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Are stretch marks getting under your skin?

When Adrienne Nugent of San Antonio gave birth to her third child, she was dismayed to see that the stretch marks from her earlier pregnancies — which she had diligently tried to minimize with topical creams and ointments — had multiplied.She’d heard that stretch marks were hard to avoid, but Nugent wasn’t particularly concerned. She was looking forward to abdominoplasty surgery. “I still have some stretch marks, but they’re very, very low on my belly,” says the 38-year-old. “Most got cut out with my tummy tuck.” Not everyone is willing to go to such lengths to get rid of stretch marks, however. So it’s important to understand first what causes stretch marks, and what steps, if any, you can take to prevent them.

What Causes Stretch Marks?

Known by doctors as “striae” (usually “striae distensae” or, in the case of pregnancy, “striae gravidarum”) stretch marks typically appear after rapid weight gain or loss. They are most common during pregnancy and the teen years, when growth spurts and increased levels of steroid hormones cause significant changes throughout the body. Stretch marks can also be brought on by obesity and weight lifting.Genetic factors — including inherited defects of connective tissues — also play a role, Mohamed L. Elsaie, MD, MBA, says in the August 2008 issue of Esthetic Dermatology News. But the basic cause of stretch marks is unknown.”Basically, if your mother had them, you’re probably going to have them,” says Leslie Baumann, MD, director of the University of Miami Cosmetic Group and author of The Skin Type Solution. Stretch marks affect as many as 90% of all women, she says, and they are not easy to get rid of. Once they have passed the initial stage, when they are red or purple, to the later stages, where they become white or silver — often with deep indentations — they are much more challenging to treat.

How to Get Rid of Stretch Marks

Here’s a rundown of the products available for stretch mark removal and what they can — and cannot — do:

Wheat germ oil: There is not much scientific data on whether home remedies for stretch marks, such as wheat germ oil, can help. One recent study did find it helped improve stretch marks in their early phase.

Vitamin C: Certain formulations of vitamin C, which have become increasingly popular as over-the-counter brands, may also increase collagen production and help early-stage stretch marks, says Baumann. For maximum effect, combine with glycolic acid. Vitamin C supplements may also be effective. She suggests 500 milligrams three times a day.

Relastin, peptide-containing products: The jury is still out on Relastin, an eye and face cream product marketed for its ability to increase elastic tissue production. But peptide-containing products, which are widely marketed as effective “repair” creams, are a waste of time and money, Baumann says. Despite commercial claims, there is no convincing data that these work.

Retinoids: A family of products that includes vitamin A, retinoids have been shown to be fairly effective in increasing collagen and elastic production during the early stages. Retinoids should be avoided entirely if pregnant or nursing. Retinol, tretinoin, and the prescription medications Retin-A, Renova, Tazorac, and Differin are examples of retinoids.

Laser treatment: This popular treatment option is used by many dermatologists, and they are also being tried on white stretch marks, as well. Linda K. Franks, MD, a clinical assistant professor at New York University School of Medicine and director of Gramercy Park Dermatology Associates, is a big fan of laser procedures, which she frequently uses in her New York City practice to treat both red/purple and white stretch marks.”Lasers promote synthesis of healthy, new collagen, which has been damaged when stretch marks appear,” she explains.