Stretch Marks: What the Research Shows Us

By Sonia Alvarado, Senior Teratogen Information Specialist, MotherToBaby CA

Celebrity pregnancies get lots of media attention and are quick to share their own thoughts on what they eat, how they deal with pregnancy weight and unwanted effects like stretch marks.

Stretch marks (SM) and pregnancy are almost synonymous. Reports suggest that 50-90% of pregnant women get stretch marks. However, you might be slightly comforted by the fact that that SM are not limited to pregnancy. In fact, men and women, boys and girls can get stretch marks and it can start as early as puberty! Basically, in healthy people, pregnancy, getting breast implants, bodybuilding, and general weight gain can result in SM. Certain illnesses and medication use are also associated with SM.

"Striae distensae," the medical name for stretch marks, are easily recognized. SM appear as lines or streaks on the arms, stomach, thighs, hips, breasts, upper arms, lower back and shoulders. While SM don't generally cause intense pain, they can be mildly painful and can also include itchiness (resist scratching!) and dryness. SM start off pink and change color to brown, purple, and eventually fade to a silvery color. While we know what SM look like, experts aren't completely sure what causes them other than probably genes, changes in skin, hormones, collagen and in some cases, underlying illness.

So maybe you have SM. Or concerned you may get them. Wondering if there are lotions that can help prevent them. Search no further! We have the skinny on this subject. Read on.


Treatment for Existing Stretch Marks

Save your money! If you have existing SM, currently, there is no over-the-counter cosmetic product that cures or gets rid of SM.  Topical oils, vitamins (including E, A) and lotions don't penetrate into the skin sufficiently to increase collagen production and repair the skin.

Spend your money  if you can/care to. In-office procedures, such as glycolic acid peels with retinoids, as well as laser treatments, have been shown in studies to improve the appearance of SM and measurably improve collagen and elastin. The downside is that these interventions are expensive and may not be appropriate for every woman. Do your homework and find an experienced and recommended dermatologist. You will want to ask if the laser treatment is appropriate for your skin color, how many similar patients the doctor has treated, and the range of outcomes. If you are pregnant, you'll want to talk to your doctor before considering any treatments on existing SM. Studies that have looked at the absorption into the bloodstream of topical retinoids during pregnancy have been somewhat reassuring. However, because retinoids are in a class of drugs that have been associated with birth defects when used systemically, it's unlikely that care providers will approve their use during pregnancy.

Prevention of Stretch Marks

A Cochrane review published in 2012 by Brennan et al, looked at published studies on topical preparations for the purpose of preventing SM. The authors evaluated research on topical agents for the purpose of preventing SM published through the Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group in the U.K. They included randomized trials that included exposed pregnant women and non-exposed pregnant women  (not exposed to the study drug/chemical) or no treatment group.  The authors reviewed six trials that included 800 women and found no statistically significant difference between developing SM and not developing SM if you used the studied products, nor differences in the severity of the SM if you used the studied products/did not use the studied products. They called for larger studies and better quality studies. The products evaluated included those with vitamin E, hyaluronic acid and others.

A Turkish study published in May 2012, in the Journal of Clinical Nursing, included three groups: pregnant women who applied bitter almond oil with a 15 minute massage, pregnant women who applied bitter almond oil with no instruction to massage, and a non-exposed group. The study found that the exposed bitter almond oil group with massage had a lower chance of developing SM. This was a small study, with only 47 women in the exposed/massage group (48 in the exposed/no massage group). Additional and larger studies are needed.

Another small study published in 2012 in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science suggested that a combination moisturizer containing hydroxyprolisilane C, rosehip oil, Centella asiatica triterpenes and vitamin E might be beneficial over other moisturizers and reduce the number of SM that can occur during pregnancy.

Based on the available research, including our limited understanding of the underlying factors (genetics, others) that play a role in the development of SM, it isn't advised to spend a lot of money on lotions or creams to prevent stretch marks. However, research may suggest that massaging lotions or creams into the skin could help reduce the appearance or occurrence of SM. I'm not aware of studies that have looked specifically at the act of massaging lotions or creams daily, for a specific time, in the areas at risk for SM, but in several studies and reports that suggested some benefit, it appears that massage (or working the lotion into the skin) appeared to be a technique that was widely used for the exposed group vs. the non-exposed group. While I'm not suggesting it would work, it doesn't hurt and might decrease the dryness and itchiness that accompanies and sometimes precedes SM.


Sonia Alvarado is a bilingual (Spanish/English) Senior Teratogen Information Specialist with MotherToBaby CA, formerly known as the CTIS Pregnancy Health Information Line, a non-profit that aims to educate women about medications and more during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Along with answering women's and health professionals' questions regarding exposures during pregnancy/breastfeeding via MotherToBaby's toll-free hotline, email and private chat counseling service, she's provided educational talks regarding pregnancy health in community clinics and high schools over the past decade.


MotherToBaby CA is a service of the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS), a suggested resource by many agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you have questions about beauty products, medications or other exposures, call MotherToBaby toll-FREE at 866-626-6847 or visit to browse a library of fact sheets and find your nearest affiliate.

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