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Stretch mark woes

Wrinkles and lines are part of nature, and stretch marks are often evidence that you have been blessed with a child.

ALMOST every one of my patients who has had a baby shares the same concern: stretch marks. They want to know whether they can avoid getting stretch marks – and if they do get them, what they can do to get rid of them. It may not seem like a life-and-death issue, but it is important to women because it can affect their body image and self-confidence.

At the same time, women should not obsess too much about the existence of stretch marks – wrinkles and lines are part of nature, and stretch marks are evidence that you have been blessed with a child.

Stretch and expand

During pregnancy, your abdomen expands a lot to accommodate your growing baby. The skin of your belly is able to stretch, but only to a certain limit. After that point, the elastic supportive tissue just beneath the skin surface starts to break down, causing stretch marks.

It is believed that some people get stretch marks because their bodies produce more corticosteroid than others. Corticosteroid is a hormone that decreases the amount of collagen in the skin. As collagen is the protein which keeps our skin fibres stretchy, reduced levels of it will mean that the skin is unable to stretch to accommodate nine months of pregnancy.

These marks appear as fine, depressed streaks in the skin, and often appear on the lower abdomen, as well as the thighs, hips, buttocks, breasts, and arms. You will usually start noticing them in the sixth or seventh month.

The marks start off as thin, parallel red lines in the middle layer of the skin. They may also appear pink, reddish-brown, purple or dark brown, depending on your skin colour. The stretch marks don’t hurt, but they may cause a tingling or itchy sensation.

As time goes on, the skin becomes thin and silvery and may appear scar-like. Stretch marks appear as fine, depressed streaks in the skin, and often appear on the lower abdomen, as well as the thighs, hips, buttocks, breasts, and arms.

How come some women don’t get stretch marks? Yes, life is unfair. There are some women who sail through pregnancy without morning sickness or stretch marks, while others have to suffer through both.

Predicting who gets stretch marks is still something of a mystery to science. There are some known factors that put you in the likely category, such as genetics. If your mother or sister had stretch marks during pregnancy, you might as well be prepared.

If you gain a lot of weight rapidly, your skin will stretch dramatically, and this makes it more likely to develop marks. Obviously, if you are carrying multiple babies or a large baby, the same logic applies. Sudden and excessive weight gain can mean that the skin’s elasticity isn’t able to handle the expansion. If you have poor nutritional status, your skin is less likely to be healthy, which affects its elasticity.

Stretch marks, begone!

The million-dollar question is: can stretch marks be prevented from developing? Unfortunately, all the creams and all the lotions in the world can only do so much – there is still no fool-proof method for preventing stretch marks. However, there are many things you can do to minimise the effect of stretch marks, help the skin recover better, and help you feel more comfortable.

First, address your weight gain. The skin breaks because it has to expand rapidly, so do whatever you can to prevent sudden, excess weight gain. Follow your doctor’s advice for gradual weight gain, in the recommended amount. You should be aiming to gain one to two kg over the first 12 weeks, followed by 300-400g per week from weeks 12 to 28, and finally one to three kg per month over the last three months. The term “eating for two” is a myth!

A healthy diet plays a role in that, as well as to nourish your skin and keep it healthy. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and drink at least eight glasses of water a day to hydrate your skin and maintain its elasticity.

Moisturisers and creams may not be able to prevent the marks, but they can keep the skin hydrated to reduce itchiness and irritation. The trick is to start using them early in your pregnancy, even if you don’t notice any stretch marks or itchiness yet – if you wait until the stretch marks appear, then your skin is already overstretched and nothing can reverse that.

Cocoa butter, almond oil, shea butter, wheatgerm oil, and pure Lanolin are good choices. There are plenty of different brands out there, but don’t spend too much money on such products and don’t be taken in by promises such as “100% prevents stretch marks!”

After delivery, you should aim to lose weight gradually. Rapid weight loss can also result in stretch marks. The marks will be less noticeable from about six to 12 months after you deliver. The pigmentation will fade and the marks will gradually become lighter than the surrounding skin.

By this time anyway, you will be so preoccupied with a new baby that these marks won’t matter to you. After all, being a mum is much more important!

The Star Newspaper, Sunday February 7, 2010

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