What are Stretch Marks?
Stretch marks are scars brought on by the rapid stretching, without complementary expansion, of the skin skin. ‘Rapid’ does not mean overnight, in this case, but rather over a span of weeks or months. Stretch marks generally manifest as distention or depressions in the skin which carry a deep pink and red hue to them. Stretchmarks are also known to manifest more as a texture than as an overt streak of color. These can occasionally be mistaken for dryness or cellulite, but a closer look will reveal them for what they are.
Stretch marks take a very long time to heal and are effectively permanent if not treated. They are most commonly associated with weight gain and pregnancy, but some body builders have been known to suffer from stretch marks due to muscle gain. The primary treatment for stretch marks is and remains prevention; while recent advances have allowed for out-and-out therapizing and removal of stretch marks, it remaisn easiest to simply avoid getting them in the first place.
Who gets Stretch Marks?
Everyone with skin is vulnerable to stretch marks. That said, there are a number of individuals that are simply far more likely to suffer from stretch marks at some point in their life. That said, stretch marks are commonly associated with certain groups of people, and not without reason. Stretch marks are frequently thought of as something suffered primarily by women, and while this is not exclusively true, it is true that women more frequently do suffer from stretch marks.
There are a number of reasons for this. Most of them are a result of one of the primary points of disparity between men and women, something more overt and powerful than their genes: their endocrine system. The primary sex hormone in women is estrogen. The primary sex hormone in men is testosterone. The effects of these are commonly thought of in primarily emotional terms. Testosterone is thought to contribute to a more aggressive, masculine, machismo-centered persona, while estrogen is associated with emotion, strong feeling and empathy. However, they also carry a number of physical effects, especially ones that can alter the health and nature of the skin.
Testosterone contributes to the production of sebum, the primary component in the ‘oil’ of the skin. Conversely, estrogen does not contribute to this production. While everyone (men and women both) have both estrogen and testosterone in their systems, sebum production is simply much higher on testosterone. This means skin on estrogen is significantly drier. While this means that acne is far less likely, it carries with it increased risk for all the various complications that can arise as a result of dry skin. This can be excessively unpleasant, as one can imagine, and it is relevant here, as this can contribute to the formation of stretch marks.
Simply put, women are more likely to have less skin elasticity as a result of their hormonal makeup. This means that the stretching of the skin that can result in stretch marks is more likely to affect them, should their skin be made to stretch. There is a certain amount of relief to be found in cultural mores: women are more likely to take care of their skin and be concerned with its elasticity, which means they are also better equipped from a treatment perspective to deal with and prevent stretch marks, but this is merely cold comfort.
In addition to leaving the skin dry, estrogen has another effect in that it slows the metabolism down. Slower metabolisms store more calories as fat on the body, and do so much more frequently than faster metabolisms. This means, among other things, that women are more prone to rapid weight gain under normal circumstances. This is perhaps the most common source of stretch marks in women, and a frequent contributor to the rampant body image issues in modern global society.
Pregnant women are at the greatest risk for stretch marks, as carrying a baby to term will necessarily involve the relatively rapid stretching of the skin without proper expansion of the skin to compensate. This can leave stretch marks that will last nearly indefinitely even after birth, if they are not cared for appropriately.
All in all, women are much more likely to suffer from stretch marks. There is no identified genetic propensity for being more or less likely to suffer from stretch marks, nor are ethnicity or other inherent qualifiers thought to make them more likely. Men are also capable of suffering from stretch marks, but almost exclusively under extenuating circumstances.
What causes Stretch Marks?
Stretch marks are caused by the stretching of the skin when the skin is not primed to expand. Gradual growth will result in the growth of the skin itself as a single organ, and will not cause stretch marks, but rapid growth of fat or muscle underneath the skin can apply constant slow strain to the skin that it will not be able to compensate for, causing it to scar deeply with stretch marks. This is the underlying nature which, unfortunately, has been obfuscated by many false rumors about the origin of stretch marks; it is a common misunderstanding that stretch marks are a symptom and side effect of the things that are likely to cause stretch marks. There are narratives about how weight gain and blood sugar cause external, visible damage to the skin, how the hormone changes associated with pregnancy are directly responsible for lesions in the skin, and how the increased testosterone experienced by male body builders results in localized stretch marks. There are even some urban legends that associate stretch marks with the rapid loss of weight, attributing the redness to the burning of fat.
The truth is that stretch marks are caused by things that stretch the skin when it isn’t elastic enough to support the expansion. The primary cause of stretch marks, for this point, is pregnancy. Pregnancy involves the distension of the abdomen as the fetus grows in the womb, which in turn results in the stretching of skin, almost always faster than the skin can grow. Time after pregnancy is frequently fraught with frustration as the skin is looser around the belly, having grown to accommodate, but this growth is but rarely sufficient without treatment to ensure elasticity, making stretch marks almost inevitable without treatment.
Rapid weight gain is another common cause, which can be brought on by any number of individual medical conditions or the simple addition of stress and subsequent increased eating and decreased metabolism associated with that stress. In any case, gaining more than a pound every few days (as is entirely possible) is almost guaranteed to cause stretch marks much in the way that pregnancy is.
Rapid muscle gain is not much better from the rapid gaining of fat. However, this can be difficult to accomplish. Building muscle as fast as possible is simply not fast enough to actually produce stretch marks on a body. However, augmentation with hormone supplements and steroids are capable of increasing this, and some individuals are genetically predisposed to growing muscle more quickly.
It should be noted that growing children are not likely to suffer from stretch marks. The growth of a child aging to adolescence is gradual and distributed; the whole of the body is growing at once. This is distinct from the localized growth caused by rapid weight gain, pregnancy or muscle, which occurs in a single limited area. When the growth is distributed and paired with an increase in height, the skin is more than able to keep up and grow right along with the underlying frame. Gradual weight gain and muscle growth, similarly, are not likely to cause stretch marks.
What do Stretch Marks cause?
Stretch marks are almost purely cosmetic. They are very rarely painful, and are occasionally sensitive to the touch. However, above all else, they are simply stubborn and visible scars, generally bright red and difficult to conceal short of covering the skin up entirely. Stretch marks are not known to cause any major complications, nor are they known to contribute as a complication to any other ailments.
How serious are Stretch Marks?
Stretch marks are not serious. They are normal, and a very large percentage of the population will deal with them at some point or other in their lives, however small. They are supremely minor, and the primary concern around them is simply a matter of their cosmetic effects and the possible social ramifications thereof, as well as the psychological effects. In truth, the psychological effects of stretch marks are the primary concern for most cases, as they have a tendency to have a negative impact on one’s body image. Couple this with the effects of weight gain and pregnancy on the effects of the body and the fact that these are teh most common origin of stretch marks to begin with and one is left with a very slick slippery slope down to a number of confidence issues.
What does Stretch Marks treatment look like?
Treatment for stretch marks is regrettably limited. Stretch marks are scars, but the nature of their formation means that healing them is not quite as simple as just sloughing off the scar tissue and letting fresh skin heal in its place. Stretch marks are roughly the same as the surrounding skin, aside from their deep red hue and any valleys they may form in the skin. As such, the most effective form of treatment is prevention.
Preventing stretch marks is a matter of keeping the skin supple and elastic. This is generally good practice anyway, as healthy and elastic skin is all-around a good thing to have: it heals more easily, it is less prone to injury, it’s smooth and pleasant to the touch, and all-around less likely to be the focus of any serious issues. However, maintaining the elasticity of skin in the face of rapid localized growth such as is likely to cause stretch marks is a necessity. A pregnant woman or someone facing a major change in their hormonal makeup likely to cause weight gain is best served by keeping their skin regularly lotioned and moisturized. As well, they themselves are best served by staying as hydrated as possible. Hydrated skin is healthier than dry skin to begin with, and the health benefits of water consumption are innumerable besides. The combination of lotion and hydration is a big step toward preventing stretch marks, and is more than sufficient for a number of individuals (usually those that aren’t explicitly trying to avoid stretch marks). There are a number of agents that prevent stretch marks and improve elasticity more readily, however.
Chief among these is cocoa butter. Cocoa butter is not a true ‘butter’ substance, but rather an oil collected from cocoa plants. Cocoa butter greatly increases the elasticity of the skin and is a component of a number of moisturizing creams. Cocoa butter is generally a reliable indicator of quality and effectiveness in lotions, so long as the lotion contains what it is advertised to.
Scented lotions are a bad idea for this purpose. Many scented lotions do not actually moisturize the skin, and can dry it out over time. For this reason they should be avoided for the most part. While there are some scented lotions that are perfectly effective, they have a tendency to be quite a bit more expensive, whereas unscented inexpensive moisturizers will work just as well. As always, let the buyer beware.
Stretch marks have a tendency not to vanish of the weight or expansion that caused them is lost. This is part of why they are so resilient and frustrating; temporary events can have permanent ramifications. That said, there are several ways to remove stretch marks after they have already taken hold. There are a number of stretch mark creams advertised that do very little good, but there are still others that are effective enough for what they do.
Among the active ingredients to watch for that can remove stretch marks after they have already taken hold, cocoa butter holds another compelling place. Cocoa butter promotes the healing of skin readily and efficiently, and while it will not erase scars overnight, it can help the skin to rebuild itself and heal appropriately, in addition to preventing stretch marks before they can form.
More extreme forms of treatment are also available for more persistent stretch marks, but this can be quite expensive. Perhaps the most summarily and rapidly effective of these is laser therapy, but this can be prohibitively expensive and is rarely, if ever covered by health insurance, limiting the utility of this option for most individuals. That said, those that have suffered from extreme stretch marks, say, due to pregnancy with twins or triplets, may consider laser therapy a viable option if they find that their stretch marks bother them that much.
How do I know if I have Stretch Marks?
Stretch marks can be easily identified visually. If you have been in a situation that could cause stretch marks reliably, such as having gained weight or been pregnant, they can be identified most easily by context. Stretch marks are almost impossible to mistake, even by someone who is not a medical professional. That said, if stretch marks have been a persistent problem for a long time, seeking the advice of a medical professional is not an unreasonable course of action, and a doctor may be able to help one with them.