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What are stretch marks? Stretch marks, known in the medical literature as striae distensae, are the natural result of the body underneath the skin expanding faster than the skin can keep up. The skin is held together by a network of stretchable fibers made of collagen.
Rapidly expanding tissues underneath the skin loosen the connections and even cause the fibers to "explode." The rigid fibers in the skin, however, remain intact, so tight bands of skin appear across regions of puffiness. Hair follicles and sweat glands on these patches of atrophy and die.
What causes stretch marks? Stretch marks are most common during pregnancy. The mother's entire body is infused with a hormone called elastin. It loosens connective tissues throughout the body to make sure the cervix can dilate enough to deliver the child. When it loosens tissues beneath the skin, the resulting pressure on the skin above can cause stretch marks.
Both men and women can develop stretch marks at any time of life. Stretch marks are not unusual across the shoulders of male weightlifters. Men and women develop stretch marks when they gain weight quickly or lose weight quickly.
Any condition that causes swelling can cause stretch marks, and any condition that increases the body's production of the stress hormone cortisol can cause stretch marks. These skin changes are also common in people who have liver disease and in those who use steroids, whether prescribed by the doctor or used illicitly for muscle building.
How are stretch marks treated? When it comes to treating stretch marks, the motto is "the sooner, the better." If you wait indefinitely, you may find yourself visiting the dermatologist for laser ablation or treatment with Retin-A, neither of which is advisable for pregnant women or persons of either sex who are working hard to build muscle. But you may be able to slow down the development of stretch marks by using topical creams of vitamin E. Vitamin E for stretch marks is part of a sensible program of stretch mark prevention.
It also helps to exfoliate, removing dead skin. This keeps the outer layers of skin from pressing down on the inner layers of skin. It's not a complete cure, but it removes some of the stress that causes collagen to break down. The best natural exfoliants for preventing stretch marks are the alpha-hydroxy acids, but use caution if you have dry skin. Exfoliation will also increase vitamin E absorption.
For men and for women who are not pregnant, it also helps to make body changes slowly. If you are a woman and pregnant, of course, you have to let yourself expand for the sake of your baby, but these two simple steps, vitamin E oil and exfoliation, can make a big difference in how quickly your stretch marks go away after you give birth.
Burrows NP, Lovell CR. Disorders of connective tissue. In: Burns T, Breathnach S, Cox N, Griffith C, editors. Rook's Textbook of dermatology, 7th edn. Oxford: Blackwell Science; 2004. p. 46-7.
Lawley TJ, Yancey KB. Skin changes and diseases in pregnancy. In : Freedberg IM, Eisen AZ, Wolff K, Austen KF, Goldsmith LA, Katz SI, editors. Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in general medicine. 6th edn. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2003. p. 1362