Many of us—guys and gals alike—have stretch marks. And although they’re so common, they can be pretty frustrating—especially when you’re getting ready for a summer of swimsuits.
“Stretch marks are pink, red, or purple indented streaks that most commonly appear on the abdomen, breasts, upper arms, buttocks, and thighs,” says Fayne L. Frey, M.D., a dermatologist in West Nyack, New York. If you have ‘em, you know exactly what we’re talking about.
Why We Get Stretch Marks
Stretch marks are caused by the breaking of elastin and collagen in the dermis (the thick layer of tissue below the epidermis, the outermost layer of skin) when your skin stretches quickly, says Tsippora Shainhouse, M.D., a dermatologist in Beverly Hills. (Elastin is a connective tissue found in the skin that allows it to stretch and bounce back, while collagen is a protein found all over the body that basically acts as your skin’s support structure —not only strengthening your skin, but keeping it smooth-looking.)
There are a number of reasons these marks might show up on your skin. For one, stretch marks are genetic, Shainhouse says. So if your parents have them, you’re more likely to develop them, too.
First noticed stretch marks as a teen? That’s because they often form on both guys and girls during quick growth spurts, says Esta Kronberg, M.D., a dermatologist in Houston. They can also pop up during pregnancy, after quick weight gain, because of hormone abnormalities, and even as a result of lots of exercise, says Kronberg.
One such stretch mark-causing hormonal disorder is Cushing’s syndrome (which is marked by excess levels of the stress hormone cortisol), explains Frey. According to the Mayo Clinic, cortisol which is pumped out by your adrenal glands, weakens elastic fibers in your skin, making it easier for stretch marks to form.
Related: Could You Have Adrenal Fatigue?
And, yes, you heard us right—your stretch marks might also be an unexpected result of your dedication to the gym. You can be fit and have stretch marks. “They are fairly common in bodybuilders, who develop significant muscle mass over a short period,” says Shainhouse, noting that stretch marks caused by muscle growth are often seen in the biceps.
Are Stretch Marks Permanent?
If you have stretch marks—wherever they are—you’ve probably wondered: Is there anything you can to do to get rid of ‘em? Eventually most stretch marks fade to white or gray, but they rarely disappear completely, says Frey. Womp. That being said, there are a few treatments that may help minimize their appearance.
One option: pulsed dye laser treatment. This non-invasive, relatively painless laser treatment takes just a few minutes per session and can be very effective, says Kronberg.
The procedure uses a concentrated beam of light to target blood vessels, according to the Baylor College of Medicine. “Pulsed dye lasers can help reduce the color [of stretch marks] more quickly,” says Shainhouse.
Many patients begin to see results in two to four sessions, says Kronberg, who recommends sessions on a biweekly or monthly basis.
Just keep in mind that this is a cosmetic treatment, so you’ll have to pay out of pocket. According to the online cosmetic surgery community RealSelf.com, the average cost of a pulsed dye laser session comes in around $800 (although price may vary by location). Kronberg recommends seeing a dermatologist who specializes in cosmetic treatments for the procedure instead of visiting a spa.
Another in-office treatment: microdermabrasion. While this one might lessen the appearance of stretch marks, it’s not a given. “Microdermabrasion is used to gently remove the top layers of skin with the hopes of stimulating underlying collagen formation,” says Frey —“but little scientific evidence exists showing the efficacy of this treatment.” (Remember: When collagen breaks, it can leave behind stretch marks.)
As far as at-home options go, lotions with alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic acid are your best bet, because they stimulate collagen, says Kronberg. Topical retinoids also stimulate collagen, says Kronberg. But they can be irritating—and may only work on new stretch marks that are less than a few months old, adds Frey. Your best bet is going to the derm, since a prescription product will have higher-strength ingredients than anything you’d find at a drugstore, says Kronberg.
Stick with your treatment option of choice for three months, suggests Kronberg. If after three months nothing has changed and your stretch marks haven’t faded, it’s likely a sign they’ll pretty much stick around for good.
The bottom line: We’re all about embracing the skin we’re in—but of course, if you’re unhappy or frustrated with how your skin looks, talk with your derm to weigh your options. Otherwise, we say flaunt what you’ve got—stretch marks and all! After all, summer only lasts so long, and you deserve to enjoy every moment of it.