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Dealing With Stretch Marks

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Some people have all the luck. Take Arin Crowley, mother of one, from Lansdale, Pennsylvania, now pregnant with her second child. Looking at pictures of her family’s beach vacation, you’d never guess Crowley was a new mother at the time. Of course, the baby in the picture—heavily smeared with sunscreen and wearing the requisite protective hat—should be a giveaway. But Crowley appears without any remaining baby weight and—perhaps even more notably—without any sign of stretch marks. “I was told there was nothing you could do about stretch marks, though I did rub heavy cream on my belly,” Crowley says. But it was most likely heredity, not cream, that kept Crowley’s stomach streak-free. And she’s likely to be just as lucky with this pregnancy, too.

“Genetics play a major role when it comes to stretch marks,” says Cameron K. Rokhsar, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York. “I’ve seen a 100-pound woman who gained 60 pounds during her pregnancy and didn’t develop stretch marks. However, there are individuals who gain a minimal amount of weight—30 pounds or less—and develop significant stretch marks.”

“Heredity has a lot to do with the tendency to develop stretch marks,” agrees Randy A. Fink, M.D., a Miami-based ob/gyn. “If your mom had stretch marks, you’ll be more likely to have them too.” Fink adds that women who developed stretch marks during puberty will be more likely to see them again in pregnancy, as both are times when the body gains weight quickly.

Although some consider stretch marks to be “badges of courage”—proof you’ve survived pregnancy and childbirth—most women would prefer to avoid being “honored” this way. But the reality is that 50 to 90 percent of all pregnant women will end up with these lines, most of which appear in the later half of pregnancy. You’re more likely to get stretch marks if you gain a lot of weight quickly, if you’re carrying multiples, or if you’re an older mom (since the skin naturally loses elasticity with age). However, even women with none of these factors can still end up with the telltale streaks.

Line By Line
Many first-time moms don’t even think of stretch marks until they start “showing”...and the colored lines start showing up. Stretch marks are most commonly seen as small depressions on the lower abdomen, though they can also appear on the thighs, buttocks, breasts, arms, or hips. They may appear to be pinkish or reddish brown in fair-skinned women, while those with darker complexions may notice light streaks instead. The lines are actually scars caused by excess stretching. Typically, the streaks fade to a silvery color within 12 months, but they will never completely disappear.

“Stretch marks represent the separation of collagen of the skin,” explains Robin Elise Weiss, a childbirth educator and About.com’s Pregnancy & Childbirth Guide. The stretching isn’t painful, but some tingling or itchy sensations may occur, she adds.

Can They Be Prevented?
Reality check: There is no proven way to prevent stretch marks. “Many women rub cocoa butter on their bellies, which will keep the skin soft and moist and may relieve itching,” says Dr. Fink. “I’m all for pampering yourself at this time. But it won’t stop the stretch marks. If they’re going to occur, they’re going to occur.” Of course, some women are genetically blessed. But for the others, stretch marks are practically unavoidable.

That said, there are steps you can take to minimize the effects pregnancy has on your skin. First of all, you can promote the skin’s elasticity by drinking plenty of water. Try gently massaging the area to increase circulation and keep skin supple. Avoiding exposure to the sun will also help your skin’s elasticity, because the sun destroys collagen and elastic tissue.

Another key to keeping stretch marks to a minimum is to maintain a steady rate of weight gain. When weight is gained slowly, the skin is more likely to stretch easily. But if the gain is rapid, the skin will tear, resulting in those telltale scars. (One caveat: It’s not a good idea to diet during pregnancy.)

What about all the stretch mark creams and lotions on the market? “I usually tell my students that a nice cream will make the abdomen soft, less itchy, and potentially more comfortable,” says Weiss. “But if a woman is looking for a magic bullet, we don’t have one yet.”

The good news is that there’s nothing physically harmful about stretch marks. They fade over time, and you can use them as one more excuse to pamper yourself during your pregnancy. “Personal care during pregnancy is actually a way of really being connected to what you’re going through,” says Julia Beck, the founder of FortyWeeks. “It’s about appreciating where you are, and what you’ve gone through.” Beck says the right attitude to take isn’t to try and stop your body from doing something, but to experience the change in a positive light, and keep your skin comfortably moisturized, soft, and tended to. “Appreciate and pamper your body, don’t battle it,” advises Beck. “I don’t think there’s a miracle cream or lotion. The only miracle is that you’re pregnant and your body is changing.”

This article was originally published in the Winter 2007 issue of Conceive Magazine.

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