You started an intensive weightlifting program to pack on pounds of muscle in a month. Halfway through though you notice red, sometimes purple, lines streaking across your pecs and at the apex of your armpit and biceps. It’s not an allergy to the gym or a rash—it’s stretch marks.
“A stretch mark is really an absence—basically a hole in your dermis,” says Michael Swann, MD, a dermatologist who specializes in skin cancer, reconstruction, and cosmetic procedural dermatology. Think of a balloon. When you blow it up or stretch it, at some point before the balloon rips apart you’re going to see the material fade in color, get super thin, and bubble or ripple,” Swann explains. That’s what your skin does.
Stretch marks are weaknesses in your skin because too much tension has been placed on it for too long. “Our skin is living and active, so it’s constantly responding, so when you put stretch on it, it grows; but it can only do so much before it can’t keep up.
It’s not a scar, though. A scar is a healing response, Swann explains. That’s your body providing extra collagen to bolster a weak spot or wound.
WHY THEY APPEAR
You can get stretch marks as a child just with growth. “If you’re not factoring in weightlifting or bodybuilding, puberty is the big time for guys to get stretch marks because that’s when the most growth is happening,” Swann explains. Stretch marks tend to appear when there’s a testosterone surge, because that’s when guys typically grow taller, bigger, and wider.
Sorry, but no. “There’s no merit to it,” Swann says.
“Vitamin E came about as a solution before we understood proper wound care for skin after surgery,” he explains. Forty years ago, a study came out that found if you broke vitamin E capsules on a healing wound, the skin would recover better. “The skin really did heal better than the traditional way of letting air get to it or using hydrogen peroxide on it. But it’s not because of the vitamin E; it’s the oil,” Swann says.
Cocoa butter has been touted as the stretch mark eliminator—passed on anecdotally from woman to woman during pregnancy. But there’s nothing particular to cocoa butter that makes it better than any other moisturizer. Hydrated skin may hold up better against stretch marks since dry skin is less elastic, but it’s not a fool proof plan.
That said, the best treatment for stretch marks, Swann says, is a series of carbon dioxide laser treatments aimed at the skin. Your skin has an inflammatory reaction in response to the lasers, which heals and improves the appearance of stretch marks. “You get some lattice-y scar that’s laid down so you can’t really see it from the top,” he explains. “These treatments improve the vigor of that deep layer of skin and makes the stretch mark less obvious.”
WAYS TO PREVENT OR MINIMIZE RISK
The main problem is your skin can’t keep up with the stretching—with the bulk—so easing into a training program is hugely advantageous. “Before you get huge, help your skin acclimate [by taking it slow] so it’s not being stressed in such a small timeframe,” Swann says. (Yes, this works for pregnant women and bodybuilders alike.)