What stretch marks really are – and what you can do if you’re bothered by them

What are stretch marks?

Stretch marks are fine lines on the body caused by sudden changes in growth or overstretching. These are caused by torn tissues under the skin and is a common condition in many people. Stretch marks do not cause significant medical problems but are often considered a cosmetic concern, especially in visible areas. Other names for stretch marks are striae distensae, striae atrophicans, striae rubra (which are red) and striae alba (white).

Who gets stretch marks?

Stretch marks affect women more than men. They usually occur in areas of the body that are prone to progressive and continuous stretching. Stretch marks are commonly found in:

  • Pregnant women (abdomen and breast)
  • Adolescents undergoing growth spurts (thighs, buttocks, breasts)
  • Bodybuilders (shoulders)
  • Obese or overweight people

Stretch marks can also occur from prolonged use of oral or topical corticosteroids and from anabolic steroids. They are also a feature of a disease called Cushing’s syndrome, where increased activity in the adrenal cortex (excessive production of the steroid hormone cortisol) is implicated in their development.

What do stretch marks look like?

Stretch marks, when developing may occasionally be itchy. The area of the affected skin becomes pink, flattened and thin. Shortly after, striae rubra which consists of reddish or purplish lines develops, showing in directions perpendicular to the skin tension. These reddish or purplish lines lighten over time to become striae alba, which is flesh-coloured or whitish and is less conspicuous.

Stretch marks are usually several centimetres long and about 1–10mm wide. Some of these stretch marks that are caused by usage of corticosteroid, or resulting from Cushing’s syndrome, are often larger and wider, and may involve other regions.

What treatment is available?

Stretch marks are usually thought of as only a cosmetic problem. However, they may be a cause of concern if a medical illness causes the striae (such as Cushing’s syndrome), or if the patient is on steroids.

The following treatments may help:

  • Moisturising oils
  • Topical retinoid therapy
  • Chemical peels
  • Fractional Mixtopro CO2 laser (available in Thomson Well Women Clinic)