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Stretch mark science

Dermatologist expecting a child of his own continues his pregnancy stretch mark research

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Frank Wang, M.D., studied stretch marks caused by pregnancy while his wife was pregnant with their son Grayson.

Studying stretch marks caused by pregnancy hits close to home when you’re expecting a child of your own.

As dermatologist Frank Wang was finishing up his latest research on the topic, he was waiting for his wife to give birth to their first child.

“She was concerned about getting stretch marks, just like my patients are,” Wang says. “It reminds us why we’re committed to the research.”

Wang’s latest study in the British Journal of Dermatology was at the molecular level, providing some insight into how stretch marks occur, but unfortunately not yet yielding concrete advice he could share with his wife.

Because researchers are still learning about what causes pregnancy stretch marks in the first place, Wang did tell his wife what he tells his patients at U-M: Don’t believe the hype about all of those creams and ointments at the store.

“Most of the existing products aren’t based on solid scientific research,” says Wang, M.D., assistant professor and dermatologist at the University of Michigan Health System. “Very few to none of the items touted to prevent or fix your stretch marks really work.”

This field hasn’t received much research attention because stretch marks are not viewed as medically dangerous. However, Wang has spent more than 8 years studying stretch marks because they affect self-esteem and quality of life for some women.

In this latest research paper, Wang and his colleagues found the elastic fiber network in the dermis gets disrupted in an early stretch mark. After giving birth, this network remains disrupted.

Elastic fibers give skin its elasticity, or the ability to “snap back,” after stretching. The skin tries to repair the disrupted elastic network but it does not appear to be effective, which in turn promotes the lax, loose skin seen in more mature stretch marks.

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Frank Wang, M.D.

Present research of topical treatment options doesn’t find anything currently available to effectively repair those disrupted elastic fibers.

“It may, therefore, make more sense to focus on preserving the elastic fibers you have rather than repairing damaged ones within stretch marks,” Wang says. “Regardless, it’s more complicated than just rubbing something on your stomach.”

He couldn’t bring home the latest, greatest stretch mark cream, but Dr. Wang did encourage his wife to use products with centella, the one ingredient he says is most supported by research studies.

“I don’t know how helpful it truly was, but the important thing is we had a safe delivery,” Wang says, “and hopefully it won’t be too long before I have a better idea of what to recommend for mothers-to-be to avoid stretch marks.”

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