mistake. With that defeatist attitude, I ended up with what I deserved — a bunch of stretch marks over my midsection.
Whether they would have been lessened if I had tried some of these following measures, I’m not sure. But it certainly wouldn’t have hurt to have tried. Let me be your cautionary tale — do what you can so you don’t regret it later.
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Understanding Stretch Marks During Pregnancy
The key to beating your enemy is to understand it. By figuring out what causes stretch marks in the first place, you just might be able to outsmart them.
At the very least, you’ll be able to understand why the stretch marks keep cropping up on your body. Knowing why they’re happening may help you accept them a little more graciously. Although it sucks, a bunch of stretch marks is well worth the end result!
How Do They Form?
Stretch marks form when your skin is stretched or pulled further than it is comfortable with, especially if the growth is rapid as it is during pregnancy.
Skin is typically pretty elastic, but if it is stretched too far, too quickly it can mess with the production of collagen. Collagen is the protein responsible for the connective tissue your skin has.
Your skin has three layers (source):
- The epidermis, or the outer layer.
- The dermis, the middle layer that contains connective tissue, sweat glands, and hair follicles.
- The hypodermis, the deepest layer which is comprised of connective tissue and fat.
Stretch marks form in the dermis layer when rapid growth leads to a tear in the dermis. That tear lets the hypodermis become visible through the skin, which is why they take on the appearance that they do (source).
While they can be unsightly, don’t feel bad if you get them. More than half of all pregnant women will. Some doctors put that number at closer to 90 percent.
Anyone can get stretch marks just from periods of rapid weight gain because of the tearing of the skin as it has to stretch quickly for the added girth. And since most women are urged to gain between 25 to 35 pounds during pregnancy, it’s easy to see why women get so many stretch marks at this phase of their lives.
But during pregnancy, some experts believe it’s even easier to form stretch marks.
That’s because of those pesky pregnancy hormones. The hormones bring more water than usual into the skin, which makes the collagen more relaxed than it normally is (source). Because it is more relaxed, the skin is easier to tear.
When stretch marks first appear, they look pink. As they begin to grow, getting longer and wider, they’ll take on a reddish or purple appearance.
After you deliver your baby, they will fade months down the road. They’ll eventually become white or even silvery. They may also end up looking a little sunken in — although not dramatically.
For lighter-skinned women, fresh stretch marks will be darker than the surrounding skin, but for darker-skinned women, they will be lighter than the nearby skin.
Though they can cause you to feel self-conscious, you should keep in mind that no one will notice them as much as you do.
For some women, they can begin appearing in the first trimester. That’s especially true for women who were on strict diets before becoming pregnant and took that positive pregnancy test as a green light to start eating everything in sight.
Since rapid weight gain is one reason for stretch mark development, that may be enough to convince you to eat sensibly throughout your pregnancy.
It’s healthy to gain weight throughout your pregnancy however. Don’t try to avoid weight gain. You still might dodge stretch marks if you do it slowly and sensibly.
Doctors say women only need about an extra 340 calories per day beginning in the second trimester and an additional 450 calories per day in the last trimester (source). If you’re a healthy weight to begin with and you’re not underweight, you don’t actually need to eat any additional calories in the first trimester.
By sticking to these guidelines, you may be able to prevent some stretch marks from forming. While these guidelines are practical, it can be hard sometimes to use your brain while you’re pregnant and you feel like you could eat everything in sight.
While some women may have those stretch marks show up during the first trimester, for most women they come later. For many of us, the majority of the stretch marks will appear or enlarge during the last trimester. That’s when a lot of women start seeing them show up.
I remember seeing some in the second half of my second trimester and they kept coming until I was ready to deliver.
The belly area is the most common place women get stretch marks during pregnancy, which makes sense because the stomach has to stretch out so far to give your growing baby room.
But other popular areas for stretch marks to appear include your thighs, hips, lower back, butt, and breasts. If you gain enough weight during your pregnancy, they may also appear on your upper arms.
The majority of my stretch marks appeared on my belly, hips, and lower back. That’s also where most of my mom friends complain about theirs being too.
Unfortunately, few areas will remain unscathed by stretch marks during your pregnancy. The areas that won’t get stretch marks will be the ones that don’t put as much weight on, like the lower arms and legs.
While they will fade with time and become much less noticeable, stretch marks won’t ever go away on their own. You can think of them as scars because that’s essentially what they are.
If you cut your arm, for instance, the wound would eventually heal, but the resulting scar would never fully disappear. That’s the same with your stretch marks — it’s a wound under the skin, in a way. And although it will heal and fade, the mark isn’t going anywhere.
The only possible way to get those scars to fully disappear is through surgery. And even then, there is no guarantee — the surgical procedure could also lead to scarring even though it might remove the scarring from the stretch marks.
You didn’t only get your mom and dad’s genes when it comes to things like hair and eye color, you also may have inherited her propensity for stretch marks. Genetics can influence whether you end up with stretch marks or you coast through pregnancy without them.
The reason stretch marks can be hereditary is that you may have inherited weaker collagen from your parents. If you have weaker collagen, you’ll have more under-the-skin tearing and more marks than someone who won the genetic lottery and got the stronger collagen.
If you’re really into the science world and you’d like to know which genes in particular are the culprits when it comes to causing stretch marks, scientists have found a link between stretch marks and mutations in four specific genes (source). They are elastin, SRPX, HMCN1, and TMEM18. These mutations can bump up the risk of getting stretch marks by a whopping 40 percent.
Stretch marks can get insanely itchy during pregnancy — actually your whole belly can. That skin stretches out so much that whether it develops stretch marks or not, it can feel itchy.
Although it can be enough to drive you crazy at times, itchiness can be easier to manage than other late-stage pregnancy problems such as heartburn, not finding a comfortable sleeping position, and back pain. Only pregnancy can make you be grateful when you only have mild problems instead of major ones!
If the itchiness gets to be too much, you do have some options to help with it. You can try taking a cool shower. Avoiding hot water will help because the hot water, which it may feel soothing to your aches and pains, can make the dryness on your belly feel even worse.
Another thing that will help alleviate the itching is to keep your skin well hydrated. You can do that by rubbing creams and lotions on your belly.
Signs and Risk Factors
You may be able to tell if you’re going to be one of the unlucky ladies to deal with stretch marks as a result of your pregnancy. All you have to do is pay attention to some signs you’ll see.
Let’s look at some of the common ones that could spell trouble for the appearance of your skin.
Remember when we said stretch marks can be hereditary? That means if your mom has told you she got stretch marks while pregnant with you, you can start planning for them right now.
You’re not doomed to have stretch marks for sure, but it’s a good indication you’re going to end up with them. You can choose to hope for the best, but plan for the worst by looking at our preventative tips later in this guide.
Being a young mom-to-be has many perks.
- You have an easier time getting pregnant than women in their mid-30s and beyond.
- You don’t have to feel old everytime your doctor talks about how you’re in the category of “advanced maternal age.”
- Your risk of having a miscarriage is lower.
- Your risk of having a baby with Down Syndrome is lower.
But you want to know the one perk of being an older mom? Older moms are less likely to end up with stretch marks.
All the firm, taut skin you have as a young mom-to-be? That works against you when it comes to stretch marks. Because it’s so firm, your skin will be more prone to tears when it’s stretched, while older skin won’t have that problem as much.
Because doctors believe hormones can contribute to the likelihood of stretch marks, you can look back to another hormonal time in your life — puberty — to see how you fared. In some ways puberty is like pregnancy. They both involved hormones and fairly rapid weight gain.
If you had some stretch marks show up as you packed on the pounds for puberty, pregnancy isn’t likely to be any different for you. You’ll probably have some new stretch marks to contend with before everything is over.
If you are the type who can gain a pound even by looking at a serving of french fries, you might run into trouble. Gaining weight quickly is one of the reasons stretch marks develop, so if you can add the pounds fast when you don’t watch what you eat, you probably will have some stretch marks in your future.
The women who never seem to gain an ounce no matter how hard they try are going to be the ones who have a smaller risk of getting stretch marks. They have no trouble keeping the weight off and they don’t get stretch marks? Sometimes you just have to accept life isn’t fair.
If you’ve been using corticosteroid creams or lotions for a long time or using them more than you should be, you’re more likely to have stretch marks show up during pregnancy. While corticosteroids are good at treating skin problems like eczema, they affect your collagen by reducing how much you have in your skin.
With less collagen, you are more of a target for stretch marks.
How to Prevent Stretch Marks
With so many women being prone to developing stretch marks, the natural question that comes to mind is what can be done to prevent them from happening in the first place. Is there some way women don’t have to deal with this lifelong side effect of pregnancy?
Can Stretch Marks Actually Be Prevented?
While there are no magical solutions for stretch marks when it comes to prevention and treatment once they are already there, there are some things you can try to help lessen the damage to your skin.
Let’s look at some of the things that are important when it comes to the formation or the possibility of avoiding the formation of stretch marks.
- Skin elasticity: There’s nothing you can do about this. Your skin’s elasticity has already been determined.
- Nutrition: Nutrition can play a role in the development of stretch marks. By choosing to eat whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, instead of potato chips and ice creams and other foods you crave, you might ward off some stretch marks. Your body will have the nutrients it needs to work in tip-top condition and whole foods tend to be lower in calories too so you’ll have a less dramatic weight gain.
- Hydration: Keeping your skin well hydrated with lotion and creams may help with some of the stretching and pulling. At the very least, your belly should feel more comfortable and less itchy when you apply lotion. You should also drink enough water to keep your body well hydrated.
There are a number of natural preventions out there some women swear helped them avoid stretch marks during their pregnancy. All of this is anecdotal evidence though — it’s entirely possible they might not have had stretch marks no matter what they did or didn’t do during pregnancy.
Natural Preventions for Stretch Marks
Here are some things you can try to ward off those stretch marks that won’t put you or your baby at risk.
1. Drink More Water
During pregnancy, you need more water because you have increased hydration needs. Getting more water can help you though, both internally and externally. To make the most of its elasticity, your skin should be properly hydrated.
You should be drinking a minimum of 8 glasses of water a day. If you find you hate drinking that much water, you can buy a naturally flavored seltzer instead or jazz up your water with some lemon slices.
If you’re still tired of drinking water, try to incorporate some extra juicy fruits into your diet. Watermelon for instead contains a lot of liquid so it’s a good choice when you need some extra hydration.
While you’re shooting to stay properly hydrated, pay attention to signs that you might be dehydrated. That can be a problem with pregnant women, especially if you’re vomiting from morning sickness or if you’re pregnant during the heat of the summer.
2. Coconut Oil
You can rub a lotion made with coconut oil or even pure coconut oil on your belly to keep it hydrated and itch free. It’s worth a shot and at least you’ll smell good while trying to ward off those stretch marks.
The oil won’t hurt your baby or you, since it’s something you could safely consume anyway. To use coconut oil, you can rub some on your belly in the morning, afternoon, and before bed.
Another good time to put it on is when you get out of the shower. Do it while your skin is still damp so help absorb the moisture and to prevent your skin from drying out from the heat of your shower.
3. Reach For Other Oils
If you can’t stomach the smell of coconut oil or if you have a coconut allergy, you should try another oil instead.
Regular olive oil is a great alternative. It’s widely available and affordable — you probably already have some in your kitchen. Vitamin E is another oil you can use. Both oils have antioxidant properties as well.
Apply it just as you would the coconut oil we discussed in the last step.
4. Use Vitamin C
Vitamin C has enjoyed a lengthy reputation as being a great wound healer. Following surgery, doctors often recommend making sure you get enough Vitamin C to speed up the healing process.
It stands to reason then that Vitamin C can be beneficial at helping stretch marks too. Although it may play a role in helping stretch marks heal, it can also help your collagen form.
Instead of merely taking a supplement, which is likely in your prenatal vitamin anyway, you should opt for eating Vitamin C-rich food instead.
5. Don’t Forget the Zinc
Having too little zinc circulating in your body might be hurting your chances at avoiding stretch marks. Zinc is a mineral which is important in the formation of collagen.
Again, you shouldn’t add a zinc supplement unless your doctor tells you too — it’s likely contained in your prenatal vitamin and you don’t want to get more than you need.
You should focus on getting more zinc in your food instead. Eat more nuts, seeds and whole grains.
6. Create Your Own Stretch Mark Cream
Instead of buying a cream or lotion that has ingredients you can’t even pronounce, you can make your own with a few simple ingredients.
You can make your own natural cream by using olive oil, coconut oil, beeswax, and any or all of the following ingredients — Vitamin E, Frankincense essential oil, Myrrh oil, and Rosehip seed oil (source).
For the base cream, you should mix together one cup of olive oil, one cup coconut oil and a half cup of beeswax. Then you can add the Vitamin E oil and essential oils if you desire.
To do it, you’ll put them all in a glass jar. Put the jar in a pot of boiling water — making sure the water doesn’t reach the edges and get into the jar. As the wax and oils melt, you’ll stir them together.
When they cool, they’ll be ready to be used. You can put this on your belly morning, noon, and night.
7. Shea or Cocoa Butter
There is no scientific proof this home remedy works, but many moms swear by it just the same. At the very least, it won’t hurt you to rub shea or cocoa butter on your belly two or three times a day.
It should feel soothing because of the moisture and hydration these emollients will provide.
8. Don’t Eat With Wild Abandon
It can be tempting to eat as much as you want while you’re pregnant, but that’s definitely a recipe for getting stretch marks. If you gain weight rapidly because you’re eating too many calories and giving in to all your pregnancy cravings, you may end up regretting it.
Stick to what your baby needs and fight your hunger by going for walks, drinking water, and eating fruits and vegetables.
9. Do Some Belly Rubs
Doing some light massages on your belly will help keep your skin elastic. Will it prevent stretch marks? There’s no conclusive answer to that.
But at the very worst, you’ve spent a few minutes rubbing and relaxing your belly. Better yet, have your partner do it for a relaxing time for you. Kick your feet up and enjoy the attention — it’s the least your spouse can do.
To do a belly massage, use gentle strokes — circular or down the length of your belly. You can do it as often as you’d like every day.
10. Get Some Exercise
Exercise is great for your pregnancy any way you look at it. It can help with your circulation, blood sugars, and it’s beneficial for your baby.
It may also help you keep the extra pounds off by burning excess calories and reducing your appetite and cravings, which could reduce your risk of getting stretch marks.
Is this a surefire method for preventing them? No, it doesn’t come with any guarantees. But you’ll be doing something that’s good for both you and your baby.
You don’t have to do vigorous exercise to get the benefits. You can go for walks after dinner most days of the week to get this benefit, or hit your local pool, which will also good feel good on your back pains and aching joints.
Treatments for Stretch Marks
When, despite your best efforts, you end up with stretch marks following your pregnancy, you’ll fare the best if you start trying to treat them soon after pregnancy. That means they’ll still be reddish in color when you start to treat them.
Let’s look at some of the medical treatments you can pursue for stretch marks.
There are numerous stretch mark removal creams and gels, and if you can buy them without a prescription, they are probably safe to use. The best course of action though is to hold off on the removal creams until after your pregnancy.
After delivery, you’ll have a better idea about how bad your stomach really looks. If you decide you can’t wait, you should run any potential products you want to use by your OB to hear what their opinion is.
When In Doubt, Don’t Use It:
You should never use topical retinoids during pregnancy (source). In addition, if you’re breastfeeding, you still shouldn’t use retinoids.
But, when massaged onto the stretch marks on a nightly basis, they do help considerably with the appearance. They can help stimulate collagen growth.
3. Laser Treatments
A more expensive alternative to stretch mark treatment is in-office laser treatments. They warm up the skin, which can increase collagen growth and decrease the size of blood vessels that are dilated.
You won’t see results with just one session — it will take several. This is also something you should never do while you’re pregnant. And remember, it will be costly, especially when you factor in multiple sessions.
Dermabrasion can give you very limited results. It’s gentler on your skin, but it won’t touch that inner layer where the stretch marks formed.
It may smooth the appearance of the stretch marks, but it won’t give you as solid of results as laser treatments or retinoids will.
Sometimes you’re better off simply accepting your new body and moving on.
I had a bunch of angry red-looking stretch marks after my pregnancies. You know what I did about them? Absolutely nothing.
I didn’t apply lotions or gels, didn’t have dermabrasion, and never even thought about laser treatments. Did they bother me when I looked in the mirror? I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t love my pre-pregnancy body back.
But those stretch marks didn’t seem important to me when I was looking at my babies. I would have undergone any kind of permanent marks to have them in my arms.
Over time, my stretch marks faded and now they are silvery in appearance. They don’t bother me at all these days.
Myths About Stretch Marks
Because they’re so common and women seem to get so worked up about them, there are a lot of myths surrounding stretch marks. Just remember that everything you hear isn’t true. Let’s look at the five most popular myths surrounding stretch marks.
Yes, skin stretching, caused by quick weight gain, is one of the main triggers for stretch marks. But there are other contributing factors.
Hormones that circulate in the body during pregnancy is another reason. Heredity is another trigger — you can’t do anything about the genes you inherit. The amount of body fat you have and your skin type also matters (source).
That explains why some women have a baby belly the same size as some other mamas, but one of them ends up with stretch marks while the other person doesn’t. Some people are born under a lucky star, while the others have to play the hands they’re dealt.
Men do get stretch marks, but not as commonly as women do. So why are women affected by stretch marks more often than men?
It’s because women tend to hold onto more fat than men do. Men, on the other hand, generally have more muscles than women do.
While you might not be able to avoid all stretch marks, you may be able to avoid some of them. To avoid them, you can take several steps, including:
- Hydrating your belly by rubbing cocoa butter, coconut oil, shea butter, or olive oil onto it several times a day.
- Exercising to keep unwanted pounds off and to help tighten up your skin so the elastic can ward off some of the stretch marks.
- Eating sensibly during pregnancy to avoid rapid weight gain may guard against stretch marks too.
- Daily belly massages might also help keep those stretch marks at bay.
Your diet absolutely does matter as to whether you can avoid getting some stretch marks. Eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins can help you dodge the bullet because your weight gain will be slower.
And, conversely, eating too much junk might cause a bunch of stretch marks. Things like potato chips have a lot of calories and aren’t filling, so you’ll overeat them. That can lead to a bunch of sudden weight gain, which is a factor in getting stretch marks.
If only it were that easy! But the sad truth is that weight loss won’t help you get rid of stretch marks — if anything it might add some extras on your body.
To avoid adding extra stretch marks on your body following pregnancy, you should take your post-pregnancy weight loss slow and steadily. You shouldn’t try to lose more than a pound or so per week.
While completely eliminating stretch marks during pregnancy is out of your power, you can cut back on how many you get. And if you do end up with some, there are some decent treatment options available, although some can not be started until after pregnancy and sometimes after breastfeeding is done.
It’s always safe to err on the side of caution while doing things to your body when your baby is still in your belly.
Did you end up with stretch marks after pregnancy? What did you do about them — seek treatment or wait for them to fade?
If you know a pregnant lady, send this article her way. Since stretch marks are so prevalent during pregnancy, this article should be of interest to her.