With all the stretch mark creams out there, how do you really know what works? We’ll reveal which ingredients can (or can’t) improve stretch marks.
In This Article:
- What Causes Stretch Marks
- Cocoa Butter for Stretch Marks?
- Collagen and Elastin
- Essential Oils: Do They Work?
- Bio-Oil for Stretch Marks?
- Vitamin E
- The Bottom Line
Pregnancy, a growth spurt, rapid weight gain or loss—if you’ve experienced any of these, there’s a good chance you’ve got the stretch marks to prove it. Unfortunately, while stretch marks are easy to acquire, they’re not so easy to get rid of. Of course, the companies that sell stretch mark creams would like you to believe otherwise, but the million-dollar question is: Do they really work?
As much as it pains us to say it, what we see from a compilation of independent studies is that, for the most part, these so-called superstar ingredients don’t have any real benefit for stretch marks.  But it’s not all doom and gloom—there is some hope for treating stretch marks. Before we delve into that, it helps to have a general understanding of why stretch mark creams are limited in their preventive and reparative abilities.
What Causes Stretch Marks
Why can’t most creams, oils, and serums treat stretch marks like they claim they will? The short answer is that stretch marks are caused by broken bands of elastin beneath the skin, and, unfortunately, there are no cosmetic ingredients that can repair that extent of damage.
Still, many of us buy stretch mark products anyway, in a leap of faith that … maybe … just maybe, they’ll work. In addition, and perhaps even more convincing in getting you to try these stretch mark treatment products is that many of the same ingredients are used in the various treatments available, leading one to believe they must be on to something… right? Let’s take a look at the research on those ingredients that are used most often so you can make an informed decision on how to best treat your stretch marks.
Cocoa Butter for Stretch Marks?
Despite the popularity of cocoa butter products marketed to pregnant women, research clearly shows that topical application of cocoa butter during pregnancy does not prevent or reduce the number of stretch marks. [2, 3]
Think about it this way: Stretch marks form from the inside out, and applying something topically to your skin (that is, to the outside) cannot prevent that kind of breakage. It’s like thinking your stomach can absorb nutrients from broccoli by simply rubbing it on your belly!
That said, cocoa butter and other emollient products can help soothe the itchiness and tightening that comes along with the stretching of skin (most common during pregnancy), so there is some benefit to using them—but don’t waste your money on expensive formulas—all they do is ease the itching. At best (and we’re not making any promises here), massaging skin with emollient products while you are pregnant can help skin become more pliable, which could potentially reduce the severity stretch marks. But again, you don’t need to buy expensive creams; you could use coconut oil from the supermarket and get the same results.
Collagen and Elastin
The prevalence of collagen and elastin as “superhero” ingredients in stretch mark creams is not surprising given that they are present naturally and work in tandem to give skin its texture, its support structure, its ability to stretch, and its smooth appearance. [4, 5] Based on that information, this dynamic duo seems like an obvious choice to improve stretch marks, but not so fast…
As cosmetic ingredients, collagen and elastin are derived from plant or animal sources. While they do have benefit as water-binding agents in these forms, the collagen and elastin in skincare products cannot fuse with the collagen and elastin in your skin to help rebuild or reinforce those structures. More to the point, the molecular sizes of both collagen and elastin are too large (WAY too large!) to penetrate the skin’s surface. 
The bottom line for these two ingredients is that while each sounds great for treating stretch marks in theory, the results when added to a skincare product don’t live up to the marketing claims.
Essential Oils: Do They Work?
Anecdotal stories of essential oils as wonder-working cure-alls have become increasingly popular in recent years (as have the number of people selling them via at-home shopping parties), so it’s not too surprising to hear that they’re now being touted as natural “home remedies” for stretch marks. Among the most commonly extolled essential oils are rosemary, jasmine, and lavender oils.
First things first: There’s no research to back up the claim that essential oils are useful for repairing stretch marks. None…at…all! What’s more, there is a concern about their ability to cause inflammation, which potentially can lead to more damage to the skin due to the volatile, fragrant compounds they contain.
Take lavender oil, for example. Research indicates that lavender has a damaging effect on fibroblasts, which are cells that produce collagen—not good news for stretch marks! 
If you have used essential oils and are wondering why they don’t appear to be problematic for you, keep in mind that research has demonstrated that you don’t always need to see or feel irritation for it to be occurring and causing damage below the surface layer of skin. 
Bio-Oil for Stretch Marks?
Bio-Oil is a popular treatment among mothers-to-be; its supposed secret weapon ingredient is something labeled “PurCellin” oil. PurCellin oil is derived from ducks (the substance ducks’ skin secretes to keep their feathers waterproof), but there is absolutely no research showing that it can affect stretch marks. What’s even more interesting is that PurCellin oil isn’t even included on Bio-Oil’s ingredient list!
Instead, you’re getting a mix of mineral oil and emollients, along with commonplace vitamins and some irritating fragrant plant oils (including rosemary and lavender, mentioned above). The only thing that this mixture can realistically do (beyond irritating skin) is provide some moisturizing benefit, which can help minimally if your skin is dry, but it won’t change any other aspect of stretch marks in the least.
Vitamin E often shows up in stretch mark products due to its anecdotal reputation as a scar-fading ingredient. Vitamin E does indeed have antioxidant benefits, and based on that it can be a helpful addition to skin-healing, scar-reducing products; unfortunately, however, it can’t go so far as to repair the broken bands of elastin below skin.
The verdict? Vitamin E, in any form, isn’t going to make your stretch marks disappear, but it’s a good ingredient for skin nonetheless, so at least it does have somewhat of a redeeming factor.
Now we’re getting somewhere. In the pharmaceutical realm, there is some research showing tretinoin (the active ingredient in Retin-A, Renova, or in generic form) can have a positive effect on stretch marks! Typical improvement is 20%, which may not be as dramatic as you’re hoping, but may still be worth the effort and expense, depending on the severity of your stretch marks. 
The dilemma for expectant mothers is that tretinoin cannot be used during pregnancy, and is also contraindicated if the mother-to-be intends to breastfeed her baby.
If you aren’t pregnant, are not trying to become pregnant, or are not breastfeeding, then tretinoin is a promising option for treating stretch marks. Over-the-counter products that contain 1% retinol may also help, but given their relationship to prescription retinoids, they also should be avoided during pregnancy.
The Bottom Line
What it comes down to is that a person is either genetically predisposed to developing stretch marks or not. The truth of the matter is women who say they used “cream XYZ” and didn’t get stretch marks during pregnancy most likely wouldn’t have gotten them anyway. It’s frustrating, we know, but despite the anecdotal statements, in most cases, the research-backed evidence is just not there.
The takeaway here is that in terms of topical treatments for mothers-to-be, your best bet is to help the skin of an expanding belly remain pliable with an emollient cream or oil, which may reduce the severity of the stretch marks that are forming. On the other hand, if you’re not pregnant or breastfeeding or trying to become pregnant, tretinoin is the topical treatment with the most convincing research for improving stretch marks—and thus is the one ingredient it makes sense to spend money on.
- Brennan M, Young G, Devane D. Topical preparations for preventing stretch marks in pregnancy. Cochrane Database of Syst Rev. 2012;(11):CD000066.
- Buchanan K, Fletcher H, Reid M. Prevention of striae gravidarum with cocoa butter cream. Int J Gynaecol Obstet. 2010;108(1):65-8.
- Osman H, Usta I, Rubeiz N, Abu-Rustum R, Charara I, Nassar A. Cocoa butter lotion for prevention of striae gravidarum: a double-blind, randomised and placebo-controlled trial. BJOG. 2008;115(9):1138-42.
- Baumann L. Skin ageing and its treatment. J Pathol. 2007;211(2):241-51.
- Puizina-Ivic N. Skin aging. Acta Dermatovenerol Alp Pannonica Adriat. 2008;17(2):47-54.
- Wehr R, Krochmal L. Considerations in selection a moisturizer. Cutis. 1987;39(6):512-5.
- Prashar A., Locke I. C., Evans C. S. Cytotoxicity of lavender oil and its major components to human skin cells. Cell Proliferation. 2004;37(3): 221–29.
- Basketter D, Darlenski R, Fluhr JW. Skin irritation and sensitization: mechanisms and new approaches for risk assessment. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2008;21(4):191-202.
- Rangel O, Arias I, García E, Lopez-Padilla S. Topical tretinoin 0.1% for pregnancy-related abdominal striae: an open-label, multicenter, prospective study. Adv Ther. 2001;18(4):181-6.