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It can be frustrating to work hard to gain muscle or lose weight, only to be plagued by stretch marks. For Timothy Schley, 32, stretch marks have been a part of his life from a young age when he had a big growth spurt, and he developed more on his shoulders and biceps when he started lifting weights frequently after high school. “I distinctly remember when they first started to appear—I had no idea what they were because they were only a quarter of an inch long but they gradually got bigger and bigger and then I realized they were stretch marks from weightlifting,” Schley says. “When they reached their maximum length at 4″, they were pretty red and about half an inch wide.”
At the time, he hadn’t realized he could get stretch marks from working out. Schley tried some lotions to help fade the marks, but nothing seemed to make a difference. While he said there is some self-consciousness when he takes off his shirt for the first time in front of someone, it hasn’t stopped him from exercising, and he’s come to accept the marks. “Personally, I have looked at them as almost a badge of honor,” he says. “I think if I was a bodybuilder [who was getting on stage for competition], there might be a stigma simply because appearance is everything.” Still, Schley said he’d be willing to try something to get rid of them if he knew it was effective.
Kevin Hayen, 30, echoed a similar feeling. He developed stretch marks on his shoulders from lifting weights. “They kind of look like purple streaks. They bothered me a little when I first got them,” Hayen says. “I did a quick Google search on solutions and there didn’t seem to be any fix so I settled for doing what I could to prevent any more, mainly making sure I was well hydrated before, during, and after lifts.” (Keep reading to learn more about how hydration plays a part with preventing stretch marks.) Hayen hasn’t gotten any more marks, and isn’t bugged by them, but would be open to trying a quick, easy, and effective solution.
The good news is, if you’re dealing with stretch marks, there is plenty you can do to fade them and make them less noticeable. Here, we’ve broken down everything you need to know about stretch marks and how to handle them.
There’s a lot of confusion about what stretch marks actually are. Are stretch marks scars? Are they another skin condition altogether? The verdict is that the pesky marks are indeed scars, according to Bruce Katz, M.D., director of Manhattan’s Juva Skin and Laser Center and director of the Cosmetic Surgery & Laser Clinic at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. “They’re caused by excessive stretching of the skin’s collagen,” he says. “There are two types, red marks are in the early stages and white marks are older scars.”
Stretch marks are known medically as “striae,” (linear marks), says Ariel Haus, M.D., of Dr. Haus Dermatology in London. “They are created when your skin is stretched very quickly and the skin cells cannot grow as fast,” he says. “The damage that you see is actually formed in the middle layer of the skin known as the dermis.” While the stretching/tearing of the skin isn’t painful, it does create the scars we know as stretch marks, says Haus. Stretch marks may look different on various skin tones, he says. They can be more noticeable in people with darker tones because of the higher melanin content in their skin.
For men, stretch marks often occur as a result of weightlifting, when muscles bulk up too quickly for the skin to catch up. They can also occur from growth spurts and weight gain, and remain after weight loss. For women, stretch marks are often associated with puberty and pregnancy, says Haus. Some corticosteroid creams and pills can also cause stretch marks by decreasing skin’s elasticity, says Dr. Debra Jaliman, a New York City dermatologist.
Interestingly, there’s a genetic component to stretch marks too, says Jaliman. “If you have a family history of them you’re more likely to get them,” she says. “And any genetic condition where you have increased cortisone in your system can increase the risk of getting stretch marks.” These are rare conditions like Cushing Syndrome, Marfan Syndrome, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and various adrenal gland disorders.
If your stretch marks are linked to a genetic predisposition or condition, or are caused by a growth spurt, there’s not much you can do to stop them from popping up. Otherwise, it’s best to avoid gaining any weight or muscle very quickly, which also may be difficult to control. It’s difficult to say how fast is too fast to put on weight and/or muscle, since everyone’s skin will respond differently. Generally, keeping the skin moisturized—especially if you’re trying to gain muscle mass quickly—can help keep them at bay, says Haus. He recommends moisturizing the skin twice daily and avoiding hot water and baths, which can dry out the skin. “It is also important to regularly drink water to keep your skin hydrated, and have a balanced diet rich in vitamins, especially vitamin E, vitamin C, zinc, and silica, which keep the skin healthy,” Haus says.
Unfortunately, you can’t completely get rid of stretch marks. “They’re difficult to eliminate altogether, but there are ways to make stretch marks less noticeable,” says Haus. If you’re looking to fade the appearance of your stretch marks without a laser treatment, try this method from Haus: Massage the skin daily with a moisturizer or a massage glove to help improve circulation to the area. “This in turn encourages new tissue growth,” he says. Look for topical creams containing ceramides, almond oil, grape polyphenol, or vitamin E.
You can also try prescription retinoid creams like Retin-A or over-the-counter retinol, says Jaliman, to help resurface the skin and reduce the appearance of stretch marks.
For more stubborn marks, you’ll need to talk to a dermatologist about what laser treatment is right for your skin. Haus suggests a course of treatments with a sublative laser. Sublative treatment uses short pulses of micro-fine laser light to reach deep into the skin’s sublayers, treating the support structure, he says. Then, the body’s natural healing process sweeps away older, damaged tissue, and rebuilds it with fresh, new collagen and elastin, which help to create smooth skin. “The new collagen can leave the stretch marks smoother in texture and reduce the appearance of the mark by improving the color,” says Haus.
Katz recommends a pulsed dye laser, which is used to fade pigmented skin, for redder stretch marks and a fractional CO2 laser, which removes the top skin layers and promotes new skin growth, for white ones. The fraxel laser is also an option, says Jaliman, as it stimulates collagen production. You could also try microdermabrasion to help smooth and fade the marks, she says.
The price of your laser treatment will greatly depend on the size of the area that you’d like treated and the type of laser you’re getting. It could range anywhere from $500 to $1,000 per treatment, and may take 4-6 treatments. Many of the laser treatment options are the same ones used for tattoo removal.
“It won’t totally eradicate the stretch marks, but it will improve them,” says Jaliman.
“During treatment, many patients feel a warm, prickly sensation as energy enters their skin,” says Haus. “After treatment a pink or red sunburn-like appearance and feeling is also common but will fade within a few weeks.” Topical anesthetic cream and cooling are often used to reduce discomfort during treatment. Make sure to protect the area with moisturizer and sunscreen after treatment.