Q: I just got pregnant and I'm so worried about stretch marks. What can I do?A: The medical term for stretch marks is stria distensae. Stretch marks due to pregnancy have their own term — they're called striae gravidarum (SG). A recent study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology looked at the prevalence of SG among 110 pregnant women who delivered in a private hospital. Unfortunately, a whopping 61% of these women developed them. Stretch marks in the abdomen skin were the most common (50% of the women), and one fourth of the women got stretch marks on their breasts and thighs. The stretch marks tended to develop in the late stages of pregnancy, which makes sense since they're partially due to the stretching of the abdomen and breast tissue. (I'm not too sure about the thighs, though.)
Stretch marks start as red-purplish streaks, but after delivery and with time these streaks fade and become flesh-colored or white and shiny (sort of like scar tissue). A single cause for SG has not been identified. The increase of certain pregnancy hormones such as estrogen and relaxin, as well as corticosteroids, has been implicated in this skin crime. Levels of collagen, elastin, and fibrillin change during pregnancy (perhaps because of the increased levels of these hormones) and as a result the matrix that supports the skin breaks down. And of course, there is the physical stretching …. women with very large babies or multiple pregnancies are more likely to develop stretch marks in their abdominal skin (my personal observation after delivering babies for many years).
The study did find several risk factors for developing SG. These included weight gain during pregnancy (the more weight a woman gained, the more likely she was to develop stria), maternal age (the younger the patient, the more likely she was to develop the stretch marks), and family history (women with family members who had SG were more likely to also develop them). The study, however, did not find that SG development was influenced by skin type, socioeconomic status, smoking status (though smoking during pregnancy is still an absolute no-no), or the gender of the baby. The use of creams and lotions was not seen to have a positive or negative effect on SG, much to the woe of cosmetics companies.
So what kind of skin-protection advice can I give you? You can't change your family history or your age of pregnancy (though I hope you've reached a maturity level where you're competent and able to have and care for a baby). Expensive creams, oils and gels don't seem to make a difference. But subsequent to having your baby, if you developed SG and these “marks of childbirth” are distressing to you, talk to a dermatologist. There are laser therapies available, as well as topical glycolic acid, ascorbic acid, zinc sulfate, tyrosine, and Retin-A products that may help fade your stretch marks.
Dr. Reichman’s Bottom Line: Having a baby can unfortunately cause stretch marks. Avoiding excessive weight gain is the only thing I can suggest to help ward off this skin mark of pregnancy. Dr. Judith Reichman, the TODAY show's medical contributor on women's health, has practiced obstetrics and gynecology for more than 20 years. You will find many answers to your questions in her latest book, "Slow Your Clock Down: The Complete Guide to a Healthy, Younger You," which is now available in paperback. It is published by William Morrow, a division of .
PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician.