pregnant woman sees stretch marks on belly

Stretch marks in pregnancy

As your baby grows (and so do you) your skin gets stretched… and stretched. Stretch marks affect as many as nine in 10 pregnant women and, alas, you can't really prevent them – although many of us spend a small fortune trying to do so

Stretch marks, also known as ‘striae gravidarum’ are reddish lines, slightly indented, that tend to appear on the breasts, belly and upper thighs and eventually fade to a silvery grey. They don't only affect pregnant women – they can happen whenever the skin is stretched, for example if you gain weight suddenly or during growth spurts in puberty.

What causes stretch marks?

Your skin is made up of three layers and stretch marks occur in the middle layer (the dermis). As the dermis is stretched by your growing bump (and possibly your growing bottom and thighs, too, ahem) small tears appear in the dermis, causing the blood vessels in the layer below show through, which is why they are red or purple. Eventually the blood vessels contract and what you’ll see then beneath the tears is your layer of fat (attractive, no?) which is what gives the stretch marks a silvery-white colour.

One of the less glamorous signs of pregnancy, stretch marks can look very visible when they first appear. Women variously describe having the look of flames rising from their big knickers, road maps on their bumps and the general appearance of having been recently attacked by a wild animal while naked. Fear not – this look will fade.

I've just accepted I'm never going to reveal my tum in public ever again.

If you haven't got them, don't start boasting before you’ve packed your hospital bag, as they tend to appear in the last three months of pregnancy. They can even appear in the days after birth, since they can be caused by sudden weight loss as well as gain.

“I cringe when I think about how long into my pregnancy I patted myself on the back that I had no stretch marks, only to find one night when undressing at my mum's (she has a low level light in one of the bedrooms) that they were all hiding under my bump where I couldn't see them. It looked like someone had painted a roadmap on my stomach.”

Can you prevent stretch marks?

Not really, no. You’ll be very lucky to completely avoid them. There are a few things you can do to help minimise them, however:

Applying moisturising cream to stretch marks on pregnancy bump

If you can, try to ensure your weight gain in pregnancy is steady – obviously this is easier said than done, but a healthy, balanced diet will help. Include plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Those containing vitamin C are particularly helpful as vitamin C plays a vital role in the production of collagen as well. Nuts and seeds and fruit like avocados are all high in vitamin E, which also plays an important role in skin health.

Regular exercise will also help to keep weight gain steady. Exercising during pregnancy helps get you fit for birth and will give you more energy, too, so it’s an all-round winner.

Lots of women swear that rubbing oil into their skin saved them from stretchmarks. A 2:1 blend of almond and wheatgerm oils is often recommended, and some complementary therapists recommend vitamin E capsules – either taken or rubbed into the skin. There is some evidence that vitamin E creams, if used very frequently right from the start of pregnancy, can reduce the effects of stretch marks by increasing the suppleness of the skin as well as your circulation. Do check with your midwife or doctor before doing so, though and check labels carefully as not all forms of vitamin E are suitable for pregnant women.

Then, of course, there are hundreds of branded products on the market all promising to save you from stretch marks. Some of them may have some limited effect – particularly if you happen to be someone whose skin is not so stretchy naturally. But while there’s no evidence oils and lotions prevent stretch marks, what they can do is minimise the effects; they help your skin retain moisture, and there’s some evidence to show that massaging moisturiser (or anything, really) into your skin is good for your circulation and boosts cell renewal.

But all that said, as this Mumsnetter puts it: “There's only one surefire way to prevent stretch marks – don't get pregnant.”

Talk to other women about their skincare recommendations and more on the Mumsnet Talk Style and Beauty boards.

Why do some people get stretch marks worse than others?

mother and pregnant daughter talk

Before you start investing in expensive oils and ointments, look to your mother. You're more likely to develop stretch marks if they occur in your family, because what matters is your skin type. Some people tend to produce more of the hormone corticosteroid than others, which decreases the amount of collagen in the skin – collagen is the stuff that makes your skin stretchy. And if your skin is less stretchy it’s more prone to tears.

Those who put on more weight, for example, women pregnant with twins or more, will also suffer more spectacularly from stretch marks.

“According to a dermatologist friend, nothing you put on topically has any effect on whether or not you get stretch marks. They happen many layers below the surface. Unfortunately, you either get them or you don't… I got them (lower belly, hips and boobs – sigh).”

Do stretch marks go eventually?

I see them as scars of childbirth that remind us what a bloody painful time it was and stop us thinking of having any more!

Nearly always, yes. Time is, literally, a great healer here. Stretch marks won’t miraculously disappear but they will slowly fade to a silvery white during the months after birth (unless you pile on the weight even further by scoffing cake during your antenatal group meet-ups – you wouldn’t be the first).

woman stretch marks post baby

How can I get rid of stretch marks?

Generally, as with trying to prevent stretch marks, the professionals agree that there’s no hard evidence that anything you can buy over the counter will fade them either, but some women swear a particular lotion or potion helped see theirs on their way:

“Palmers tummy butter is incredible – made my stretch marks fade a lot and is good to use on boobs as well. About £5 a tub and lasts ages.”

“Bio oil all the way!”

“I have read that studies found it is the massage and subsequent stimulation to circulation and increase in blood flow to the area that helps healing and promotes fading, so it could be lard you are smearing on and it doesn't matter!”

What can I do if my stretch marks don’t go?

If there’s no improvement to your stretch marks within a few months after birth, there are some prescription creams you can try. They’re not suitable during pregnancy and not usually available over the counter but speak to your GP about what can be done.

Laser therapy can also fade stretch marks if you really can’t stand them but it’s a very expensive treatment, and not usually available on the NHS.

I'm so grateful to have had healthy babies and I know babies are more important than bellies but I do feel utterly despairing when I inspect it too closely.

However, if they aren’t really upsetting you, you may be better off spending the money on some nice moisturiser to keep your skin supple and something to make yourself feel good.

If you can look on your stretch marks as a sort of badge of honour for the baby you managed to carry all those months, that might be a more positive way to frame your ‘new body’.