No matter if you’re skinny or overweight, tall or short, you are likely to be affected by stretch marks at some point in your life.
Also known as striae, stretch marks are a type of scarring associated with the rapid growth or stretching of the skin. Stretch marks occur within the dermis, or the middle layer of the skin.
The dermis keeps and maintains the shape and the elasticity of the skin, and when the dermis is stretched more than it can tolerate, it causes breakage. Those connective fibers in the dermis will break and stop the production of collagen.
Causes Of Stretch Marks
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body and is found not only in your skin, but also in the bones, muscles and tendons. Collagen helps to create strength and structure. When there is no collagen production, then the skin is not as supported and reinforced as well and is more prone to any kind of scarring.
Unfortunately, stretch marks do not go away on their own and are not easily treatable with medications, creams or lotions. Thus, surgical removal of stretch marks may be an option.
While many people have stretch marks, the people who most often want them removed are people who have recently lost a lot of weight (because stretch marks stand out more on loose skin) and women who have just had babies, as the rapid skin growth involved with pregnancy creates stretch marks on the stomach.
Serious bodybuilders also sometimes get stretch marks on their arms and chest, associated with very rapid growth of muscle that the skin cannot stretch quickly enough to accommodate.
Hormones such as estrogen and cortisone can soften dermis fibers and increase the chance of getting stretch marks, according to a study in the American Journal of Obstetrics (2017). Thus, pregnant women can end up being even more prone to developing stretch marks. Nearly 90 percent of women will get stretch marks after their sixth or seventh month of pregnancy, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
While they’re pregnant, a woman gains an average of 30 pounds over the nine months of gestation.
Both the significant weight gain and how fast the weight is gained plays a part in the formation of stretch marks on the stomach.
The same study in the American Journal of Obstetrics found data suggesting that women who are pregnant younger tend to get stretch marks more frequently, along with women who gain more than the average 30 pounds of weight during pregnancy.
The stomach skin cannot keep up with this rapid growth, and thus stretch marks form.
Weight gain is another reason the stomach is the most frequent place stretch marks appear. Similar to what occurs in pregnant women, the stomach skin cannot keep up with the growth from fat rapidly building up in the belly.
Unfortunately, losing weight will not make stretch marks go away. Losing weight can make stretch marks more prominent and scar-like. Your skin will recede but the scars made from stretch marks will still be there.
The look of stretch marks can differ from dark red, purple lines when they first appear on the skin, as these are blood vessels showing through the layer of broken dermis.
These reddish marks gradually turn into white lines that look almost silver in appearance as those blood vessels fade and gradually fat cells underneath the skin takes the place of the blood vessels. The longer the stretch marks are there, the more they fade and can be nearly invisible.
A study in the British Journal of Dermatology (2015), confirmed the mechanics of how stretch marks appear, and also noted that many of the topical treatments will not be effective in getting rid of stretch marks.
Researcher Frank Wang, MD, assistant professor and dermatologist at the University of Michigan Health System, noted: “It may, therefore, make more sense to focus on preserving the elastic fibers you have rather than repairing damaged ones within stretch marks. Regardless, it’s more complicated than just rubbing something on your stomach.”
Read: How To Get Rid Of Stretch Marks: The Ultimate Guide
Creams For Stretch Mark Removal
There is limited data suggesting that some creams can help slightly lessen the appearance of stretch marks.
Vitamin E-based creams and lotions are also purported to help diminish the visibility of stretch marks. A study (1996) showed that pregnant women who used a cream with a type of vitamin E in it developed fewer stretch marks than those given a placebo.
Vitamin E does have collagen-boosting properties, which adds elasticity to the skin and could be why it may prevent the appearance of some stretch marks.
Another popular topical treatment is tretinoin cream, which has been shown (2001) to reduce how long and how red stretch marks appear on the body.
These creams, only available through a prescription, contain vitamin A, which helps build up the levels of collagen in the skin and improve the appearance of newer stretch marks in particular.
While many creams and lotions tout that they can improve the appearance of stretch marks, a study in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology (2015) notes “most of the evidence suggests that there is limited proof of the efficacy of the commonly available topical preventative agents.”
Until more research can be done into how stretch marks could be prevented or easily treated, surgery is the most effective and permanent solution in getting rid of stretch marks from the stomach and lower abdomen area.
Benefits Of Stretch Mark Removal By Surgery
Since stretch marks do not go away on their own, surgery is one of the best options for completely removing them from your body. Lotions and creams can help them fade, but the scars will still be there and noticeable, even if not on first glance.
Surgical removal of stretch marks is the only permanent stretch mark removal option currently available.
If people do not want any kind of stretch marks or scars visible, particularly on their stomach if they want to wear a swimsuit, surgery is a good option for them.
However, not all areas of the body where stretch marks can appear are able to be surgically treated. Some parts of the chest, legs and arms (where stretch marks also often appear) are not operable.
Since most stretch marks appear on the stomach, people can get an abdominoplasty to remove stretch marks, also known as a “tummy tuck.” Abdominoplasties are also performed for people who have lost a significant amount of weight and have loose skin in the stomach and lower abdominal area.
This procedure tightens the abdominal muscles and also removes excess skin in that area. This means that any stretch marks around the belly button or below are also removed when the excess skin is cut off during surgery.
If you do not have enough excess skin to be removed, the doctor will likely not recommend an abdominoplasty.
For the procedure, your surgeon will make an incision from one hipbone to the other. If it’s a more extensive tummy tuck, there will be another incision made around the belly button.
The surgeon will then loosen the skin from your stomach wall to your ribcage. They will place sutures in the connective tissue of your stomach muscles and pull them tighter.
The surgeon will then remove any loose or excess skin around the belly button, which usually includes the stretch marks, and then sutures the skin to the area around the belly button.
If it was a full abdominoplasty, the surgeon may place a drain that helps get rid of excess fluid in the surgical site that can cause pain and pressure on the incision site.
A procedure called a high lateral tension tummy tuck can help with excess skin in the love handles or hip area. It includes the regular abdominoplasty described above and also performs a lift in the side of the thigh to improve the lines there. If you have stretch marks on your hips or thighs, this procedure may help remove those.
This type of tummy tuck is typically only recommended for people who have lost a large amount of weight or gone through multiple pregnancies.
The biggest advantage to getting stretch marks surgically removed is that it is permanent. By removing the skin with the stretch marks, there is no way for them to come back unless that skin again goes through another rapid growth or stretching period.
You may be left with a surgical scar, but it will likely be smaller than any stretch mark.
Another advantage of surgery is that it is only one procedure. Other treatments for stretch marks outlined below often take multiple procedures for their desired effect to take place.
Though the recovery period for an abdominoplasty is a few months, afterwards there is no going back to the dermatologist or plastic surgeon for a repeat treatment or touch up.
Tummy tucks also help improve the overall appearance of your stomach. Besides getting rid of the unwanted stretch marks, the surgery also makes your stomach look smoother, firmer, and tighter.
This is because the surgeon is tightening the abdominal muscles and smoothing the skin over them so there is no excess fat or skin to create bulges, rolls or other markings.
The risks of any elective surgery should be considered before going forward with it.
With an abdominoplasty, the person is placed under general anesthesia, meaning they are unconscious for the entire procedure. Complications from anesthesia are rare, but they include brain and nerve damage.
Other complications during the surgery may include excessive bleeding, damage to the surrounding organs and more.
After the surgery, there is a chance that there will be surgical scars. So while the stretch marks will be gone, you may still have some kind of scarring on your stomach.
There is also the chance for blood clots to develop and travel throughout your body, causing a stroke or even death. Surgical wounds are also at risk for infection and necrosis, or death of the skin cells.
Recovery from an abdominoplasty takes about three to six weeks, and parts of that requires bedrest. The surgical wounds should be fully healed after anywhere from three to six months.
Any scars left from the surgery will eventually fade away and turn white, similar to old stretch marks.
Usually, surgeons can “disguise” the scars by placing them near the pubic bone or on the bikini line, so they are easily hidden by a swimsuit or undergarments.
Other cons include that another pregnancy or rapid weight gain can alter the effects of surgery and make your stomach look even worse than what it did before the abdominoplasty. It could distort the skin and create new stretch marks.
It is easiest to get the procedure once you’re at a comfortable, stable weight with no risk of excessive weight gain. It is also best to get an abdominoplasty once you are done having children.
Since the surgery to remove stretch marks is quite invasive and also involves tightening muscles and removing excess skin, it typically costs at least a few thousand dollars.
According to 2016 statistics from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the average cost of an abdominoplasty is more than $5,798.
That does not include the cost of anesthesia. Surgeons typically set their own rates and depending on the procedure and how complicated it is, prices can vary wildly.
Insurance usually does not cover any of the cost of stretch mark removal since it is strictly a cosmetic procedure and not one that is medically necessary for the health of an individual.
Some plastic surgeons or dermatologists may offer payment plans to help make the procedure more affordable. But it may be worth it as surgery is the only option that can permanently remove stretch marks.
In comparison, other treatment options are considerably cheaper but will not completely remove stretch marks. Microdermabrasion and light therapies usually cost around $100, while chemical peels can range in the hundreds of dollars depending on what chemicals are used and how many treatments are given.
Other Procedures vs. Surgery
Surgical removal of stretch marks is a permanent solution to stretch marks, but it’s also an expensive one that also carries the dangerous risks of surgery mentioned above.
There are less costly and less invasive procedures that can help minimize the appearance of stretch marks. These procedures usually are more effective on newer stretch marks, rather than ones that have been on the body for a long period of time and deeply embedded into the skin.
One option is a chemical peel, which is most often used to help diminish wrinkles. During a chemical peel, a solution is applied to the affected area of skin.
Depending on what chemicals are used and the strength of them, they essentially remove layers of damaged or dead skin and help to stimulate the growth of new skin cells.
There may be multiple peel treatments necessary to remove all the layers of damaged tissue.
While this process does not completely eliminate stretch marks like surgery, it will help them fade.
Another alternative is microdermabrasion, which works similarly to chemical peels in that it also removes the top damaged layers of skin.
Except instead of chemicals, microdermabrasion uses tiny grains to exfoliate the skin and remove those layers of skin, making way for new skin cell production.
Microdermabrasion is relatively painless and not very time consuming, though many treatments may be needed to achieve clearer skin.
Read: Is Microdermabrasion Effective For Stretch Marks?
Blue light therapy
Blue light therapy is another non-invasive stretch mark treatment that is more often used for treating acne. Doctors first apply a chemical solution to the skin needing treatment and then placing a blue light over that area.
The chemicals, which are sensitive to the light, are absorbed into the skin and react with the blue light to destroy damaged skin cells. This therapy is generally safe though it makes the skin more prone to sunburns.
Similar to blue light therapy is laser treatment, which uses an ultraviolet laser that helps the skin to regenerate. This procedure can help minimize the appearance of stretch marks by helping the skin around the scars to grow.
Laser treatments often take multiple appointments and can also cost in the thousands of dollars.
The American Society for Dermatologic Surgery endorse recommend laser therapy as a proven way to improve the appearance of stretch marks, and notes that each treatment costs $200 to $400 and potentially 20 treatments may be needed for desired results.
The cost for laser treatment can equal that of surgery, but is less invasive and has less risks. A laser technique called Fractional Photothermolysis has shown promise in a study in the journal Dermatologic Surgery (2009). Fractional photothermolysis is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of wrinkles around the eye as well as acne and surgical scars.
A newer procedure is platelet-rich plasma therapy, which uses a person’s own plasma from their own blood to help rejuvenate the skin and increase collagen production.
A person gives blood and the platelets are separated out and injected into the area of damaged tissue. While platelets are known for their clotting abilities, they also contain many proteins that help promote healing growth factors.
A study in the Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy (2012) found that platelet-rich plasma therapy could be a good treatment for reducing stretch marks as more than 70 percent of those in the study reported “good” or “very good” improvement in the look of their stretch marks.
Overall Effectiveness Of Surgery
Surgery is an effective, more than often permanent solution to removing stretch marks. It is the only way to completely remove damaged, scarred skin through the skin removal process during an abdominoplasty.
However, as outlined in the risks above, the stretch marks can easily return if a person gains more weight or becomes pregnant again. Also, depending on the location of the stretch marks, they might not all be able to be removed.
Abdominoplasty only removes excess skin around and below the belly button.
It’s also worth noting that there is no current surgical procedure to remove stretch marks on other parts of the body such as arms, chest, thighs and buttocks.
As with anyone, skin ages with you, so it will eventually become looser, but the stretch marks should not return unless you go through another rapid growth.
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