The medical term for stretch marks is “œstriae atrophica” which Tabor’s Medical Dictionary describes as “fine pinkish-white or grey lines, usually 14 cm in length, seen in parts of the body where skin has been stretched. Commonly seen on thighs, abdomen, and breasts of women who are or have been pregnant, in persons whose skin has been stretch by obesity, tumor, or dropsy (swelling); or in persons who have taken [steroids] for a prolonged period.” This is different from cellulite, which is a dimpling of the skin caused by a thin upper layer of the skin with large, irregular fat cells below. Stretch marks are, however, somewhat related to cellulite in that women are much more susceptible than men due to skin anatomy. Women have more subcutaneous fat, which has less of a cohesive cellular structure, and also tend to have thinner top layer of skin which makes the superficial skin more prone to damage of all kinds.
Both the top layer of skin and the underlying fatty layer are constructed mostly of fats. Besides eating “good” fats to preserve skin integrity, use plenty of Vitamin C. Good old Vitamin C is the primary nutrient in connective tissue repair. Skin is the largest and thinnest connective tissue “organ” of the body, and uses a high percentage of the available Vitamin C for upkeep and repair. Vitamin C is very safe in doses high enough to cause loose stools; at that point you’re wasting nutrients, so cut back to a dose that normalizes the stool. This is called taking Vitamin C “to bowel tolerance.” Fats would be ideally from fresh baked, broiled or steamed fish, or plant sources such as olive, flax and safflower. Avoid margarine, fatty meats including “lunch meats” and Canola oil. Avoid mass-produced baked goods, which tend to use poor quality fats (like Crisco or margarine).
The best approach to stretch marks is, of course, prevention. Keep in mind that skin quality is at least 50 percent genetics, and some women are more prone to stretch marks just because of hard-wired information inherited from parents and grandparents. If your family history points to a greater possibility for stretch marks (during pregnancy, for example), you should apply the prevention tactics described below as faithfully as possible.
As with all preventive approaches to optimal health, good food (organic if possible) is critical. Minimize red meat and other saturated fats, avoid caffeine and excessive alcohol, get lots of greens and fresh fruits, plenty of pure water, and of course, regular moderate exercise. Balancing work with play is essential. Don’t forget sleep: America’s most ignored vital nutrient. Please don’t skimp on sleep.
- Skin Brushing
- Daily brushing of the entire skin surface (except the face) with a stiff, dry, skin brush is a Scandinavian beauty secret. Skin brushing takes off the top layer of dead cells. First thing in the morning, firmly stroke the brush over the skin towards the heart. Start with the feet, moving up the legs, be extra firm around the thighs and buttocks (get them pink and glowing!). Gentler on the belly, move in a clockwise direction as you look down at your navel; this is the direction which waste travels out of your body in the colon. Use the long handle to get the whole back. Gently up under the breasts and down the neck and throat. Go up the arms starting from the hands. Go once again over â€œproblemâ€ areas. With time, the skin becomes healthier and much less susceptible to irreversible stretching. One warning – this habit can be addictive!
- Contrast Hydrotherapy
- The alternating application of hot and cold water to the skin is a fundamental health tool for naturopathic doctors and, hopefully, their patients. Hot water encourages blood flow to the skin, cold contracts the tiny vessels, pushing excess fluid or debris into the natural “garbage collection” system of the body – the lymphatic channels. The basic approach to contrast hydrotherapy is bathing in warm or hot water, then chasing with cold. Ideally the temperature differential would be at least 60 degrees F. The treatment must end with cold water, and make sure to get under the armpits and the groin area. Also turn around to reach to kidneys which are protected by the lower ribs in back, to encourage waste elimination.
- Not Losing or Gaining Weight Quickly
- This is usually the reason stretch marks occur. You can improve the elasticity of the skin with good diet, Vitamin C, Vitamin E and the skin care measures described above, but preventing skin stretching is best. A pregnant woman should be prepared to gain 25 to 40 pounds slowly and steadily and take a full 9 months to regain her pre-pregnancy weight. Crash diets are notoriously bad for the skin; and they don’t work for permanent weight loss either.
- Vitamin E Topically and by Mouth
- I personally attribute getting through my pregnancy with not a single stretch mark on my belly to high quality Vitamin E. I slathered it on daily during the third trimester, and sporadically before that, from neck to knees! I ingested 400 IUs of Vitamin E daily throughout my pregnancy, always breaking open the gel cap with my teeth and letting the oil start to absorb right in my mouth, tossing the empty gel cap. I learned this trick from a nutrition instructor: if you can possibly chew your supplements like food, the thousands of nerve receptors in the mouth signal the brain what’s coming down the pike, and start to prepare the digestive tract with the proper enzymes for optimal digestion and absorption. Try to thoroughly chew anything you plan to swallow, including juices. A fair amount of cheating goes in with Vitamin E manufacturing. Please consult a qualified specialist to determine which brand is reputable. It makes all the difference.
- Castor Oil
- Castor oil has a long history of use as a topical healing agent. One common name, Palma Christi (meaning the â€œhand of Christâ€) gives you an idea about the extent to which this substance has been revered. Castor oil has a wide range of topical applications including arthritis, constipation, sprained joints, sluggish liver function, sinus headache cure, lymphedema (swelling in the limbs due to poor lymphatic drainage), wart removal, and wound healing. Cosmetically, Castor oil has shown good effect in preventing and treating wrinkles, and lightening â€œage spots.â€ It can certainly help prevent stretch marks (applied regularly to breast, thighs and belly during pregnancy, for example) and may also reduce the prominence of stretch marks after the fact. Place a substantial layer of the thick oil onto the treatment area, cover with saran wrap and apply heat (hot water bottle or heating pad work well) for at least 20 minutes daily for a week. Continue with the treatment several times a week (leaving the heat on for up to 45 minutes if time is available) until you are satisfied with the result.
- This is an obscure but extremely effective homeopathic remedy based on a chemical derived from oil of mustard seed. Thiosinaminum is particularly indicated, in the homeopathic literature, for “dissolving” scar tissue. You will need to contact a licensed homeopath or one of the distributing houses (Dolissos, Boiron, Hahnemann) to obtain the remedy. A potency of 6C, 2 pellets two or three times daily for several months should reduce the shiny, irregular, scar-like appearance of stretch marks.
- Seaweed Wraps
- Our food has become abysmally depleted of vital minerals, which help run the thousands of biochemical pathways churning in our cells every moment of life. Eating seaweed, bathing in seaweed, fertilizing your garden with seaweed, and yes, seaweed wraps — all can help re-mineralize our bodies, which will improve our detoxification capacities and enhance our energy levels. Does topical mineral application remove stretch marks? The short answer is “No.”
- â€œGlycoâ€ Acids and Alkaloids
- Fruit and flower acids and alkaloids have been used cosmetically to beautify skin for centuries. Victorian ladies were said to bathe (at least their faces) in strawberries and cream. Cleopatra is said to have enjoyed being wrapped with the petals of hundreds of roses. Many skin care products on the market today contain fruit acids or alkaloids. The most potent can take off the top layers of skin with persistent application. Be aware! Skin may blister. Do not try to remove moles or recently growing spots – please check with your family doctor or a dermatologist first. Glyco- or fruit acids/alkaloids may work well for “age spots” (usually from sun damage) but probably aren’t the best choice for stretch marks.
- Laser Dermabrasion
- This process is costly, and can hurt for several days after the treatment. As with the glyco acids, the top layer of skin is removed, allowing fresh tissue to grow back. If your stretch marks are superficial, this technique may help. If the stretch marks are wider than 1 centimeter, a good cosmetic result from dermabrasion is unlikely.
- Skin Creams
- So what about those “magic” skin creams reputed to eliminate stretch marks? Let’s face it, ladies, the basic structure of the skin has been altered, the cell layers pulled apart, and no cream is going to knit those layers back together again. Creams containing Vitamin C and Vitamin K will probably help to build fresh skin over the top of stretch marks, and improve the elasticity of the skin in the area treated, but will not magically make the stretch marks disappear. However, you may be rewarded with a more “blended” appearance of the skin with creams that really do contain C and K.
- Pizzorno JE, Murray MT, Joiner-Bey H. The Clinician’s Handbook of Natural Medicine, Harcourt Publishers Ltd, 2002
- Taber’s Encyclopedic Medical Dictionary, 14th Edition, FA Davis Co, Philadelphia PA, 1981
- Boericke W., Homeopathic Materia Medica, B. Jain Publ., 1988
- Aykroyd B, “Thalassotherapy; Special Issue,” Soap/Cosmetics/Chemical Specialties, NY, NY, Sept. 1998
- Watson WC, “Studies on the Digestion, Absorption and Metabolism of Castor Oil,” Biochem Pharmacol. Vol II p 229-236, Great Britain, 1962
- Grady H. “Summary of Castor Oil Pack Physiological Effects,” Townsend Letter for Doctors, p 384, Port Townsend, WA, July 1989