The Science Behind Pregnancy Stretch Marks and How to Prevent Them


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readIf you’re worried about getting pregnancy stretch marks let’s understand what science says about stretch marks and look at all the practical ways you can do to prevent them. This post may contain affiliate links.


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Probably after the labor itself, the second most worrisome thing for any pregnant girl is stretch marks

Will I get stretch marks? 

Will those fade away? 

Are there creams, lotions or oils that really prevent or remove stretch marks? 

I’ve been asking all these questions myself during my pregnancy. 

Internet only adds to all this uneasiness. There are so many belly butters, creams, oils that claim to reduce the appearance of stretch marks. As if that’s not enough, a lot of so-called experts add to these claims with their natural homemade remedies made of lemon juice, olive oil, coffee – among the most popular ones. 

But what do scientific researches say? Do all these methods actually work? 

pregnancy stretch marks


What are Stretch Marks? 

Stretch marks are thin, long, streak-like lines that appear on the surface of the skin. They occur when the skin is stretched in a period of rapid growth or weight gain. 

Anyone can develop stretch marks but women are more prone to getting them than men. 

When they first appear stretch marks can be pink, red, purple, reddish-brown or dark brown. pregnancy stretch marks

In time, the marks gradually fade into white-colored scars and become less noticeable. But as any scar, they are permanent and don’t go away completely.

Stretch marks can occur on any body part affected by skin stretching:

  • abdomen
  • breasts
  • thighs
  • arms
  • lower back
Bonus: As a bonus for joining my weekly newsletter, download a free pregnancy stretch marks cheat sheet. Print it out and keep throughout your pregnancy! You’ll know all about pregnancy stretch marks and how to prevent them.


The Science Behind Pregnancy Stretch Marks 

Because stretch marks are considered more of a cosmetic issue and are not medically dangerous, they do not receive enough scientific attention. Dermatologists are still learning what causes stretch marks in the first place, as apparently skin stretching is not the only factor. 

Luckily for us, a scientific research team at the University of Michigan, led by Dr. Wang, understands the level of stress that stretch marks cause many women. After over 8 years of research, Dr. Wang published his findings in the British Journal of Dermatology

According to that study, stretch marks are a type of scaring that originates in the middle level of our skin, the dermis.

Our skin is strong and elastic and can expand as needed. 

However, if the stretching or shrinking happens too quickly and too far – like due to rapid weight gain or loss during and after pregnancy – the elastic fibers supporting our skin tear

Collagen is the protein that promotes the flexibility of the skin fibers. 

In the periods of quick growth, the normal production of collagen cannot accommodate well to the quick stretching. The skin of those women may be more prone to damage and scars called stretch marks are formed. 

Related: Just Found Out You’re Pregnant? Do These 9 Things Right Away!

pregnancy stretch marks 


Risk Factors for Developing Pregnancy Stretch Marks? 

Let me start with the bad news.

Pregnancy stretch marks are very common.

Research shows that 9 in 10 women get them in some form. However, some women are at higher risk than others, due to the following risk factors: 

  • Genetics

Family history plays a huge role here. Whether or not you get stretch marks depends on your skin type, as some people’s skin is more elastic.

If your mother or grandmother had them, it is more likely you will too.

There are exceptions though and I’m a vivid example of that.

After my pregnancy, I haven’t developed any single stretch mark anywhere on my body. And that’s despite my predisposition due to genetics.  

  • Age: 

Interestingly, a study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology suggests that women of younger age are more prone to getting pregnancy stretch marks.

This is probably because when we’re young our skin is firm and tight and breaks more easily when stretched.

That’s the reason many teenagers get stretch marks during puberty and rapid growth. 

As we get older our skin loses firmness and doesn’t have to stretch as much to accommodate our growing body.

  • Medical Conditions

Rare genetic disorders like Cushing disease or Marfan syndrome are another indicator – among everything else – you might get stretch marks. 

Cushing disease is caused by increased levels of the hormone called cortisone. Elevated amounts of cortisone lead to rapid weight gain and weakening of the elastic skin tissue. 

Similarly, Marfan syndrome affects the body’s connective tissue and decreases elasticity in the skin tissue. 

But even if you know many of the above factors are against you, you should still do everything on the list below to prevent pregnancy stretch marks. And even more rigorously so. 

What Causes Pregnancy Stretch Marks?

 

  • Rapid Weight gain: 

During pregnancy, your body expands as the baby grows.

It’s natural that you’ll gain extra weight to accommodate that growth. That being said, you shouldn’t start eating twice as much, like quite often assumed. 

How quickly and how much – are the two questions you need to concentrate on right from the start!

It’s important to maintain a healthy pregnancy diet and gain weight gradually.

Stretch marks occur when your skin can’t keep up with how quickly your body is expanding.

Also, keep track of how much weight you gain every month. Depending on your weight before pregnancy, you should try NOT to gain more than the recommended amount of 25 to 35 lbs. 

In the last trimester, as the anxiety of giving birth increases many women develop stronger cravings for food.

I was one of them too.

My baby was overdue and all I could think of the last 10 days before I was finally sent for induction were bakery-fresh mouthwatering pastries. But I knew I had to limit my tours to sweet escape from my emotionally distressed state of mind. 

weight gain pregnancy

  • Hormonal Changes

You’ve probably heard from your girlfriends about getting “all hormonal” during pregnancy.

What that means is that our body needs to undergo hell of a change to grow that tiny embryo into a fully developed baby. 

And while this big surge of hormones is essential to grow and protect the fetus, it has its downside too. 

Medical experts believe that one of the reasons pregnant women get stretch marks is an increase in the levels of the hormone called cortisol during the second trimester.

Cortisol is important for developing fetus because it can help regulate the metabolic system and control blood sugar levels. However, the bad thing is that it also reduces the amount of collagen in the skin.

And collagen is the protein in the connective tissue of our skin that promotes the flexibility of the skin fibers.

  • Medications

Prolonged use of steroid medications or topical steroid creams increases the likelihood of developing stretch marks.

Steroids, also called corticosteroids, are hormone-type medicines that are used to provide relief for swelling, redness, itching, and allergic reactions.

Very commonly prescribed for eczema treatment.

And because steroids are also hormones – just like with cortisol – they can decrease levels of collagen in the skin resulting in stretch marks. 

I myself suffer from eczema and use steroid topical creams during the periods of bad flaring and itching. I diligently did everything needed to have my eczema under control to avoid using steroids during my pregnancy. 


When do Pregnancy Stretch Marks Start to Appear?

Most pregnant women start to notice these motherhood marks closer to the second trimester – around weeks 13 to 21. 

But they can also appear more early in the pregnancy, any time during the third trimester and even after the baby is born.

That’s right! When your pregnancy is over it’s too early to have a big sigh of relief.

You should continue with all the preventative measures for another 6 months or so. That’s because stretch marks can also develop when you start to lose baby weight and your skin shrinks back. 

The first sign you’ll notice is itchiness around the area that expands and where the skin becomes thin and pink.

itchy pregnant belly

Is it possible to avoid getting pregnancy stretch marks?

Before we get into everything that you could and should do to prevent stretch marks, let’s first get things straight about stretch marks creams, oils, lotions or any natural home remedies that claim to prevent or treat stretch marks. 

Here is the truth! 

And I am quoting Dr. Wang’s conclusion here after 8 years of research “very few to none of the items touted to prevent or fix stretch marks really work… Don’t believe the hype when you see those creams and ointments promising to prevent or reduce pregnancy stretch marks.

That being said the same research suggests it makes more sense to focus on preserving the elastic fibers of our skin rather than repair the already damaged ones. 

Therefore, it’s important to do everything we can to help our skin stay elastic during pregnancy that way preventing stretch marks from developing. 

But merely applying stretch marks creams or lotions is not enough. 

There is a combination of measures necessary for you to take if you want to never see those dreaded “beauty” marks anywhere on your body. 

All predispositions aside, I strongly believe that – Yes!

It is in fact possible to prevent stretch marks during pregnancy.  

 

How to Prevent Pregnancy Stretch Marks? 

There are a lot of myths going on around prevention of stretch marks. 

Many stretch marks creams claim to have some magic formula that can prevent or even remove stretch marks.

And when those creams don’t work women attain that to merely genetics and claim that nothing helps. 

And while there’s certainly a genetic component, the best way to prevent stretch marks is to maintain the skin’s maximum elasticity throughout pregnancy. 

Remember Dr. Wang’s research I quoted above? Once again I want to stress how important it is to concentrate on preventing stretch marks during pregnancy rather than trying to get rid of them, once they appear. 

You’ll have much better luck in preventing them rather than treating them

And this can only be achieved by taking good care of your skin from both inside and outside. 

  • Stay Hydrated 

Did you know that skin is the last organ to receive the nutrients we consume, including water? 

So if you skip one or two glasses of your daily required amount of water, your skin is the one that suffers the most.

Dehydrated skin becomes dry, tight and flaky. And more prone to tearing. 

And while the daily recommended amount for women is 8 to 10 glasses of water (depending on weight), you need to drink even more during pregnancy. 

Your body needs all that water to create the huge water sack around your growing baby. Water also helps with morning sickness, swelling, constipation and of course with keeping your skin’s elasticity

Thus add 2-4 more glasses to your daily water intake during pregnancy. 

And if you struggle with drinking 10-14 glasses of plain water, you can add some taste to your water by throwing in some mint, lemon juice or any fruit/berry. This will boost your vitamin intake as well, which is so important in pregnancy. 

Plus, eat lots of fruits and vegetables that have high water content – melons and watermelons, cucumbers, tomatoes, celery, lettuce. 

Tip: I know it’s so easy to forget about drinking water – I’m myself guilty of that. So make sure you always keep your water bottle with you. Or if at home have a pitcher close to where you are. This will help you keep count of how much water you drink.

staying hydrated when pregnant

 

  • Take a Skin-Nourishing Diet 

One of the first things you need to do right after you find out you’re pregnant is starting a healthy, nutrient-rich diet.

Not only will this help you grow a healthy baby inside of you but also help with providing needed nutrients and vitamins to your own body, including the skin. 

Your prenatal vitamins – taking which is also one of the must-dos during pregnancy – already contain a great deal of the vitamins that will help maintain your skin’s elasticity. 

But that doesn’t mean you should merely rely on your prenatal vitamins. 

You need to make sure you get the daily recommended amount of vitamin A, E, D, and C. All of these vitamins play a huge role in maintaining the health of skin cells. 

Zinc is also an essential mineral that contributes to our skin health. Legumes, whole grains, nuts, meat, eggs are the main foods that are considered zinc-rich. 

And lastly, let’s not forget about collagen. 

As we learned above, our body needs more collagen during pregnancy to provide our skin with the flexibility and resilience needed to withstand the stretching. 

Eating collagen-rich foods or foods that boost collagen production may also help create the building blocks (amino acids) you need for your skin goals.

While nutrient-rich diet helps with the production of more collagen – especially foods like citrus fruit, leafy greens, eggs, chicken, fish – some medical experts claim that consuming collagen supplement is a more sure way to get the needed amount our body requires. 

While this is something to consider, you should talk to your ob/gyn if taking a collagen supplement would be the right option for you. 

pregnancy stretch marks

For myself, I decided to stick with a dietary approach to boosting collagen production in my body. Prenatal vitamins and DHA were the only two supplements I took during my pregnancy. 

Bone broth and gelatin are collagen-rich superfoods that are arguably even superior to supplements. What’s important though is to use only high-quality bone broth made from grass-fed animals. 

Isn’t it awesome that you can now indulge in eating your favorite jello?

  • Watch Your Weight

Eating for two doesn’t mean you should it twice as much.

While it’s natural to gain weight during pregnancy, you should still control how much and how fast you grow in size. 

Talk to your doctor about your weight and what would be considered normal for you. 

Typically women with normal weight should gain up to 40 pounds extra weight throughout the whole pregnancy. The norm is to gain 2 to 4 pounds during the first trimester. And then around 1 pound a week during the rest of the pregnancy. 

While you need to control your weight gain it doesn’t mean you should diet. 

Instead, choose nutrient-rich foods. Limit sweets and high-calorie foods that have little nutrition. Avoid eating fast food altogether. 

OK, but does this mean you have to only eat healthy and say no to all your guilty pleasures like French pastry. Of course, not! 

I ate homemade pastries (blessings to my friend who was spoiling me with those) in huge amounts while pregnant. That was my guilty craving that I couldn’t say no to. But taking that the rest of my diet was nutrient-rich and healthy and I wasn’t gaining more weight than I was supposed to, I knew I could let myself have that one detour from my otherwise healthy lifestyle. 

So eat healthy, watch your weight and use your judgment with your guilty cravings. 

  • Exercise 

Moderate exercise has a ton of benefit for pregnant women. 

Whether it’s morning stretching, long walks (or short) with your dog, swimming or prenatal yoga – try choosing something that brings you joy and do mild exercising. 

Not only will this contribute to burning excess calories but to improving blood circulation and maintaining skin elasticity 

  • Apply Stretch Marks Oil 
Along with collagen-rich diet and maintaining your skin health from inside, it’s also imperative to keep your skin moisturized and supple from outside. 
 
Start applying stretch marks oil from the very first day you find out you’re pregnant. 
 
Pick something that is chemical-free and preferably contains shea and cocoa butter. The combination of these two is said to do miracles in keeping our skin moisturized. 
 
Raw shea butter is just as good. Rub it between your hands, it then softens to a great texture and is very soothing.  Just make sure that you rub shea butter into slightly dump skin. So it’s best to use it after a shower. 

 

Palmer’s Tummy Butter is one of the best stretch marks butters. And very popular among pregnant women. It’s said to help with itching like nothing else. 

pregnancy stretch marksI used Mother’s Special Blend oil during my pregnancy as it ranks among the safest by EWG. 

pregnancy stretch marks

And don’t forget to use the stretch marks oils postpartum too. There’s a possibility to develop stretch marks when you lose your baby weight and your skin starts to shrink. 

 

How To Get Rid of Stretch Marks 

Let me start with bad news again.

Like any scar, stretch marks are permanent

And while it’s almost impossible to completely remove stretch marks, the right treatment can make them less noticeable

Stretch marks fade over time on their own too.

After giving birth to 3 kids my mom had very bad stretch marks. Now that she is 70, her stretch marks are barely seen. 

Assuming you don’t want to wait until you’re 70 to see improvement in your stretch marks, let’s talk about your options. 

Don’t waste your money and energy on all those skin products that claim to remove stretch marks. There’s no scientific evidence that any over-the-counter topical cream  – despite what they claim – can effectively repair skin’s torn elastic fibers. Natural oils and butters don’t work either. 

You can continue to apply those to keep your skin moisturized and to avoid getting more stretch marks. However, they won’t help you get rid of the stretch marks that you’ve already developed. 

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the two ingredients that seem to offer some improvement are: 

  • Hyaluronic acid
  • Tretinoin

For the best results, you need to apply creams containing these ingredients on newly developed stretch marks – older stretch marks are harder to treat – by gently massaging the product into the skin. You need to be patient as you might start noticing some difference only after weeks of daily application. 

Tretinoin is only available by prescription. So you will need to talk to your dermatologist about your stretch marks to get the prescription. 

Please note that tretinoin is NOT safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women so this might not be the right way to go for you, anyway. 

If still pregnant or nursing, creams containing hyaluronic acid would be your best and only option. That’s because you should also avoid all other more invasive treatments while pregnant. 

Dr. Wang encourages women to use products with Centella, the one ingredient he says is most supported by research studies.

Mederma’s Stretch Mark Therapy contains both hyaluronic acid and Centella.

If nothing else, this cream helps to retain moisture and keep skin elastic. And because it is safe to use during pregnancy and nursing, try to apply it on your skin with the first sign of stretch marks.

Please do share your results with us in comments, as I’m curious myself how effective it is. 

stretch marks creams

For more stubborn stretch marks, your other options are treatments performed by dermatologists:

  • Chemical peel
  • Laser therapy
  • Microdermabrasion
  • Microneedling

These are expensive though. So you should consult with a professional to see if you’d want to proceed and which one would work the best for your skin.

 

One Last Thing 

Pregnancy stretch marks aren’t inevitable. And while some women are genetically predisposed to them, with a combination of preventative measures you can totally avoid them

If you do get stretch marks during your pregnancy though, there’re ways to make them less noticeable. 

And whether you like them or not, your pregnancy stretch marks will always be a reminder of the miracle you created inside of your body.  

You are a miracle creator! And isn’t that what matters the most?


What About You?

I’m so curious to hear your perspective on the stretch marks. Do you dread them like I did and plan to do everything to prevent them? Or do you think stretch marks are beautiful? Please share with us in the comments below. 

 

P.S. If you just found out you’re pregnant and feel a rush of overwhelm, you could sign up for my weekly newsletter. I deliver helpful tips, humor, mom hacks, and more, straight to your inbox.  Enter your email below: 

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The Science Behind Pregnancy Stretch Marks and How to Prevent Them

10 thoughts on “The Science Behind Pregnancy Stretch Marks and How to Prevent Them”

  1. Pingback: Parental Leave In Your Future? Read This. | WUKKIN

  2. I had the worst stretch marks from our first baby, I gained so much weight too fast—totaled 65 lbs. I didn’t make the sameness mistake with our second and barely got any new ones

    1. I hope your stretch marks don’t cause you too much stress, Trish. We always get more experienced the second time around.

  3. My wish to all women is to love your stretch marks. After all, your body just grew a human!! Second, I’d like to mention that you should not be gaining 2-4 pounds of weight per week in the first part of pregnancy.. Many women, like myself, lose weight or gain nothing. It’s best you don’t gain more than 5-15 pounds in the first 20 weeks because you WILL be putting on about a pound a week after that and that is normal. a pound a week for the last 20 weeks equals 20 pounds plus the 5-15 you gained in the first half. If you gain too much in the first half you will put on WAY more weight that you want to and it will only be hard to lose afterwards.

    1. So true, Melissa. No matter what, we should all learn to love our bodies after pregnancy. That being said, if we learn how and do what is needed to prevent stretch marks, excessive weight gain, sagging skin and look better, why not do that? I’m all for prevention 😉

      You’re right some women don’t gain much weight or even lose during pregnancy based on their BMI. That’s why it’s very important to have your weight gain monitored with your obstetrician.

    2. How people gain weight totally varies. It is not so cut and dry that every woman’s body follows the same exact gaining structure. You can still gain 20-35 lbs by the end and gain less than 1 lb/week in the second trimester and be perfectly healthy. And you are not DOOMED to gain more than recommenced if you shot up more than normal in the first trimester. Let’s not freak women out! Every woman is different. There are healthy babies all over and not all mama’s gain to that “google search” structure.m, yet they still come out to gaining the recommended amount.

  4. I’m one of those crunchy mamas who welcomed my MANY stretch marks with open arms. Although I took care of myself with hydration and daily almond oil or coconut oil on my belly, I assumed I’d get them and I was ok about that. Maybe even excited about it. It’s a beautiful badge of honor that my body was capable of growing a human and did so beautifully. I was a bit surprised by how many I got because they weren’t only on my belly! My breasts, legs, and a bit of my arms joined in on the fun as well lol.

  5. I’m pretty indifferent. Don’t love them but ultimately they happen to some women. I have some but I’ve also had 10 pregnancies (5 losses) and well, stretch marks are the least of my worries. I do the basics of moisturizing well, watching weight and staying hydrated. But beyond that, not too much worry.

  6. I actually didn’t give any thought to stretch marks until after my daughter was born…and not really a whole lot of thought after, to be honest. But I have very light stretch marks – albeit a lot of them. I think if anything, I take pride in them. “Look what I did! I birthed a baby!”

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