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They're hardly a serious disease, but those ugly little ridges that dermatologists call striae distensae (and the rest of us call stretch marks) are a serious concern for many women, especially when summer fashions leave more skin exposed. According to Joshua A. Fox, MD, founder and medical director of NY and NJ-based Advanced Dermatology PC., and a leader in treating stretch marks with lasers "previously, they were all but incurable. Almost 20 years ago we were the first to innovate a laser treatment for stretch marks which generated attention from all the major TV channels including CBS, WABC and CNN. Now, with the arrival of today's new laser treatments, we have even better solutions for treating stretch marks to offer to our patients."
Stretch marks are scar-like bands that are formed when the skin is stretched beyond its limits in order to accommodate a sudden increase in body size-because of pregnancy, body building, or weight gain, for example—which creates small tears in the skin. Stretch marks can also occur because of hormonal changes (the kind that come with pregnancy and puberty as well as from external agents like hormone replacement therapy and steroidal drugs). Although they can pop up almost anywhere, stretch marks are most likely to occur in areas where the body stores its extra fat, such as the belly, breasts, hips and thighs (an exception to this rule would be in body builders, who typically get stretch marks in the skin around the bigger muscles, like the biceps). When they're newly formed, stretch marks look red and shiny, but after a few months will turn a whitish color and often become slightly indented or depressed. While they do become less noticeable over time, once they're formed, stretch marks are almost always here to stay.
"Even though stretch marks are visible on the skin's surface, they're actually formed in the dermis, which is the skin's middle layer," says Fox. That little detail makes them notoriously tough to treat, as topical agents simply can't penetrate past the epidermis, or outer layer of the skin. "Up until recently, people didn't have many options," Fox says. Prescription medicines like tretinoin (Retin-A) might help a little with the newer marks, but older marks were essentially impervious to creams. "You could waste your money on creams and lotions, have an operation like a tummy tuck, or just live with them."
Today, doctors can treat stretch marks—even the old ones—with lasers, and achieve very real major improvements after only a few treatments.
Fox was the first to report use of a pulsed dye laser to treat stretch marks, and recently demonstrated success in his own research on more than 300 patients. "Our research, along with other published studies, has shown that the pulsed dye laser can be really effective against stretch marks," he says. "We found that the laser could improve the discoloration and reduce the size and depth of stretch marks and improve the skin's elasticity by about 50–65%, which is a big improvement." Other research has confirmed these findings, he adds. For example, one study found that treatments combining the laser with a device that administers radiofrequency waves produced measureable improvements in roughly 90% of patients tested.