Do any stretch mark treatments work?
In a society where beauty is placed at a premium many women feel compelled to maintain their figures and purchase products which are designed to maintain their youthful appearance. One serious problem which most women will endure and spend tremendous amounts of money trying to fix is stretch marks. Between 75% and 90% of women develop stretch marks to some degree during pregnancy (Robertson and Chang, 2011). Women and men who have experienced extremes in weight loss will contend with this problem as well. The problem is often understated because of it is so common yet millions of dollars a year are spent marketing, producing, and buying products intended to cure stretch marks. There are literally thousands of treatments, professional and nonprofessional, along with pharmaceutical cures; yet none of these treatments have shown any real curative affect but are sold and marketed nonetheless as effective therapies.
Stretch marks also known as striae, are a form of scaring which sometimes is accompanied by discoloration. The marks are caused by the tearing of the dermis. There are two primary causes of stretch marks for this tearing of the dermis which include pregnancy and rapid weight loss or gain. The large amount of weight gain which is normally incurred during pregnancy causes stretching of the skin. The second cause of stretch marks is rapid weight loss or gain. Many people believe that these causes are isolated to weight loss associated with diet or pregnancy but other activities which can cause stretch marks include; muscle building, hormone replacement therapy, and traumatic accidents which involve tearing or mutilation of the skin. Stretch marks have also been attributed to the onset of puberty and hormonal changes that affect weight and muscle development. Girls who experience puberty often find themselves contending with stretch marks that are caused by weight gain from hormone changes.
Over time stretch marks almost always diminish in appearance but typically do not disappear completely. For this reason many people seek therapies to diminish the appearance or to remove stretch marks completely. There are however cases where stretch marks persist for many years and do not heal naturally, but instead might worsen.
Stretch marks are treated through a variety of ointments, over the counter and prescription as well as massage therapies. There are also thousands of natural, herbal, and homeopathic cures being sold as well. However, these treatments are not proven to work and may only have limited application.
There are hundreds of different ointments sold to treat stretch marks. However most of these products show very little effect on curing stretch marks. In fact many of these products are modified skin products such as tanning ointments and Cocoa Butter. In many instances these products are nothing more than Vitamin creams or Aloe Vera lotion. While not dangerous and having other positive benefits for one’s skin, these products do nothing to reduce the appearance of stretch marks.
Even prescription ointments have failed to reduce stretch marks. According to researchers Topical Tretinoin (Retinoic Acid) was capable of reducing stretch marks over a 12 week period (Sewon et al, 1996). This statistic is misleading however, because the success of the ointment could also be attributed to other factors such as time and healing. In the picture below the reduction of stretch marks is obvious but this person was experiencing a rapid weight loss prior to the study (Sewon et al, 1996). Factors such as this should have been taken into consideration. In Figure 1 the picture shows what appears to be a high level of healing. This photo is however misleading because time may have been the more important factor in the healing process than the ointment being tested.
In the following picture Figure 2 a greater rate of healing was realized by a person who simply waited until the stretch marks began to heal. These stretch marks were brought on by rapid weight loss.
Yet no ointments or creams were prescribed. This person instead held their weight at one level through proper diet and exercise and was able to achieve better results than those who used the prescription ointment.
While Topical Tretinoin (Retinoic Acid) was shown to have limited success with improving the onset of early stretch marks, there was little evidence to suggest that this ointment could correct advanced stretch marks (Young and Jewell, 1996). It is more likely judging from the evidence that the results of the study were generated from quality diet and consistent exercise.
Another widely used therapy for stretch marks is the use of massage (Young and Jewell, 1996). There is some data which shows that Stretch marks may be prevented in some women through the use of daily massage. The study of massage used on stretch marks however only showed limited success (Young and Jewell, 1996). The therapy needed to be started at the onset of stretch marks and there is no way to determine if the massage was the therapeutic agent or if simple healing over time decreased the stretch marks (Stryker, 2011). As well, the results of the studies were inconsistent as different participants healed at different rates. This is one of the most difficult areas of this research in that each person seems to react differently and heal differently with regard to stretch marks (Stryker, 2011).
Companies selling stretch mark creams tend to overlook the obvious holes in their data. They claim that because a person who uses a cream for a particular period of time and shows improvement, that this is attributable to their product. Yet their interpretation of data is contradictory to the evidence that shows that time and healthy living can be just as effective. This is seen largely in the products such as creams and ointments that have been tested (Stryker, 2011). Study after study shows a lack of evidence to support current ointment and massage therapies as being effective and removing stretch marks. The lack of evidence to support current therapies indicates that there may be other causes for stretch marks such as heredity (Robertson and Chang, 2011). For instance, stretch marks are more abundant in families were other members suffer from them. This is also a highly disputed area of thought because in many instances the heredity can be linked with other factors such as weight loss or gain or pregnancy. There is also evidence to suggest that individuals who are prone to stretch marks could have underlying causes such as defects in tissue and skin healing problems (Elsaie, 2008). The theory is that individual who are prone to stretch marks might suffer from abnormalities in their connective tissues or in the ability to heal their skin (Elsaie, 2008). These concepts point to a flaw in the research as studies concentrate their research into proving the efficacy of treatment options but seem to overlook other possible causes of the problem. One must question the validity of many of these products claims in the face of a lack of empirical evidence and true understanding of the causes of stretch marks. This is especially true when one considers the low rates of recovery attached with these products. Simply speaking many of these products take credit for healing which is not caused by the product itself, but when they fail to work the manufacturer tends to blame this on ‘varying results.’
There is one relatively new therapy that seems to be very effective at treating stretch marks and this is laser therapy. Doctors will use a laser and remove the upper layers of the dermis allowing for the skin to grow back without the scars.
The idea of the laser is to create a number of vertical injuries to the patient’s skin with non-treated, uninjured skin in between the treated areas. Imagine a lawn that’s been aerated. A similar process, on a microscopic scale, is done to the skin with fractional laser treatment. The laser makes small injuries the diameter of a hair shaft in the skin leaving normal, untreated skin in between. The untreated skin helps heal the wound quite quickly, replacing the area with new, healthy skin. (Zelickson, 2011)
This treatment is extremely beneficial and has a high rate of success and reduction of scars. This treatment has a recovery time of about two weeks. While being effective this form of therapy is expensive and typically not covered by insurance. One major drawback to this therapy is that it might need to be repeated multiple times depending upon the severity of the stretch marks (Zelickson, 2011).
Research should be committed to finding the underlying causes of stretch marks because the current recommended therapies seem to lack effectiveness. Researchers also need to study stretch marks in order to discover if there are deeper medical issues or problems that could be affecting individuals. If there are other causes for stretch marks these causes could be indicative of more serious problems such as immune problems or tissue defects. Stretch mark being such a common issue warrants further investigation and research.
Elsaie, M.L. (2008). Stretch marks: causes, types of treatment, prevention, and more. Aesthetic Dermatology News, 3(4), 2–3.
Hamilton, T.A., Ellis, C.N., Voorhees. J.J. (1996) Topical Tretinoin (Retinoic Acid) Improves Early Stretch Marks Arch Dermatol, 132(5):519–526.
Robertson. A. and Chang. L., (2011) Stretch Marks Getting Under Your Skin? Smoother Skin Doesn’t Have to Be a Stretch, Doctors Say, Because Treatment Options Abound Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/baby/features/stretch-marks-getting- under- your-skin
Stryker, S. (2011). Natural ways to treat stretch marks. Retrieved from http://health.learninginfo.org/stretch_marks.htm
Sewon. K., Kwang K.J., Griffiths. C, Wong, T-Y., Harvinder T.S., Fisher, G., Gordon, J.,Young G, Jewell D. Creams for preventing stretch marks in pregnancy. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1996), Issue 1. Art. No.: CD000066
Zelickson B. (2011) Stretch Mark Removal lhttp://www.stretchmarks.org/laserremoval.aspx