Your skin is designed to be supple with a texture that allows it to stretch and conform to the structure beneath it while you move; however, there are limits on its pliability. If the skin becomes stretched too quickly and remains stretched for a prolonged period of time, the cells within the tissue stop functioning properly. The production of collagen, the protein that gives skin structure and tone, slows. Without enough of this vital protein, the skin is weakened, making it more susceptible to bruising. The long-term scars left by this bruising form the unsightly marks referred to as stretch marks or striae.
Stretch marks typically begin as sets of parallel pink, red or purple lines in the skin. Over time, the color of the marks begins to fade, usually to a gray or pale color. Often, the indented streaks or lines where the stretch marks were once vibrantly visible linger after the color is gone. While striae can develop anywhere, the lines are most commonly found on the hips, thighs, buttocks, breasts and abdomen.
The most common causes of stretch marks are rapid growth and weight gain, making them a common problem in pregnancy. People who become obese rapidly and growing children are also likely to notice stretch marks. In addition, doctors have found a link between the use of some prescription medications, like corticosteroids, and those using such medicines for prolonged period of time are also at a greater risk for stretch marks. Rarely, striae are the sign of serious endocrine or skin disorders, including Cushing's disease and Marfan syndrome.
For most people, stretch marks do not represent any threat to their general health, but can be embarrassing. Fortunately, for pregnant women, the risk of developing stretch marks can be mitigated. Through regular, gentle exercise and by maintaining a healthy diet, women can avoid gaining an excessive amount of weight even during pregnancy, which drastically decreases the likelihood of stretch marks.
In decades past, women relied on home remedies to prevent stretch marks, the most common of which is smoothing cocoa butter, a fatty substance that comes from the cocoa bean, over the skin of the abdomen and breasts. Cocoa butter contains a large amount of moisture and can help help the skin remain more supple; however, medical experts caution that it is not possible to completely prevent stretch marks with cocoa butter.
A number of herbal creams and oral products are available on the market for the prevention of stretch marks. Unlike cosmetic products, these natural herbal medical stretch mark treatments are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Many of these products do not fully disclose all of their ingredients, making it difficult to discern what is safe and what is not. Prior to taking any natural medical herbal product to prevent stretch marks, talk to your doctor, particularly if you are pregnant.
One of the most popular ways to treat stretch marks is through the use of over-the-counter beauty products. These preventive products use different combinations of ingredients to strengthen and moisturize the skin and reduce the likelihood that stretch marks will develop. Although beauty products are evaluated for safety by the FDA, pregnant women should still read labels carefully before using a stretch mark prevention product. When in doubt, always check with an obstetrician or midwife before beginning to use a new product.