Stretch marks are generally purple-red streaky scars that appear on skin that has been overstretched. About 50% of all pregnant women develop stretch marks ( striae gravidarum ) during pregnancy, usually in the third trimester, as the abdominal skin is increasingly stretched to accommodate the growing foetus inside the uterus.Stretch marks may also develop in some pregnant women in areas such as the breasts, hips, buttocks and thighs.
Similarly, rapid weight gain, followed by rapid weight loss can result in stretch marks. Depending on the skin type, fresh stretch marks can be pink, purple, brown or red. However, over time, the stretch marks lose their bright colouring and become silvery, shimmering lines that are less noticeable.
How do stretch marks develop?
Stretch marks are caused by tears in the skin’s tissues, either through trauma or by over-stretching of sub-dermal tissues, such as muscles and connective tissue.
There are three layers that make up our skin: the epidermis (outer layers), the dermis (the elastic, resilient middle layer), and the subcutaneous tissue (the deepest layer).
Stretch marks, also known as stria atrophica and striae distensae or striae gravidarum reflecting their occurrence in pregnancy, form in the dermis. When the dermis is stretched, the connective fibres (Collagen and Elastin fibres) break, causing microscopic bleeding and tissue inflammation. Usually the skin is fairly elastic, however, when it is overstretched, the normal production of collagen is disrupted, resulting in scars called stretch marks. Collagen is the major protein that makes up the connective tissue in your skin.
Progressive development of Stretch marks:
The skin is stretched beyond its capacity causing the underlying tissue to tear.
Healing of tears results in the formation of scars called stretch marks.
A new stretch mark looks pink, red, brown or purple, but over time, the colour fades.
The stretch mark becomes a shimmering, silvery line and may look slightly indented.
The scar is permanent, but will fade over time to become less noticeable.
Structure of the skin
The epidermis (visible, outer-most layer of skin) protects the delicate inner layers. It is made from several layers of cells. Epidermal cells originate in the bottom layer and push up through the layers to replace old, dead skin cells at the surface, which are continually sloughed off. It is the epidermis that contains melanocytes, which are the cells responsible for the pigment of our skin and thus the skin colour.
Underneath the epidermis lies the dermis. This deeper layer of the skin contains sweat glands, called sebaceous glands, hair follicles, blood vessels and nerves. The dermal layer of the skin is made from two types of fibre: (i) elastic fibres (elastin) for suppleness and (ii) protein fibres (collagen) for strength.
The overstretched dermis
Despite the skin’s inherent flexibility a rapidly growing foetus can cause the skin to stretch further and faster than it is capable to accommodate, resulting in tearing of the tissues and in particular breaking of the fibres that are responsible for providing the skin with its suppleness and flexibility.
Stretch mark removal is more difficult than their prevention
Academics, as usual, disagree as to the effectiveness of creams and lotions to prevent or remove stretch marks, however, personal clinical experience shows that prevention of stretch marks is possible and when preventative treatment is implemented early in the second trimester, stretch marks can be considerably reduced, if not totally prevented. This makes the removal of stretch marks considerably easier if these are less severe and less extensive.
Using a mixture of essential oils combined with a supportive dietary regime to avoid excessive weight gain and body fat, are key factors in the prevention of stretch marks. Other factors to assist in the prevention and treatment of stretch marks include:
Eat a highly nutritious diet high in good quality protein.
Wear a supportive maternity bra throughout pregnancy.
A blend of essential oils such as Rose, Chamomile and Rosehip, together with Wheat germ oil (contains natural vitamin A & E), will dramatically reduce the formation of stretch marks, if not prevent them all together.
Ensure adequate intake of water to maintain a well-hydrated body. The skin requires considerable amounts of water and dehyration will not aid in the prevention of stretch marks.
Treatments and removal of stretch marks
Recent American studies found that stretch marks can be reduced with laser treatment and the regular application of creams containing vitamin A & E as well as other ingredients mentioned above.
The primary factors are a well balanced diet with adequate to high protein in take, daily intake of at least 2-3 litres of water, early application of high quality, natural skin care products that include ingredients such as Rose oil, vitamin A and E, to prevent the development of stretch marks. Remember prevention is better and easier than cure. Last but by no means least, stay fit and continue a regular suitable exercise program through out your pregnancy (obviously consult your health practitioner as to the type of exercise most suitable for you and your general state of health).
Danny Siegenthaler is a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine and together with his wife Susan, a medical herbalist and Aromatherapist, they have created Natural Skin Care Products by Wildcrafted Herbal Products to share their 40 years of combined expertise with you.
The most common areas of the body affected by stretch marks include the thighs, hips, buttocks, arms, stomachs, breasts and also the back area. There are a large number of treatments on the market today. However, how effective they will ultimately be will greatly depend on an individual's age, skin tone and even the foods you eat.