Over the years, many of us develop stretch marks for a variety of reasons. Puberty, pregnancy, sudden weight gain or loss, and genetics can all have a hand in etching these striated scars into the skin. While some search for ways to get rid of stretch marks, there are just as many people who couldn't be more unbothered by them. After all, stretch marks are extremely common, completely natural, and as all scars do, tell a story.
That being said, feeling proud of your body (including all its curves and edges) and wanting to reduce the appearance of stretch marks don’t have to be mutually exclusive. We can embrace body positivity and still try out the various treatments available to smooth them out. And though they are technically scars, their appearance doesn't have to be as permanent as the word might imply. So we investigated.
According to Scott Wells, a board-certified plastic and reconstructive surgeon based in New York known for his holistic approach, stretch marks appear as an area of weakness in the skin underneath an intact epidermis layer.
What Are Stretch Marks?
Stretch marks are tears in the collagen fabric of the dermis that occur whenever the skin is stretched beyond its tensile limits. Wells notes that they typically occur in the abdominal region during pregnancy or in the hips and leg region with rapid weight gain. They can also occur during adolescence due to the hormonal alteration in the skin to accommodate growth. Board-certified dermatologist Shari Sperling explains that there is some genetic prevalence, therefore, some may be more likely to develop them than others.
Keep reading for everything there is to know before trying your first stretch mark treatment.
Apply a Retinol
Zein Obagi, a world-renowned, board-certified dermatologist based in Los Angeles and founder of Zo Skin Health, Inc., suggests Zo Skin Health Body Emulsion Plus mixed with their Wrinkle & Texture Repair ($145). Obagi explains, “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, collagen production, and even skin tone—with papain and saccharomyces cerevisiae extract to provide enzymatic exfoliation. This removes dead skin cells and smoothes rough skin textures. It also sloughs away the stretch marks and replenishes hydration and lipids to restore the skin’s barrier function. Ultimately, 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's often used in acne and anti-aging skincare products. It 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.
Get a Tretinoin Prescription
If you've tried retinol products with no luck, you may benefit from a tretinoin prescription. "Tretinoin and/or hyaluronic acid applied to the skin can offer some benefit for the treatment of stretch marks," Sperling says.
Tretinoin is a synthetic derivative of vitamin A, available only by prescription. It is used to rejuvenate the skin, increase cell turnover, and induce collagen production.
Like retinol, tretinoin is a retinoid, meaning it's a vitamin A derivative. While retinol is a natural form of vitamin A, tretinoin is a much stronger, synthetic version. Tretinoin is only available with a prescription and is often sold under the brand name Retin-A. The retinoid works to speed up cell turnover, rapidly exfoliate the skin, and stimulate collagen and elastin. Because of its aggressiveness, it's not recommended for sensitive skin.
Apply an SPF of 30 or higher and avoid sun exposure when possible while using tretinoin, which can make the skin much more sensitive to the sun than usual.
Rebuild Skin Cells With Microneedling
According to Sperling, a few rounds of microneedling is a great option to aid in stretch mark removal. When the skin stretches or shrinks too quickly, the collagen and elastin rupture and stretch marks become visible. "Microneedling uses a device with many tiny needles which penetrate the skin and causes micro-trauma to the skin," she explains. "It stimulates the collagen and elastin to rebuild and to help the appearance of stretch marks." Typically, multiple in-office treatments are required to notice a difference, but there are also several at-home devices on the market that do the trick.
Boost Collagen With Laser
Wells suggested a skincare cocktail to accompany a round of laser treatments to best fade 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 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 skin's elastic tolerance. We offer this proprietary product called Scott Wells MD Hy-Pep ($90). Generally, several treatments are 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 scheduled about a month apart to see results. 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 was by no means comfortable, but it was 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 to 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 for larger surfaces, $500. 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 to rid stretch marks (barring a tummy tuck).
Try Healing Growth Factors With PRP
"Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) applies concentrated growth factors taken from a patient’s blood, which is used topically or by injection to stimulate new collagen production," explains Claire Chang, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist. During a PRP appointment, the provider will draw blood and spin the sample in a centrifuge to isolate the platelets, which are where the healing and regenerating growth factors are found.
"It can be used alone or in combination with resurfacing lasers, microneedling, or radiofrequency microneedling," says Chang. When used alone, PRP works best on fresh stretch marks. This is because active healing is what triggers the growth factors to work, so if the stretch marks are still in this stage the results will likely be more apparent. For this reason, a combined treatment that initiates healing through micro-wounds (like microneedling) is recommended.
Treat Stretch Marks With Fillers
Poly-L lactic acid (Sculptra) and dilute calcium hydroxyapatite (Radiesse) are bio stimulatory fillers that work by volumizing and stimulating collagen from within the scars, Chang explains. "They can be used in combination with resurfacing lasers, microneedling, or micro-focused ultrasound to improve the appearance and texture of stretch marks."
After a Radiesse injection, you can expect pretty immediate volumizing effects, which isn't the case with Sculptra, but both yield some of the longest-lasting filler results on the market. Sculptra typically lasts up to 24 months and Radiesse sustains for about 12.
These in-office stretch mark treatments will typically require multiple rounds and three to four months to see any major improvements as the body takes time to rebuild collagen, Chang notes. However, a study found significant improvement in the appearance of subjects' stretch marks in as little as two months with a combined treatment of Radiesse filler, microneedling, and a topical vitamin C.
Head to the Drugstore
I’ve been using Bio-Oil's Multi-Use Skincare Oil religiously on the 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 purcellin 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.
Prevent and Treat With Hydration
Pai’s pomegranate and pumpkin seed stretch mark system includes an antioxidant-rich 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 specialty oils with antioxidant effects is very exciting.”
The products feel luxurious and smell wonderful, but they are formulated more for preventing stretch marks rather than treating existing (and long-standing) ones. Created for Natalie Portman when she was pregnant, this system seems more useful to someone who is expecting and hoping to keep her skin away from damage. After a week's use, you can expect a more even skin tone and longer-lasting hydration, but existing stretch marks likely won't look noticeably different come day seven. These products are wonderful for anyone looking to prevent stretch marks throughout their entire pregnancy because they feel great.
Resurface Skin With Radiofrequency
Radiofrequency technology is used to stimulate collagen production by directing energy waves deep into the skin. The method of heating the dermis without damaging the top layer of skin makes it an increasingly popular non-surgical skin tightening and firming treatment.
Recently, radiofrequency microneedling devices have been used for the treatment of stretch marks, Chang says. "These devices couple both microneedling and radiofrequency to deliver thermal energy to the dermis and stimulate collagen/elastin formation."
Depending on the number of sessions required, radiofrequency microneedling isn't exactly the kindest on our wallets. Sessions can range from $100 to over $2,000, with an average cost of about $800 per visit. For best results, Chang recommends multiple treatments, "Radiofrequency microneedling is typically performed at monthly intervals and has been shown to significantly improve skin texture in stretch marks," she says, adding that it's highly effective when administered in combination with other treatments like pulsed dye laser, PRP, or a topical retinoid.
Nourish the Skin With Oils
After a tip from a friend in the industry, I decided to try Fur Oil on my stretch marks. Made specifically for softening pubic hair and clearing ingrown hair, the product is formulated with grapeseed, tea tree, and jojoba oils, along with vitamins A and E. It also uses clary sage seed oil, which has healing properties that not only soothe and reduces inflammation but also keep your skin healthier over time. Lillian, one of the founders, used it to prevent stretch marks of her own while pregnant.
Smooth the oil on for a week and watch as your skin remains supple, hydrated, and smells amazing. Again, it seems as though it would probably work well to prevent stretch marks, but it may not do a lot to eliminate them. But added moisture does help in a pinch!
Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Global Open. "Calcium Hydroxylapatite Combined With Microneedling and Ascorbic Acid is Effective for Treating Stretch Marks." 2017 Sep 26.