What are stretch marks?

Quick Answer
A whitish line or lesion on the skin caused by excessive stretching or tension on the skin.
Expert Answers
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Causes and Symptoms

Stretch marks are a type of scar that forms when there is excessive stretching or tension on the skin. This excessive tension can be a result of pregnancy, obesity, growth spurts during puberty, or lifting weights. Stretch marks develop in the skin’s middle layer, which is called the dermis. The dermis is an elastic layer consisting of collagen that allows the skin to snap back into shape. When this region is stretched over a long period of time (for example, in pregnancy), the elasticity begins to weaken. Natural processes for the skin’s reinforcement cause an increase in the amount of collagen in the overstretched tissue, resulting in the scars called stretch marks.

Stretch marks occur most often around the hips, thighs, buttocks, abdomen, and chest areas. When they first appear, they may be pink in color and can be slightly painful, but with time they turn whitish and become painless.

Treatment and Therapy

Effective measures have been developed to treat the appearance of stretch marks. One of these measures is the use of topical tretinoin, commonly known as Retin A. Applying tretinoin cream to the stretch marks promotes cells, known as fibroblasts, to lay down collagen and elastic fibers at the site. This helps to diminish, if not completely fade, the appearance of the stretch marks. Tretinoin is known to work best if it is applied while the stretch mark is forming and is still pink, instead of waiting until the mark scars over and turns white. Side effects can occur from the use of tretinoin, including itching, burning, peeling, and redness at the application site.

Another measure that seems to improve the appearance of stretch marks is pulsed dye laser therapy. It is hypothesized that the treatment works by stimulating fibroblast and elastin production, yet no precise mechanism is known.


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