Stretch marks, the bane of women worldwide, are lines that appear on the skin during periods of rapid growth or stretching. They also can result from hormonal changes. While these marks are most often associated with the stretching of the abdominal skin during pregnancy, they can affect both men and women. They are essentially a type of scar that forms when the skin is stretched beyond its limit, causing the connective fibers of the dermis, the middle layer of skin, to break. There may be a number of different causes for such scarring.
The marks appear as a series of lines perpendicular to the direction of stretching. At first, they are dark red or purple, but over time, they fade to a much lighter color similar to the rest of the skin. If the stretched area of skin returns to its former size, the appearance of the stretch marks may decrease.
In addition to pregnancy, puberty is a time when many women develop stretch marks. As a girl's body fills out, particularly in the breast and hip areas, these marks may appear, especially if the girl develops quickly. Other causes in both men and women include rapid weight gain and body-building, as expanding muscles or fat can stretch the skin. Stretch marks may also form as a result of a more serious condition, Cushing's syndrome, or in response to heavy use of corticosteroids.
While no health risks are associated with stretch marks, they do present an aesthetic problem for some. While many creams and lotions claim to prevent them, none have been proven to give consistently satisfactory results. There are also a number of products that may help reduce the appearance of marks after they have formed. Anything that promotes healing of the skin, such as cocoa butter or products with high amounts of vitamin E or aloe vera, may be helpful. More drastic treatments include dermabrasion and laser treatment, but no method is sure to work.