As a society, we’re increasingly focused on self-love and body positivity, but embracing the parts of ourselves that we perceive as imperfect can still be incredibly difficult. For me, one of those things is my stretch marks. I remember the first time I noticed them: I was in seventh grade and I was growing, quickly. Big brown stretch marks lined my thighs, hips, and lower back. At the time, I didn’t even know what they were, but nonetheless, I knew I wanted to hide them. I did some research online about how to remove them, which led to me rifling through my mom’s drawers and stealing her Bio-Oil, a product that Google assured me would help. Much to my dismay, it didn’t affect the appearance of my stretch marks at all.
Now, at 25 years old, those stretch marks (which many people alternatively refer to as ‘tiger stripes’) that irked me so much as a pre-teen are still there, granted they’ve lightened over time. I’m not nearly as insecure about them, though, in part because I’ve come to realize they’re a normal part of life. In fact, studies show that approximately 90 percent of pregnant women, 70 percent of adolescent females, and 40 percent of adolescent males will develop them. Still, I understand the desire to get rid of them.
In the quest to cover their stretch marks, which are otherwise permanent, many people try tattooing. But can stretch marks be tattooed over? How well does that really work? We talked to permanent makeup artist Dominique Bossavy and master micropigmentologist Alicia Shapira, both of whom do stretch mark tattooing, to learn more about the process and determine whether it’s worth a try if you’re looking for a stretch mark coverup solution.
For starters, what exactly are stretch marks?
Stretch marks are a type of scar that result from the skin rapidly stretching—whether that be from weight gain, puberty, or pregnancy. They don’t affect everyone, but for those of us who do have (or get) them, they can show up on a slew of places on our bodies from the stomach, thighs, and hips, to the breasts, upper arms, and even the lower back.
When they first appear, stretch marks tend to be darker in color (think: red, purple, and even brown) and slightly raised. Like any other scar, stretch marks are permanent, but as the American Academy of Dermatology explains, “in time, the color fades and…[the marks] sink beneath your skin. If you run your finger over a mature stretch mark, you often feel a slight depression.” Even lighter, aged stretch marks are visible, though, which is why many people search for treatment and removal options such as tattooing.
There are a couple different stretch mark tattooing methods. The first involves a digital tattoo pen and a tetrachromat.
The short answer to the question “can stretch marks be tattooed over?” is, excitingly, yes—and there’s more than one way of doing it. The various methods of tattooing over stretch marks, including the two practiced by Bossavy and Shapira, have entirely different processes and timelines. Nano Color Infusion, for instance, is Bossavy’s technique. She conceals the torn skin and broken collagen bands that make up stretch marks by matching her ink’s pigment to that of the surrounding skin.
“The skin is not flat and not one color,” Bossavy tells Inside Out, so the permanent makeup artist has to mix inks to match it. Her work is most similar to 3-D tattoos, she explains, far more so than traditional one-dimensional designs since she attempts to match the surrounding skin’s texture when tattooing stretch marks, too. But what really separates her process from other artists’ is her innate ability: She’s a tetrachromat. Thanks to an additional receptor in their retinas, tetrachromats can see up to 100 times more colors most people. Now imagine how this fourth receptor (technically called a cone) can help with seeing tiny nuances in skin tone, like whether an individual’s natural color skews more green, yellow, or orange. That helps Bossavy mix the colors that she then inks using a digital tattoo pen.
The second method utilizes organic ink and custom needles.
Shapira, on the other hand, practices the Brazilian Stretch Mark Camouflage technique. Like Bossavy, she concocts custom colored ink to match every client’s skin tone, but her process starts by having an in-person consultation or reviewing photos. Her procedure works on all types of aged stretch marks—if your stretch marks are new, or still dark purple or dark brown, they’re too dark to camouflage using this method, Shapira says. To help clients with deeper colored stretch marks, though, she offers an all-natural, FDA-approved lightening treatment.
Another benefit of Shapira’s method is the all-natural, organic ink she uses. Sourced in South America, her ink is specially formulated to help combat the long term darkening or fading of the coverups she does, which are done using a standard tattoo machine fitted with small, custom-made needles specifically sized for the procedure.
The fine print: The timeline, cost, etc.
For the Nano Color Infusion method, the process can take up to three sessions, six to seven weeks apart, says Bossavy, who adds that the procedure is best performed during the winter months since someone undergoing treatment can’t swim or have direct sun exposure on the area until it heals. And it doesn’t come cheap. Her treatment starts at $3,500 USD per area and increases in cost depending on the size and depth of the stretch marks.
Shapira’s method, on the other hand, moves a bit quicker: Similar to traditional tattooing, most of her clients need just one session per area. Some may need a touch up two to four months later, though, depending on how the skin heals and how deep or wide the stretch marks are. Her treatment is also slightly cheaper, generally ranging from $800 to $2,000 USD per area. It can be done on the buttocks, arms, knees, stomach, and hips.
It’s also worth noting that Shapira requires all of the stretch marks she works on to be at least two years old. Plus, she asks that her clients avoid UV exposure, alcohol, and aspirin for a few days before their session. “Aspirin, caffeine, and alcohol are blood thinners and we want to limit the bleeding as much as possible during the healing process,” she says. Her clients are also advised to only use gentle skincare products on the area before treatment—she recommends Dove Sensitive Skin Body Wash ($6; target.com).
Does it always work? Can all stretch marks be tattooed over?
How well either of these methods will work depends on a client’s skin tone, the kind of stretch mark (there are a few different types), and its location.
When it comes to age and color, the older, whiter and more defined the stretch marks, the easier and more successful the treatment. “Once there is no color, no melanin, and no future production of melanin in the area, we have a clean slate to layer the color back onto the damaged skin,” Bossavy explains. “Some stretch marks are diffused, some are marbled, some are purple, red, or brown,” she adds, explaining that in general, these types of stretch marks don’t react as well to treatment because they tend to be accompanied by looser skin which is more difficult to tattoo. Alternatively, horizontal stretch marks react best to the treatment because they’re often slower to stretch (meaning the surrounding skin is tighter).
As for location, it’s ideal when the area being tattooed is open to air, has fewer sweat glands, and doesn’t experience much friction. This keeps the tattooed skin protected, explains Bossavy, and enables the pigment to last longer. It’s for precisely this reason that she avoids tattooing stretch marks near the armpits and elbows. The hips, arms, outer thighs, abdomen, lower back, buttocks, and chest respond well to the treatments, she says. Similarly, Shapira avoids doing her treatment on inner arms and thighs. “The inner arms and thighs rub together, skin there is thinner, and stretch marks there tend to turn darker due to the elasticity of the skin,” she says. Instead, she focuses her treatment on stretch marks located on clients’ stomach, buttocks, flanks, outer thighs, arms, breasts, and legs.
How to care for your stretch mark tattoos
You can expect some swelling and redness post-procedure, according to Shapira. “Forty-five to 60 days is the full healing process, but the swelling and redness should only last about five to seven days,” she explains. She adds that during the healing process, the tattooed skin will go from pink and swollen, to a scabbed red-brown color, and then—once it’s fully healed—to the camouflage color.
Shapira also recommends clients avoid working out for two weeks post-treatment, in addition to avoiding swimming, steam, and sun, which can all slow the skin’s healing process. “When it comes to bathing, you must take a quick shower without over-soaping or over-rubbing, and absolutely do not use a loofah for at least 60 days,” she warns.
Harsh exfoliants and chemicals like glycolic or salicylic acids should also be shelved during this time, since these can remove the pigment of the fresh stretch mark tattoo. And if you’re into laser hair removal—or any other laser treatments, for that matter—plan to avoid those too, since according to plastic surgeon, Dr. Michael Law, “laser hair removal devices are searching for pigment and can therefore remove the pigment it finds in the tattoo.” He adds that this can cause damage to the skin including burning, blistering, hypopigmentation, or hyperpigmentation.
But even once your tattoos are fully healed, Bossavy recommends remaining vigilant about sun exposure, which can fade your ink. Instead of sunbathing, she suggests opting for a spray tan instead, or, if you must, using SPF 60+. Try La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Face + Body Melt In Sunscreen Milk SPF 60 ($35.99; ulta.com).
The bottom line
Stretch mark tattooing can work, but it isn’t necessarily an effective coverup method for all types of stretch marks, so you shouldn’t get your hopes up until you’ve had a consultation with your tattooer or dermatologist. And even if your stretch marks can be tattooed over, those tattoos—like any other ink—will fade over time. This means that touch ups will likely be required. If you want to conceal your stretch marks in between touch ups, though, Bossavy recommends covering your fading tattoos using KKW Skin Perfecting Body Foundation ($45; kkwbeauty.com). But you can also just embrace the tiger stripes as a beautiful part of yourself, too.