You may have recently seen the holiday photo posted by famous blogger and mother of three, Rachel Hollis, with the caption “I have stretch marks and I wear a bikini”. This inspirational post encouraging body confidence went viral as soon as it was posted and rightly so. We at Beauty by the Geeks want to delve further into this issue and find out how exactly we get these stretch marks and for those of you who aren’t as confident as Mrs Hollis, can anything be done about them?

The Science behind the Problem
Striae, or stretch marks, are naturally occurring narrow lesions caused by excessive stretching of the skin. They do not impair the function of the skin as a protective barrier but have had a lot of cosmetic attention over the years. So why do we get these marks? The most common causes of stretch marks are pregnancy and growth spurts during puberty, but they can also be a result of weight gain and rapid muscle gain. There are also some rare conditions involving the connective tissues of the body that can lead to stretch marks.

The science behind striae is something which has caused a lot of dispute among scientists. It is known however, that stretch marks are a result of the body’s response to stretching (these scientists are a clever bunch aren’t they!). The most recent research has shown that there is an association between dermal lymphocytic inflammation (white blood cell build up in the skin), elastolysis (loss of dermal fibres) and a scarring response.

The dermis is made up of a number of structures which provide support to the skin. These include collagens and elastic fibres which form a network of fibres. This structure allows the skin to stretch during underlying tissue expansion. However, it is thought that if this stretching occurs rapidly these collagen and elastic fibres can become thin and over-stretched. There is a loss of normal collagen distribution and an absence of elastin fibres. When this happens tiny tears occur in this layer of the skin to reveal the blood vessels which lie under the skin. These marks first appear reddish in colour and slowly fade as the blood vessels contract and the fat lining of the skin becomes more visible. Striae are more prominent when coupled with increased in the levels of cortisone, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands which weakens elastic fibres of the skin.

After searching through an excess of scientific articles on the matter one thing became very clear – there is no miracle treatment that will get rid of stretch marks forever. But there are a number of products out there to help tackle the problem and make those marks a little less noticeable.

Creams, lotions and potions
Products containing all-trans retinoic acid (a form of vitamin A) are often a place for people to start. Some believe that this molecule can stop and partly reduce the progression of stretch marks, with a (rather old) study reporting that in 80% of patients the length and the width of stretch marks were decreased significantly. However, there’s not really any recent convincing evidence that topical vitamin A (or indeed other topical vitamins), can specifically help stretch marks, although the use of some topical vitamin (particularly vitamin C) does have benefits for the skin.

Retinoic acid (a form of vitamin A) does stimulate  fibroblasts cell growth and division, and these cells are involved in the production of collagen (one of those key structural proteins that make up the skin). It’s thought that this helps ‘plump out’ the dermis, with associated skin benefits particularly for ageing skin, and it’s not too much of stretch to think that this may have a benefit for stretch marks..

It’s no surprise then that most of the treatments available contain vitamin A. For example, it’s one of the key ingredients in bio-oil a specialist skin care oil that’s a favourite for treating stretch marks. Have a look at our recent review of Bio-Oil to see if this might be the treatment for you!

Laser therapy
For those a little more serious about banishing these marks laser treatment is a possible avenue. Pulsed laser treatment is one type available and can be used at an early stage while the stretch marks are still showing up as red in colour. The energy from the laser is absorbed by the blood vessels which show through the torn layer of the dermis and causes the vessels to collapse preventing them from showing. This is often an expensive approach and repeat treatments will be needed to obtain visible results.

The bottom line
We’re not too sure about letting lasers loose on our skin just yet (the things we do for beauty eh!). There’s some indication that vitamin A may help, and the NHS recommend moisturising as a key initial treatment in a bid to reduce their appearance and encourage healing. The bottom line is there isn’t a miracle cure for these naturally occurring beauty bothers, but with stretch marks thought to affect around 8/10 women during pregnancy alone, we can promise you you’re not by yourself!

Loved this article? We think you’ll like these ones too!
Bio-oil – The Science behind the Bottle
Collagen – The Science behind the Bottle
Cellulite – The Science behind the Problem

A mechanochemical model of striae distensae.
Structure and function of skin, hair and nails
Atrophic striae after occlusive corticosteroid therapy.
Role of vitamins in skin care.
Laser therapy of stretch marks
No evidence for topical preparations in preventing stretch marks in pregnancy.