The birth of my son was exciting, scary, joyful and exhausting. I wasn’t even the one pushing. One of the things my wife did every night from about 4 months on was put Cocoa butter on her belly. She informed me it was to help reduce the appearance and getting of stretch marks or stria. What actually works?
Causes of Stretch Marks
Before we try to understand how to remove stretch marks, we need to understand what causes them and how they are formed. Most places I read indicated that the most common causes of banding are pregnancy and unusual growth spurts during puberty or muscle gains. Adrenal glad issues can also lead to stretch marks. Since women don’t tend to pound testosterone and gain 20 lbs of muscle in a week, we will consider the first two options. If you have stretch marks appear during any time other than pregnancy or puberty, it would be wise to seek medical advice.
Making room for a homunculus (one of my nicknames for my son) means the belly has to expand. The uterus gets bigger faster than the skin can typically stretch. Even a rapid growth during puberty can lead to a stretching of the skin. This causes scaring of the skin. Normally we think of a scar as a cut or tear of our skin. In the case of stretch marks, the scar forms under the skin. Scientists aren’t in agreement about what actually causes stria (but hey, there are a lot of things scientists don’t agree on).
Our skin is composed of multiple layers. What we typically refer to as our “skin” is only the outer layer or epidermis (from the Greek epi meaning on or above and derma meaning hide or skin). Below our epidermis is our dermis. The dermis is where we have our blood vessels, follicles, and sweat glands. Below that is a layer of fat.
Skin layers to explain stretch marks
The top layer is really quite thin compared to the lower layers. This is also why you don’t want to get 20 peel’s in a week. When we expose the dermis, it is raw and hurts. The whole point of our skin is to keep out bad stuff. Understanding that our skin keeps out bad stuff is critical to understanding how we can treat stretch marks.
According to Medical News Today, “Stretch marks form in the dermis when connective tissue is ‘stretched’ beyond the limits of its elasticity.” Like tears in a bed sheet that is pulled to tight, stretch marks are a breaking of the fibers which hold the tissues together. Collagens and elastic fibers are the primary network which form these connective tissues. One article described them as “rubber bands beneath the skin that give it spring and its ability to snap back into place.” When it snaps, all hell breaks loose. Okay, not really, but everyone woman then becomes more critical of her body.
So one thing is clear right from the start. No “cure” exists. We can’t just rub a lotion and have stretch marks go away completely. There are a few good options available and several bad ones too. Only one thing can make them go away entirely (skip to the end if you are curious).
The Bad (Maybe)
Several websites and people I asked mentioned using creams like Cocoa Butter, Shea, or Aloe Vera. While these can be good for your skin, they all have one glaring problem. They can’t penetrate to the dermis. That is what your skin is supposed to do, keep things out. If they did penetrate far enough, there is a potential theses substances could make you sick if introduced directly into your bloodstream. Remember, this is damage to the dermis, not the epidermis, it shows through to the top.
One website suggested exercise to help. The most interesting one that was suggested was the “Coffee Grounds Method.” The primary ingredients are coffee grounds and an oil like Olive or Coconut. According to SkinnyMs, “The caffeine in coffee, when directly applied to the skin, stimulates blood flow and circulation.” I could not find any scientific research to indicate this method had promising results. I question the ability of caffeine to seep through the skin to the dermis and cause cell regeneration. If it does work, this might be a great thing to do before the stretching begins.
Message was even suggested to help stimulate the fibers. Again, no scientific research actually backs this claim up. But hey, who doesn’t like a good message, and for expecting couples, this can be a good bonding experience.
I found the suggestion on a site that carefully looked at the different options for reducing stretch marks. The article aptly pointed out that while this does have results, it takes multiple sessions a week for a few months straight. That is a pretty rough way to treat your skin.
Even though I grouped these under “the bad,” keep in mind, most of them will not actually harm you if you used the methods described (I am not a doctor, so always check first with a qualified medical professional). You can do these and if they work, great. Most stretch marks will fade with time. This can lead to thinking that a method actually works when it is just the natural healing process.
The Good (Maybe)
One suggestion is tattoos to have the skin color match. I think tattoo are a great idea for certain cosmetic issue. This is especially true for women who have had breast cancer. Just check these results for tattoos and mastectomies. I don’t know that a tattoo for stretch marks is a good idea though. A good artist can match skin reasonably well, but what if your skin changes? A tattoo is a permanent addition to your skin. I haven’t found much material indicating how a skin colored tattoo will change with tanning.
Can we say expensive? The laser shrinks the blood vessels below the skin, thus reducing the redness. This doesn’t actually repair the damage, but only hides the visible portion. Several treatments are needed to get results. The laser is also supposed to help collagen and elastin grow. There is also an excimer laser that encourages the skin to produce melanin.
Tretinoin (Retin-A, Reinoic Acid)
This is a cream (prespcritpion) that restores collagen. Healthline suggests it should be “on recent stretch marks that are red or pink.” However, it is discouraged for women who are pregnant and nursing mothers. The reason the reddish marks can be treated is they are in the healing stage, and thus can be assisted with intervention methods.1 Essentially, Retin-A is a topical Vitamin A. This could possibly be combined with Vitamin E, which is also recommended as a standalone treatment.
Well this is always an option. They cut the affected tissue out. Surgery is always a risky proposition, and probably the most expensive.
Chemical peels may be a possible solution. Tichloroacetic acid (TCA) can offer some reduction of appearance. The TCA compound penetrates further into the dermis than certain other types of peels. However, this is a prescription process and only produces about a 20% improvement.
Best Way To Deal with Stretch Marks
So after this long discussion about the different methods to reduce stria marks, you may be asking, what actually works. I know of two ways to reduce the effect of stretch marks on your body that are 100% effective.
- Hire a photographer who knows what the hell he is doing.
- Don’t give a crap. Love your body.
Yes, that is right. After this long article about how to reduce the appearance of stretch marks I am ultimately telling you to be happy with the body you have. No, it isn’t perfect, but so what. Its yours. God made you a beautiful creature and part of what makes you beautiful are the things you call “flaws.” My wife calls them “battle scars.”
As a photographer, I would be happy to Photoshop them out and I typically do. I will write more about my editing philosophy later.