Over the years, I’ve developed stretch marks (as many of us have) due to a few different factors. First, there was puberty. I went from a super-skinny kid to a curvy teenager in what felt like overnight. As such, I grew faster than my body was used to, and those annoying marks showed up along my body. Then there was the inevitable college weight gain that occurred during my four-year stay in the beer-and-cheese capital of America.
I’ve grown used to them, barely noticing them when I dress or undress, and the shame that came along with them during my teenage years has generally subsided. I like my body, and I’m not worried about the stigma that is still attached to stretch marks. That being said, feeling proud of your body (all its curves and edges) and wanting to reduce the appearance of stretch marks don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I can embrace body positivity and still try out the various treatments available to smooth them out. So that’s exactly what I did.
But first, some research. I talked to Scott Wells, a New York–based plastic surgeon known for his holistic approach. He explained what stretch marks are and what causes them to form in the first place. “To best understand what a stretch mark is,” Wells began, “one first needs to better understand the anatomy of skin. Skin is composed of a thicker deeper layer called the dermis. The dermis is essentially a complex weave of collagen fibers somewhat similar to a woven fabric. Overlying this deeper foundation layer is a thin veneer of living cells called the epidermis. A stretch mark is a tear in the collagen fabric of the dermis that occurs whenever the skin is stretched beyond its tensile limits. The tear in the collagen fabric is analogous to a run in a stocking. Because the epidermis remains intact, what appears is an area of weakness in the skin underneath the intact epidermis layer. This is visible as a lighter appearing linear wrinkling under the skin, commonly known as a stretch mark.”
But why do they happen? “The most common cause is a rapid stretching of the skin as occurs in the abdominal region during pregnancy or in the hips and leg region with rapid weight gain,” Wells explained. “It can occur, however, anywhere there is rapid stretching of the skin. Stretch marks also commonly occur during adolescence due to the hormonal alteration in the skin to accommodate growth.” I’d heard a lot of conflicting advice concerning the treatment of stretch marks—there are so many creams, oils, lasers, and other products out there—but do they actually work? I set out to find an answer by trying five of the top-rated treatments available.
The Multi-Action Body Treatment
Zein Obagi, a board-certified dermatologist, suggested I try Zo Skin Health Body Emulsion Plus ($95) mixed with Zo Medical Retamax ($145). Obagi explained, “What makes the formula a spectacular choice for the treatment of stretch marks is that you are mixing a micro-emulsion retinol, which will significantly improve texture by stimulating epidermal renewal and collagen production and even skin tone, with papain and saccharomyces cerevisiae extract to provides enzymatic exfoliation to remove dead skin cells and smooth rough skin textures. It sloughs away the stretch marks and replenishes hydration and lipids to restore skin’s barrier function. This will help the skin return to a healthy-looking state and prevent any new damage from occurring.”
Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that gets converted into retinoic acid and is often used in acne and anti-aging skincare products. Retinol works by improving the rate of cellular turnover, providing effective exfoliation.
The label doesn’t specify how long before you start seeing results, so I used the mixture every day for a full week to see if I noticed any changes. First of all—stretch marks aside—this is pretty much a miracle product. My skin was soft, supple, exfoliated, hydrated, and noticeably toned throughout the entire experiment. My stretch marks looked faded (I’ll take it) after just one week. By no means are they gone, but they are less noticeable, and I’m sure with continued use the results will be even more exciting.
The Drugstore Find
I’ve been using Bio-Oil religiously on scars that showed up after a surgery I had a few years ago. It’s really effective, especially at such a low price tag. Somehow, I never thought to apply it to my stretch marks until now. It practically melts into your skin, with rich moisturizers to hydrate and nourish for hours post-application. The cult-favorite formula is blended with PureCellin oil to make the product especially easy to absorb and lightweight to the touch.
After rubbing it on my stretch marks for a week, I noticed a slight difference but not as much as a few of the other products I tried. After continued use, though, I’m sure the coloring will being to fade more and more each time. It’s an incredible option when you’re not in a position to splurge, as it works to fade scars, even skin tone, moisturize, and can even be used as an after-sun treatment and bath oil.
Wells suggested a skincare cocktail to accompany a round of laser treatments to best fade my stretch marks. He explains, “Since stretch marks are actually an area of the skin where the collagen is damaged, treatments to improve stretch marks are directed at rebuilding the integrity of the collagen in the area of the mark. Patients are placed on a skincare regimen that helps to support the rebuilding and restructuring of the dermis. At the same time, collagen building lasers such as the Palomar 1540 and Deep IR Lasers are employed to stimulate the dermal repair.The very best product, in my opinion, is a hyaluronic acid serum, which can absorb and hold in the skin hundreds of times its weight in water, thereby greatly increasing the skins elastic tolerance. We offer this proprietary product through our office called Scott Wells MD Hy-Pep ($90). Most recently, superficial treatment attachments for the Ulthera machine have become available to also treat at this depth. Several treatments are generally needed, but we have treated hundreds of stretch marks and have seen very significant improvement in their appearance using these modalities.”
Each laser procedure is generally 15 to 30 minutes long, depending on the area you’re looking to treat. For me, it was always fairly quick, which made the appointments even easier. Wells suggests a minimum of three treatments to see results, scheduled about a month apart. I went in for the first one and was pleasantly surprised. I was instructed to take an Advil beforehand, so I was worried about what kind of painful situation I was about to embark on. It definitely wasn’t comfortable, but it was definitely tolerable—like warm snaps of a rubber band. I only noticed a bit of redness afterward for a few hours, and I had no downtime whatsoever—I went back to work immediately following the procedure. However, it is best to avoid direct sun exposure on the treated area, so I had to turn down a trip to the beach that weekend. For smaller areas (just a few marks), expect to pay about $250, and $500 for larger surfaces. I didn’t notice a difference at first, but over time, I can definitely tell the lasers are working. Plus, after doing my research, most doctors admit lasers are the most effective way (barring a tummy tuck). I have high hopes for the next treatment—I’ll keep you updated.
The Organic Duo
Pai’s two-product system includes a buttery cream to use in the morning and a rich, replenishing oil to use at night. Both of them are high in omegas for optimum skin nourishment, and together they maximize the skin’s ability to stretch. Paul Banwell, a consultant plastic surgeon and skincare expert, says of the products: “The key to stretch-mark prevention and treatment is to understand the need to hydrate the skin for optimum tissue repair and vitality and to keep the skin soft and supple. This unique approach of integrating the duality of a cream for skin hydration and speciality oils with antioxidant effects is very exciting.”
Antioxidants fight against free radicals, which are unstable molecules with an unpaired electron looking to brace themselves by attaching to the nearest healthy cell, wreaking havoc and damaging skin tissue. Antioxidants combat this by donating an electron to them, preventing any further damage to your skin. They help to reduce acne scarring, even out skin tone, soften wrinkles and amp up long-term radiance in a way that makeup cannot match.
While I loved the products—they feel luxurious and smell wonderful—they’re formulated more for preventing stretch marks rather than treating existing (and long-standing) ones. Originally created for Natalie Portman when she was pregnant, this system seems more useful to someone who is expecting and hoping to keep her skin from damage. I used it for a full week and certainly saw the tone in my skin even out and stay hydrated for longer, but my stretch marks didn’t look noticeably different come day seven. I’d recommend these products to anyone looking to prevent stretch marks throughout their entire pregnancy because they feel great.
The key to stretch-mark prevention and treatment is to understand the need to hydrate the skin for optimum tissue repair and vitality and to keep the skin soft and supple.
The Repurposed Product
After a tip from a friend in the industry, I decided to try Fur Oil ($39) on my stretch marks. Made specifically for softening pubic hair and clearing ingrown hair, the product is formulated with grape seed and jojoba oils, vitamins A and E, and tea tree oil. It also uses clary sage seed oil, which has healing properties that not only soothe and reduces inflammation, but it also keeps your skin healthier over time. Lillian, one of the founders, who just had a baby, used it to prevent stretch marks of her own.
I was familiar with the product, as I’d sampled and written about it before, so I already had a sample in my medicine cabinet. I smoothed the oil on for a week and watched as my skin remained supple, hydrated, and smelled amazing. Again, it seems as though it would probably work well to prevent stretch marks, but it didn’t do a lot to rid me of them. But added moisture does help in a pinch!