Stretch marks can affect just about anyone, from teenagers, to pregnant women, to men with intense weight lifting routines. The scar-like marks on the skin can have many causes; sometimes they're preventable but, more often, they're not. Although some people might find stretch marks unsightly, they're nothing to be ashamed of -- they're completely normal and common. Best of all, they're not harmful and, while they never disappear completely, they often become less noticeable over time.
A stretch mark is a scar that forms when the skin stretches quickly. This sudden change ruptures the collagen and elastin that supports the skin. The damage heals, and the scarring appears as stretch marks. While stretch marks aren't painful or harmful, they can itch periodically and some people don't like the way they look.
Stretch marks don't look the same on every body, and they change over time. Some appear as bright red or purple streaks while others present as indented lines. The color typically fades, though they never entirely disappear. Their appearance depends on where they are located, the person's skin type and color, how long they have been there, and what caused them.
Anything that stretches the skin can lead to stretch marks, but some people are genetically predisposed to them. Teenagers, particularly young women, may notice stretch marks as they go through puberty because so many rapid changes are happening to the body. At this stage of development, it's common for stretch marks to develop on the breasts, hips, thighs, and bottom.
Gradual weight gain usually does not cause stretch marks. Because body fat increases slowly, the skin has time to stretch and expand to support the fat as needed. On the other hand, rapid weight gain does not give skin the time it needs to grow and change to handle new fat deposits. In most cases, stretch marks result.
People who work out regularly might not expect to see stretch marks, but if muscle development happens quite quickly, they might. The marks tend to appear during bursts of high testosterone. Testosterone production decreases with age; younger men are more prone to stretch marks of this type because they can bulk up more quickly than men over 40.
Pregnancy causes a lot of changes in a woman's body, some of which lead to stretch marks. One of the obvious reasons is the rapid growth of the fetus and the skin over the abdomen, which must stretch to accommodate the baby. Some experts also believe increased hormone levels during pregnancy cause collagen fiber bonds to relax, making them prone to stretching too quickly.
Topical corticosteroids are a common treatment for skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, and dermatitis. Though they are effective, they can also cause atrophy when applied frequently for a long period. This causes damage to the skin tissue and leads to stretch marks. People using topical corticosteroid creams, gels, or ointments should follow application instructions carefully.
Several genetic disorders make it easier for stretch marks to form. Ehlers-Danlos syndrome weakens the structure of the skin, which can lead to stretch marks at a young age. People with Marfan's syndrome are also prone to developing the scars when young. Cushing syndrome causes elevated cortisol levels, which leads to rapid weight gain. Some adrenal disorders also cause elevated cortisol levels and have a similar effect.
Eating foods high in vitamins E and C, zinc, and silica may help form collagen, which adds strength and stretch to the skin. Drinking enough water and keeping the skin hydrated maintains elasticity, which can help prevent or slow the formation of stretch marks, particularly during pregnancy. Some also believe that exercise can help because it improves circulation, which strengthens skin.
Like any scar, stretch marks are permanent and never completely go away. Though they fade significantly over time, some lotions, creams, and gels can speed up the process. For best results, apply these products early -- they're more effective on new stretch marks than mature ones. Take the time to massage it deep into the skin every day, and be aware that it could take weeks to see results.
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