Stretch marks, or striae, are bands of wrinkled or atrophic skin that result from tearing of the dermis. Striae form when skin is excessively stretched, such as during pregnancy or as a result of rapid weight loss or gain. At first, the marks have a pink, red, or purple appearance, but overtime they lose their color and appear whitish (hypopigmented). While certain steps can be taken to prevent the eruption of stretch marks, heredity and hormonal changes render certain people more susceptible than others to stretch mark formation.
Unsightly stretch marks can lead to poor self-image, feelings of shame and embarrassment, and possibly depression. A variety of treatment options exists, and laser treatments may be a good choice for people looking for a long-term, non-surgical remedy. Laser treatment provides results in a relatively short time, is non-invasive, and costs less than surgery. In addition, there is a low incidence of side effects, and recovery time is short. Several types of laser therapy are available.
Pulsed Dye Laser (PDL) Therapy:
PDL treatment remodels the dermis by stimulating new growth of collagen and elastin. Collagen and elastin are fibrous proteins that give the skin its firmness and elasticity.
PDL therapy treats the entire affected area, using non-overlapping laser pulses to ensure complete coverage. The method yields quick results and may require as few as 1 or 2 treatment sessions. The best results are obtained when stretch marks are new, though the appearance of old stretch marks may also be improved by PDL therapy.
PDL is not recommended for anyone with a dark skin tone, as hyperpigmentation (darkening of the skin) is a possible side effect for such individuals and may cause permanent discoloration. If you have dark skin, talk to your doctor about laser treatment protocols that may work for you.
Like PDL therapy, fractional laser skin resurfacing aims to promote collagen and elastin growth. In contrast to the PDL approach, the entire affected area is not treated. Rather, tiny lasers penetrate deep into the dermis to create a number of small wounds within the target zone, while most of the affected area is left untouched. In other words, only a fraction of the affected area is treated.
The microscopic wounds trigger the body’s natural response system, expediting the production of collagen and elastin. Since only a small area of skin is treated, the healing time is minimal. The FDA recently approved fractional laser resurfacing for the treatment of stretch marks. A single treatment session typically costs $500 – $1,000, and at least three treatments are usually required. Like PDL therapy, fractional laser skin resurfacing works best on new stretch marks.
Unlike the other two methods, the Excimer laser is particularly useful for reducing the appearance of old, white stretch marks. The Excimer laser emits short UV pulses that stimulate skin cells called melanocytes to produce the skin’s pigment, melanin. The melanin darkens the stretch marks. The eventual goal of the treatments is to re-pigment the stretch marks so that they match the natural skin color and are less noticeable. Excimer laser treatment is not as effective as the other laser stretch mark reduction techniques, and it may require 10 – 20 treatments before desired results are attained.
If you decide to pursue laser treatment for stretch mark treatment, keep in mind that research finds that even the most effective current laser techniques cannot completely abolish stretch marks. Nevertheless, laser treatment, with its relatively low cost and short recovery time, is an attractive alternative to surgery and can offer excellent results.
If you're considering laser treatment ...
Start early. Older, hypopigmented stretch marks are more difficult to treat.
Maintain realistic expectations. Even the most effective laser treatments are designed to reduce, not remove, stretch marks.
Consult with a trusted physician to find out which treatments might be appropriate for you
Elsaie M.L., Baumann L.S., & Elsaaiee L.T. (2009). Striae distensae (stretch marks) and different modalities of therapy: an update. Dermatologic Surgery, 35 (4), 563-573. [PubMed abstract]
McDaniel D.H., Ash K., & Zukowski M. (1996). Treatment of stretch marks with the 585-nm flashlamp-pumped pulsed dye laser. Dermatologic Surgery, 22 (4), 332-337. [Medline abstract]
Stotland M., Chapas A.M., Brightman L., Sukal S., Hale E., Karen J., Bernstein L., & Geronemus R.G. (2008). The safety and efficacy of fractional photothermolysis for the correction of striae distensae. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, 7 (9), 857-861. [PubMed abstract]
Van Buren N., Alster T.S. (2009). Laser treatment of dark skin: a review and update. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, 8 (9), 821-827. [PubMed abstract]