The real truth about stretch marks
Are they hereditary or is it just luck of the draw? Emine Ali Rushton quizzes mums and beauty experts on how best to deal with them
Nobody ever said having a baby was easy. Morning sickness, itchy skin, heartburn, the continual need to pee – and that’s all before we’ve set foot in the labour ward. The pain of birth itself (described by a friend the morning after having a natural, drug-free delivery as ‘pure savagery’) can leave its mark both physically and psychologically. But we choose to have children because of the infinite and profound silver linings that come with them: to become a mother and nurture a precious new being. Other silver linings, however, are less pleasant – and the marks that can snake across our stomachs, thighs, breasts and buttocks as our skin stretches to accommodate our growing babies act as a constant reminder, not only of our pregnancy, but also of the body we have, in many ways, left behind.
Tina Ireland, a leading holistic beauty PR, had always loved her washboard stomach. Toned and mark-free, she was very confident in a bikini, and having been a petite size six to eight her entire life, her friends thought she’d probably have a neat bump and bounce back within weeks. ‘The real problem was that my baby was nearly ten pounds, so carrying him really stretched my skin in a short amount of time. And, a bit like when someone obese loses a lot of weight and is left with loose skin, I’ve been left with creasy, saggy skin which just doesn’t want to ‘ping’ back. My tummy button has also ‘collapsed’ and has a large fold of skin hanging over it which is pretty ugly. My stomach looks the worst out of all my friends’ – one of them even jokingly says that it serves me right for being so thin before I became pregnant.’
‘Stretch marks happen when the skin is stretched to a point it can’t withstand and the dermis tears,’ says Sian Jones, director of natural skincare brand Balance Me. ‘We know there are factors that can exacerbate this and reduce the skin’s ability to cope with this stretching; these include times at which the body is subjected to unusual hormone levels – typically during pregnancy or puberty – but also hereditary predisposition.’
Of the 11 experts I spoke to for this piece, all were agreed on the hereditary link – if your mother and sisters have stretch marks, chances are you will too. This is simply because your skin types are likely to be similar, right down to the collagen and elastin levels, and it’s likely you’ll stretch and mark in the same way,’ says Rosaline Evans, a GP and mother of three. That said, there are exceptions – surrounded by a grandmother, mother and aunties with myriad marks between them, I came through my pregnancy without a line. As with all things biological and bodily, there are no hard and fast rules.
So is prevention possible?
The answer happily is yes, up to a point. ‘There are definitely ways you can help to prevent stretch marks from occurring,’ says Sian. ‘There have been studies that show regular moisturising can help the skin cope with the demands we put on it at key times in our life. In fact, by doing this you can reduce your chances of getting stretch marks while pregnant by up to half.’
Lay it on thick
But not all moisturisers are created equal, as Elemental Herbology founder (and prior to that, Space NK Treatment Director) Kristy Cimesa, attests to. ‘I believe oils are better than butters or creams – one can contain higher levels of omegas, for instance, in an oil formula.’ Mama Mio founder, Tanya Mackay, agrees on the importance of omegas. ‘They’re crucial to the strength and elasticity of your skin and when you are pregnant your baby is taking them from you. This means you are at your lowest level of omegas and your skin is at its weakest point when you are about to make this huge stretch. It’s really hard for a standard moisturising cream to make a difference, so you need to use amazing actives at a very high percentage,’ says Tanya. ‘I rate argan, borage, and best of all, the South American sacha inchi oil, which is extremely rich in omegas,’ says Kristy. ‘I’ve read a lot about coconut oil of late, but while it’s great for everyday moisturising, it’s just not rich enough to prevent stretch marks.’
Weigh it up
Of course, the experts are also agreed on the importance of gradual, healthy weight gain, which is all very well in an ideal world, except real life rarely pans out that way. A newly huge appetite, unusual (and, perhaps, unhealthy) cravings, and even a multiple pregnancy, can all lead to rapid and large weight gain. For 28-year-old mother of twin girls, Emma Lord, it was a case of all of the above. ‘I can see I ate far too much – I just gave in to my burger, chips, crisps and milkshake cravings over and over, and piled on over five stone in nine months. I have stretch marks that go from my armpits down to my thighs – I look like a sand dune, and know there’s nothing I can do about it now. I also ended up having an emergency C-section, which left me with a horrible scar. I can’t afford expensive spa treatments or surgery. The doctors said I should try exercising, but I was utterly exhausted every day of my 40 weeks and it was all I could do to just get to and from work. I think it’s so easy for people to tell you what’s best, but until they’ve felt what you’re feeling, they haven’t got a clue. My girls are two years old now and I’m still three stone overweight, but I don’t mind. This is what happened to my body to bring my twins into the world – I’ll just make peace with it.’
For Becky Johnson, 42, however, the marks left deeper scars. ‘I spent the first two weeks of Tristan’s life staring at my body in the mirror. I was like a woman possessed, even getting out of bed in the middle of the night to look. I was horrified at my reflection – veiny boobs, a paunch for a stomach, swollen limbs and face, and red raw stretch marks that were too ugly to look at. I’m ashamed to say it, but I couldn’t even let my very supportive husband touch me for over a year. I did everything they tell you to do – pregnancy yoga, daily oil massage, steady weight gain (I only put on two stone in total, with a nine-pound baby) – and I still ended up looking like my gran.’ An advert for ‘laser gynaecology surgery’ in the back of a glossy magazine prompted her to make an appointment. ‘I booked in for the ‘Mummy Makeover’. I was really impressed with the doctor’s approach –he said women have too long felt they need to just shut up about the after-effects of traumatic childbirth – one in three women suffer vaginal or rectal incontinence afterwards, but are too ashamed to do anything about it. That really shocked me – there is this culture that encourages women to just soldier on.’ Happy with the results of the laser treatments, she’s since tried Dermarolling and Indiba treatments, and has raved about the results to her friends. ‘I’m not happy with my tummy, but have done something about it. It’s made me more confident, and helped my marriage, so I don’t feel it’s superficial!’
Both these treatments are available at the pioneering beauty destination Urban Retreat Medispa where head-therapist, Marcella, has seen significant results with the Dermaroller on stretch marks. ‘This rolling device, with 200 sharp needles, is passed over the skin following the administration of a topical local anaesthetic. This stimulates the body’s own collagen production to reduce the appearance of scarring and you can see the first result after the first treatment. It improves the thickness of the skin’s epidermis and dermis which in turn, can improve the texture of the skin and reduce stretch marks. It requires two to four sessions, as results vary upon skin conditions. The treatment takes 30 to 45 minutes, and costs £360 a session. ‘If the stretch marks are new,however, Indiba offers the best results. This patented idea utilises high frequency currents to raise the internal temperature of human tissue – speeding healing.’ The body treatment costs £140 for a one-hour session (urbanretreat.co.uk).
Not all mums, however, feel compelled to invest in a physical change. ‘Yes, I know that if I ate more sensibly and did more exercise, I could probably get rid of my tummy – but anyone who’s got a two-year-old will also know that a glass of wine and a couple of cheeky chocolates of an evening are necessary for keeping sane! And frankly, I’d much rather be sane with a paunch than a lunatic with a flat stomach,’ says Tina.
Natasha is learning to live with her stretch marks
‘Before I had children, I used to work for a travel company which meant I got to review hotels in far flung parts of the world. Back then, I was never without my trusted bikini – or five – but today it’s a different story. Last summer, sitting by the pool in Majorca with my husband and two small children, I did all I could to avoid anyone getting a glimpse of my stomach – including using the kids as a tummy shield whenever I fancied a dip. And all this simply to distract attention from my dreaded stretch marks.
My mum suffered from awful stretch marks, and my sister got them at the end of her pregnancy, too, so I wasn’t entirely surprised that I wasn’t spared. I got very large, very quickly in both of my pregnancies. And from about 34 weeks, I could see the tell tale pinkish lines quietly creeping across my bump – even though I’d used every cream and lotion under the sun! Post-pregnancy they have at least toned down to a silvery colour.
My husband says he doesn’t notice them anymore, and friends I’ve shown have said they’re really not that bad, just my ‘baby marks’. But to me, it’s as if Freddy Krueger has scratched his hands across my stomach. Certainly, it will never look the same again. Realistically, I know they’re not going away, so this summer I’m looking to fashion for a style solution instead. I plan to track down a clutch of the most gorgeous one pieces I can find and become the queen of the tankini– I may even stretch to a little kaftan and some Jackie O sunglasses to really work the look. One day I may feel confident enough to get back into a skimpy bikini, but for now I feel I’ve found a happy compromise, and one that’s bang on trend, too! And when I look at my gorgeous children it’s easy to console myself that it was all for them.’
As with all things tied to motherhood – it’s about perspective. Yes, we are worth it – but when it comes to our stretch marks, our kids were worth it too.
If you have had or still have stretch marks, or want advice on how to keep your tummy free from stretch marks during your pregnancy, why not chat to other mums on our forum or share experiences of your own.