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Stretch marks, medically referred to as striae or striae distensae, are discolored scars that appear on different parts of the body when the skin in those areas is either overstretched or shrinks too quickly.
The deeper layers of the skin (the dermis) consist of several interconnected protein fibers, mainly collagen, elastin, and fibrillin along with some others, that keep your skin tight and elastic. This elasticity is basically your skin’s ability to stretch under mechanical stress without tearing and then returning to its original shape.
When you grow taller, heavier, muscular, or slimmer, the skin slowly expands or shrinks to adjust to your changing body shape. But if these physical changes occur rapidly or suddenly, your skin may not be able to restructure itself fast enough to fit your body, leading to the appearance of stretch marks.
When you undergo rapid weight gain during pregnancy or otherwise, your skin is not able to grow as fast as the body. The connective fibers in the dermis are pulled apart over the expanding body parts and eventually snap under pressure.
When you lose too much weight too quickly, your skin will not be able to shrink as fast as the body and hang loose, which could lead to the appearance of stretch marks on the surface.
Your genes and hormones may also play a role in the development of stretch marks and can even make you more prone to this condition. (1) So, several factors are involved in the formation of stretch marks but most people are oblivious of these details. This ignorance paves the way for several misconceptions or myths regarding stretch marks that have become widely acceptable over the years.
This article will debunk 10 of these fallacies with cold hard scientific facts.
Myth #1: Stretch Marks Occur Only in Women.
Basis of the myth
Stretch marks affect women much more than men, but they are not limited to any one gender.
This increased prevalence is mainly on account of pregnancy, as nearly 90% of all childbearing women develop stretch marks when their belly expands to accommodate the growing fetus. (1) These stretch marks usually occur during the sixth or seventh gestational month.
Plus, women are prone to forming stretch marks around their breasts, whereas men are mostly unaffected by this. Not only are women more prone to stretch marks, but they are also more stressed or disturbed by them. It has been suggested that stretch marks pose as a source of significant psychological or cosmetic distress among women more often than in men.
Stretch marks develop as a result of tearing or overlapping of the elastin and collagen fibers in the deeper layers of the skin when the body grows or shrinks too quickly. This kind of deep skin scarring can affect anyone irrespective of their gender.
Myth #2: Stretch Marks Are Caused Only by Stretching of the Skin.
Basis of the myth
Stretch marks are so called because they are typically caused by the overstretching of the skin, but to think this is the sole reason for their formation is a myth. Other factors can contribute to their development as well.
Your susceptibility to the development of stretch marks is dependent on the protein fiber profile of the deeper layers of your skin. Anything that disrupts, alters, or modifies them or brings down their production (2) will contribute to the development of stretch marks.
The exact science behind the “how” of stretch marks is still not properly understood. However, apart from mechanical stress, several factors can make your skin less elastic and therefore more prone to tearing, increasing the risk of stretch marks.
Myth #3: Stretch Marks Only Occur on the Stomach.
Basis of the myth
As mentioned earlier, nearly 90% of all childbearing women develop stretch marks over and around their abdominal area. Plus, these pregnancy-related stretch marks are much deeper, more visible, and more extensive than those that occur due to extreme fluctuations in body weight, bodybuilding, or rapid physical growth during puberty.
This is why a lot of people only take into account the pregnancy-related stretch marks that develop on the stomach but ignore the rest.
Like many other myths, the assumption that stretch marks only occur on the stomach is based on the fact that those are the ones that get most of the attention. Stretch marks on the stomach may be the most commonly and easily observed ones, but they affect other body parts as well, just not to that extent.
Your abdomen is a common location for stretch marks mostly because of pregnancy, but they can also appear on other parts of the body, such as the breasts, thighs, calves, hips, lower back, upper arms, and joints like the elbows and knees, that undergo sudden growth spurs during puberty.
Your body transforms biologically and physically as you move from childhood into adolescence. You become taller and bigger, but your skin may not grow at the same rate as your muscles and bones. As a result, the skin covering the rapidly growing body gets pulled beyond its elastic threshold and tears inside, forming stretch marks.
Myth #4: Losing Weight Will Help You Get Rid of Stretch Marks.
Basis of the myth
Rapid weight gain, bodybuilding, and pregnancy lead to a dramatic increase in body mass due to the increased deposition of fats in the adipose tissues or the rapid growth of muscles. Thus, your skin naturally has to expand to accommodate the growing body, but it can only do so at a gradual pace.
When you gain too much fat or muscle too fast, the skin on top is unable to match this growth rate and becomes overextended to the point of tearing. The dermis experiences such extreme mechanical stress from within, which causes its connective fibers to stretch beyond their elastic capacity and break. This leads to the development of stretch marks, especially in areas that are experiencing a rather accelerated expansion in volume.
Moreover, people who are extremely overweight or obese have excess body mass that puts a lot of strain on the overlying skin, resulting in the formation of stretch marks. This has led to the assumption that losing weight can automatically reduce stretch marks of all types.
While rapid weight gain or excess body weight is a major cause of stretch marks, it’s not the only cause. People who undergo rapid or extreme weight loss are afflicted with this problem as well, (5) only the underlying process of scar formation is different.
Needless to say, these stretch marks cannot be addressed through further weight loss, which will only make them worse. Plus, losing weight is unlikely to affect the appearance of stretch marks that have already formed due to rapid or extreme weight gain. This is because these scars result from the breakdown of connective fibers at the deeper layers of the skin, which cannot be repaired through weight loss efforts.
There is no research-based evidence to suggest that going on a low-fat diet or exercising regularly to slim down your heavy body will help improve the appearance of the stretch marks that have already developed. (6)
What you need instead are treatment strategies that aim to repair the ruptured skin fibers in order to fade these scars. That said, controlling your weight may help deter the development of new stretch marks, and this is the reason obese and overweight people are recommended to go on a gradual weight loss program.
Myth #5: Skinny People Cannot Get Stretch Marks.
Basis of the myth
This myth is founded on the belief that stretch marks occur on the bulky parts of the body due to the rapid buildup of fat or muscle that stretches the overlying skin to the extent that it tears internally.
Precisely speaking, the bigger or fatter you grow, the more susceptible you are to the development of stretch marks, leading to the assumption that staying slim can help you avoid them.
It is most certainly true that stretch marks are formed when a body part grows faster than the skin covering it. This exerts a lot of mechanical stress on the connective fibers within the dermis as the skin stretches to accommodate the increased body mass. But there is only a limit to which these fibers can extend before they snap, and this leads to the formation of stretch marks.
However, people who lose a lot of weight in a short span also develop stretch marks. This happens because the skin is unable to contract as quickly as body mass is lost, which means there is excess or loose skin that folds and creases at the deeper level.
This buildup of extra skin exerts mechanical stress on the surrounding area, resulting in the formation of stretch marks. So, the occurrence of stretch marks is basically rooted in the inability of your skin to restructure itself according to sudden or rapid physique changes. But there are many other factors that can impair your skin elasticity and contribute to the development of stretch marks.
For instance, your genes and hormones can cause malformation, disorientation, and malfunctioning of elastin, collagen, and other skin fibers found in the dermis that are responsible for your skin elasticity. Even environmental factors such as smoking and medications have been shown to increase the risk of stretch marks. (7)
All things considered, just staying slim will not guarantee protection from stretch marks and skinny people are afflicted by this condition as well.
Myth #6: Tanning Removes Stretch Marks.
Basis of the myth
Different types of stretch marks vary in shape and color. Most of them start lighter than the surrounding skin but often with a pink, red, brown, or purple hue. These scars gradually lose their color and turn white or silvery.
A lot of people mistakenly assume that tanning can help undo this hypopigmentation and make the stretch marks blend in with the rest of the skin.
Exposure to the UV radiation of the sun or artificial sources such as tanning beds can darken the skin by increasing its melanin content (pigment that gives the skin its color). This has led many people to believe that tanning treatment can help restore color to the hypopigmented skin of stretch marks, thereby removing them entirely. However, this is completely untrue.
Tanning does not remove your stretch marks. Indeed, exposure to UV radiation stimulates certain specialized cells (melanocytes) in your skin to produce more melanin, making the targeted area darker. (8)
But it is important to note that stretch marks are not large patches on your skin, but small lines amidst large stretches of normal skin. So when you expose them to radiation, the surrounding skin is exposed as well. Thus, the entire body part is tanned but the stretch marks remain lighter than the surrounding skin. Also, this tanning effect only lasts a few months.
Besides, the exact cause behind the progressive loss of color from your stretch marks is not known, so assuming that UV radiation will undo this hypopigmentation is a bit far-fetched.
Myth #7: Stretch Marks Will Heal Over Time on Their Own.
Basis of the myth
Stretch marks can be confused with superficial scars, which tend to heal over time on their own, when in reality stretch marks are much deeper and more difficult to repair.
Your skin is a self-healing organ. When your skin is topically injured or ruptured, it forms scar tissue over the wound to protect it from external irritants and further damage.
When your skin gets injured, a complex biological response is initiated, which leads to inflammation and the production of new protein fibers at the site. (9) These extra protein fibers gradually come together to form a protective film over the wound, which is known as a scar.
This type of scarring fades naturally as the skin repairs itself and regains its structural integrity, although many a time the scar may not disappear completely.
Stretch marks, on the other hand, are formed by the tearing or buildup of connective fibers deep inside the skin as it remodels itself to adjust to changes in your overall physique. The skin is pulled apart or pushed together, which exerts a lot of mechanical stress on the connective fibers.
This kind of deep-seated skin damage does not “heal” over time, but your skin simply adapts to the mechanical stress it is put under.
Myth #8: Stretch Marks Can Be Eliminated Completely.
Basis of the myth
The basis of this myth is the same as the one described above. People assume that stretch marks are the same as regular scars that form over wounds and therefore can be treated the same way.
Superficial scarring can often be eliminated completely through various treatment techniques that aim to promote skin regeneration.
This means that the damaged outermost skin sheds to make room for new skin that forms in the deeper layers and rises to the surface. Thus, the scarred skin is completely replaced by new healthy skin over the course of several skin renewal cycles. Scar treatments help to accelerate this process for faster elimination of scars.
However, stretch marks are formed due to the buildup or overextension of connective fibers within the dermis, which remains largely unaffected by this skin regeneration process. So, regular scar treatments may not work so well on stretch marks, although some modalities might help lighten them to a certain extent.
For instance, laser therapy can penetrate deep into the skin to significantly reduce the appearance of stretch marks, but it cannot eliminate them completely. Similarly, surgical procedures such as abdominoplasty or a tummy tuck may help fade pregnancy-related stretch marks by tightening the excess skin in the area, but some traces will still remain.
Thus, once the stretch marks are formed, they can be impossible to get rid of. Even the most expensive treatment modalities will only make them less visible rather than remove them completely.
When it comes to stretch marks, the best way to minimize their appearance is to treat them as early as possible. Seek treatment as soon as you notice the first sign of a stretch mark so that your skin does not undergo further damage that can lead to more extensive and stubborn scarring.
It is important to note, though, that with the latest advances in medicine, there are various treatment modalities now available that can reduce stretch marks in their early stages (striae rubrae) to a great extent. (10)
Myth #9: Stretch Marks Are All of a Single Color.
Basis of the myth
Almost all stretch marks eventually turn white or silver, giving rise to the misconception that they are all the same color.
This myth ignores the fact that stretch marks usually start with a deeper color but gradually fade to become white or silver.
When the marks are freshly formed, the breakage of the connective fibers inside the dermis exposes the blood vessels that lie underneath. This imparts a pinkish or reddish-brown hue to the stretch marks, depending upon the extent of the tear and how thick the skin is in that area.
With time, the stretch marks turn slightly purplish before they start losing all color and eventually turning into white or silver streaks. This is common for all stretch marks, no matter what their initial color was, where they appear, and how severe they are.
Myth #10: Health Insurance Covers Treatments for Stretch Marks.
Basis of the myth
People don’t realize that health insurance is only meant for illnesses and conditions that affect your health and not for cosmetic concerns such as stretch marks that mainly affect your appearance.
Stretch marks are not identified as a medical condition but a harmless cosmetic concern. No matter how extensive the scarring, it does not pose any real danger to your health.
However, stretch marks can make a person increasingly self-conscious of his/her appearance and become a source of considerable stress and self-image issues. This is why a lot of people choose to get them treated through laser therapy, surgical interventions, microdermabrasion, and other cosmetic procedures that help make them less visible.
But the fact remains that these benign marks have no bearing on your body or health and can therefore easily go without treatment. Treatment for stretch marks falls outside the purview of health insurance.
Stretch marks affect people of all ages, genders, races, and regions, but certain factors can make you more susceptible to this problem, which includes genetics, hormones, steroid overuse, and some medical conditions.
Given that this is one of the most commonly reported skin complaints, there is an abundance of information on the Internet about addressing it, but a lot of it is untrue.
However, people are so desperate to banish these stubborn scars that they blindly follow any unverified advice they get on the matter, often to their own disappointment and detriment. You must realize that no treatment is better than wrong treatment, which can actually make the scarring worse.
If you really want to get rid of your stretch marks, first educate yourself about the basics: how they are formed, what makes them worse, how to prevent them in the future, what the available treatments are, and what to expect from these treatments. Doing so will help you distinguish the facts from the fallacy and will allow you to make an informed decision.