Dr. Mom medical blog explores Stretch marks: Do expensive lotions really reduce stretch marks in pregnancy

When I was pregnant with Madi I smelled like coconut oil constantly. I was told by my mom and her friends to slather my belly with coconut oil to prevent stretch marks. I suspected that this may not have been the best method to prevent stretch marks during pregnancy, but I did it anyway because I was willing to try anything to reduce my stretch marks on breasts, bum, and belly.

Stretch marks are caused when the skin is placed under mechanical stress and they often develop in places where there is rapid growth.  For example, during pregnancy or periods of large weight gain, or even a growth spurt during puberty.  Stretch marks are common in pregnancy and occur in up to 50-90% of women. When they do develop, the initially look like red-to-purple colored flat ribbons on the sides of the woman’s abdomen, breasts, or thighs where she is experiencing a lot of growth and tension from her pregnancy.   I was fortunate to not have developed any stretch marks on breasts, belly, or bum during my pregnancy with Madi.  In my family medicine practice I often have patients worried about developing stretch marks during pregnancy.

Many women use creams, lotions, or gels on their belly during pregnancy to help reduce their risk of developing skin stretch marks on the breasts, belly, and bum.  Unfortunately, there is strong evidence that shows these remedies do not prevent (or treat) stretch marks at all. 

Most of the active ingredients in “stretch mark creams” have been actively studied

A randomized controlled trial published in 2012 titled Topical preparations for preventing stretch marks in pregnancy analyzed the use of multiple “remedies” in over 800 women.  In this review, dozens of “active ingredients” in “stretch mark creams” were analyzed, including:  hyaluronic acid, vitamin A, vitamin E, allantoin, cocoa butter, olive oil, centella asiatica extract, collagen-elastin hydrolysates, essential free fatty acids (ie: coconut oil), elastin, menthol, Lanolin, stearin, triethanolamine, and almond oil.  This study found was that NONE of these ingredients reduced the risk of developing stretch marks, or impacted the severity of them.

“We found no statistically significant average difference in the severity of stretch marks in women who received topical preparations with active ingredients compared to women who received a placebo or no treatment… We found no high-quality evidence to support the use of any of the topical preparations in the prevention of stretch marks during pregnancy.”

Topical retinoids for stretch marks?

Topical retinoids are a medication that increase collagen production and have shown some evidence in early prevention and reducing the appearance of stretch marks. However their use is NOT recommended during pregnancy as retinoids can cause severe fetal deformities. 

Stretch mark treatment can be delayed until after pregnancy

The treatment of stretch marks is often delayed until after delivery of the baby.  This is because most of the proven treatments for stretch marks (ie: topical retinoids) can have serious effects on a developing fetus.  Others such as lasers are not proven safe during pregnancy.  Also, while you are still pregnant there is ongoing tension on tissue, so the treatment during pregnancy might be futile.

So which products are the best?

Stretch marks on the bum, breast, and belly are an unfortunate aesthetic concern that some women develop as a consequence of pregnancy.  There is a wealth of products available in stores and on-line that claim to treat or prevent stretch marks and I really wish I could say that they are effective! 

While slathering your belly with coconut oil may not be hurtful; it likely will not change your outcomes when it comes to stretch marks.  The good news is that there are treatments for stretch marks AFTER pregnancy.

References:

  1. Brennan M, Young G, Devane D. Topical preparations for preventing stretch marks in pregnancy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2012; 11:CD000066.
  2. Korgavkar K, Wang F. Stretch marks during pregnancy: a review of topical prevention. Br J Dermatol 2015; 172:606.
  3. Kang S, Kim KJ, Griffiths CE, et al. Topical tretinoin (retinoic acid) improves early stretch marks. Arch Dermatol 1996; 132:519.

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