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Stretch marks, also known as ‘striae gravidarum’ are reddish lines, slightly indented, that tend to appear on the breasts, belly and upper thighs during pregnancy 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 then what you’ll see beneath the tears is your layer of fat (attractive, no?) which is what gives 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.
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 think some creams can sometimes reduce the appearance, but time will be the greatest healer."
One Mumsnetter has these wise words: “You either get them or you don't. But, that said, you can help your skin out, so moisturisers and keeping really well hydrated are the two things you can do. They may or may not make a difference.”
And as another found out: “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:
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 stretch marks. 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 stretching 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 stretching, 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.
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?
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 tearing.
Those who put on more weight, for example women pregnant with twins, will also suffer more spectacularly from stretching.
“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 and you either get them or you don't… Unfortunately, I got them (on my lower belly, hips and boobs – sigh).”
Do stretch marks go eventually?
Nearly always, yes. Time is, literally, a great healer here. Whilst marks won’t miraculously disappear, 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).
"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!"
How can I get rid of stretch marks?
Generally, as with trying to prevent 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:
“Palmer's cocoa 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 bought Mama Mio's bump butter and oil on offer – it soaks in really nicely and doesn't leave a residue. It's ginger and lime scented so should be good if you're suffering from morning sickness. Only been using it a week but I'm pleased so far. Whether it keeps marks at bay, time will tell.”
“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 they don’t go?
If there’s no improvement 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 treatment can also fade stretch marks if you really can’t stand them – although it won't completely remove them. There are a few different types of laser therapy – but, be noted, the treatment is very expensive, 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 look 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’.