Mattress skin. Cottage cheese thighs. Orange peel tush. There are dozens of words we’ve come up with to avoid talking directly about the cellulite that starts cropping up on our bodies when we least expect it.
The reality is cellulite is simply a part of life—a normal part of life at that. As many as 80 to 90 percent of girls and women who are past the puberty stage have at least some cellulite somewhere on their bodies.
Unfortunately, being one of the girls doesn’t necessarily make us love our lumps. We live in a society where tabloids splash paparazzi shots of celebrity women across their covers with giant headlines labeling the stars “imperfect” and using arrows to point to a few dimples on their thighs. The implication (however false it may be) is clear: Cellulite is proof your body’s falling apart.
We’ve certainly internalized those headlines. In one survey performed on behalf of a company that develops laser treatments, women with cellulite rated their own appearance on average lower than the appearance of women without cellulite. Almost all (97 percent) of the participants with cellulite said they’d change their appearance if they could.
But while there’s almost no avoiding the lumpy fat that crops up on tummies, butts, and thighs of famous models and not-so-famous moms driving minivans around the neighborhood, cellulite treatments are out there if you want them. The problem for most women is sorting through the overhyped claims of fast fixes and overpriced offers to find cellulite treatments that can help us reclaim some of that smooth, pre-puberty skin.
That’s where we come in. We talked to the experts about the most popular cellulite treatments out there and found out what works, what doesn’t, and what you can do if you’re not feeling comfortable in the skin you’re in.
Cellulite: A Female Curse?
Before we even consider treating cellulite, did you ever wonder what the heck was going on down under your skin to make all those bumps and valleys? Let’s take trip back to high school science, shall we?
The skin has three layers: The epidermis is the outermost layer of skin. The dermis is the layer right beneath the epidermis. Below that is the subcutaneous layer, which is made up of fat and connective tissue.
“Throughout the fat layer, there are connective tissue septae, or bands, that run down from the skin and divide the fat layer into compartments,” explains Sejal Shah, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and RealSelf contributor from New York City. “Cellulite occurs when this underlying fat begins to push up against the overlying connective tissue and skin, while those septae pull down the skin, resulting in that characteristic dimpled appearance.”
Essentially, the fat that’s in our bodies sections off into little pockets deep underneath the skin, resulting in the dimples we know as cellulite. It typically begins sometime in a woman’s twenties or thirties—although it can happen earlier (some teenagers have cellulite) or later—and it’s most prevalent on the thighs, butt, and lower abdomen, although it can also appear on the arms.
While these fatty pockets can crop up on men’s bodies, it’s much rarer than it is in women. Just about 10 percent of cisgender men have cellulite, compared to more than 80 percent of cisgender women. There are a number of reasons for the gender divide, but the main thing? It’s yet another thing we can blame on our hormones, Shah says, specifically estrogen, the primary female sex hormone.
“Estrogen plays role in the development of cellulite,” Shah explains. “Women tend to have more body fat, and women’s fat is typically distributed in the thighs, hips, and buttocks, which are common areas for cellulite.”
Also at play in cellulite’s appearance is the way muscle develops in men versus women.
“In men, the connective tissue bands that connect skin and muscle are thicker, more in number, and form a crisscross pattern (unlike the vertical pattern in women), making it less likely for the fat to push through,” Shah notes.
Of course, not all women develop cellulite, and just why that happens and who it will happen to is still somewhat up in the air. Even scientists have yet to suss out exactly why some women wake up one day to cellulite while others never experience it at all.
“Because we don’t know exactly why people get cellulite, it’s not always possible to prevent it, especially since factors like genes and hormones play a role,” Shah says. But there are certain risk factors that tend to up your chances of taking a peek at your butt in the mirror and spotting some cellulite, including:
- Genetics (both being female and having a parent who had cellulite)
- A diet high in fat, carbohydrates, and salt, but low in fiber
- Lifestyle factors such as smoking, being sedentary, and lack of exercise (which results in low muscle tone)
- Poor circulation
- Hormonal imbalances or increased sensitivity to hormones
- Use of hormonal contraceptives
- Aging (as we age, the skin and connective tissues naturally weaken and lose elasticity, Shah says)
- Weight gain (but even thin people can have cellulite, Shah is quick to point out)
Of course, that all begs the question: What can you do about it?
If you have cellulite and it doesn’t bother you, you can stop reading right now. Okay, well hold up—not quite yet.
The truth is, cellulite is normal, Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Deepak Raj Dugar, MD, says. It’s not a disease. It’s not a reason to hit the emergency room. And while some of the potential causes (such as smoking or an unhealthy diet) can adversely impact your health, cellulite in and of itself is not going to hurt you and is not considered harmful to your health by the medical community.
If you want to let it be, there’s no reason to pay it any more attention. But what if you fall in the “I want it gone” camp?
There’s good news and bad news ahead. When asked if there are any means for cellulite treatment that are legitimate and backed by science, most doctors don’t pull any punches.
“Short answer is no,” Dugar says. “There have been no studies to ever show that a device, medication, or system was able to effectively reduce cellulite across the board.”
In fact, some body-contouring plastic surgery methods, such as liposuction, have actually been shown to make the appearance of cellulite worse. Okay, case closed, right? You’re stuck with orange peel thighs and cottage cheese tushie.
Not exactly. While there’s no magic pill that will address every single person’s cellulite issues, there are some options out there.
Here’s the real deal on the most popular cellulite treatments currently available.
Retinoid or Retinol Creams
Can cellulite treatment really be as easy as rubbing a cream on every day for a few weeks? Well, no, says Shah. “It won’t directly treat the cellulite, but [it] may improve skin texture and tightness, therefore reducing the appearance of cellulite.” Be wary of just any cream that you find in the drugstore or online that claims to get rid of cellulite, though. It’s only those with the active ingredients retinoid or retinol that offer that skin-tightening benefits.
Like creams, these seem like a fast and easy fix for cellulite woes, but they’re more cosmetic than a long-term solution, Shah says. Wearing support hose can reduce excess fluid, making the cellulite less apparent on your thighs, butt, and tummy. But once you’ve spent some time without that support, the dimpling effect will just return. The same goes for dry brushing and the “wraps” popular on Instagram. The compression effect can help in the short term, but it’s not a long-term cellulite treatment.
The first device to ever get FDA clearance for long-term treatment of cellulite literally cuts the connective tissue bands that pull down the skin and create the dimpled appearance of cellulite, Shah says. Performed by a doctor in an outpatient setting, Cellfina treatments use a small, needle-sized device that cuts those cellulite-causing bands just beneath the skin. The device is “minimally invasive,” according to the company, and side effects are typically limited to tenderness and bruising. The results are expected to last for up to a year, Shah says, although the company boasts patients can be cellulite free for as long as three years.
Another treatment that can only be done by a doctor, Cellulaze is a cellulite treatment that’s performed in an office setting in an hour or two, allowing patients to go home immediately after treatment. “This [is] a laser treatment in which the laser is inserted just underneath the skin to cut the connective tissue bands that are causing the dimpled appearance,” Shah explains. Again, side effects tend to include tenderness and bruising, and the company notes there may be some leaking from the incision. Patients may have to wear compression garments for a short period of time after the procedure and avoid strenuous activity for as much as two weeks after treatment. The company behind the procedure promises results will improve over time and should last up to a year.
Other Laser Techniques
Cellulaze is a brand name (and one of the most popular treatments), but there are other radiofrequency lasers out there that are used to address the appearance of cellulite. Dugar says these devices use suction pulsing technology to help “separate the fibrous septa from the skin to reduce the herniation fat,” but warns that the efficacy of these is still low, and results are not permanent.
Just as some people get fillers injected into their face to address fine lines and wrinkles, it’s possible to use injections to address cellulite. “These injectable treatments can be used to mask the appearance of cellulite by filling in the dimples,” Shah explains.
Brazilian Butt Lift
One of the most invasive cellulite treatments is less of a treatment and more of a way to mask the dimples by creating a barrier between the skin and the subcutaneous tissues below, Dugar says. A Brazilian butt lift involves liposuction, pulling fat from your flanks, abdomen, arms, and legs, and re-injecting that fat into your buttocks and thighs.
“When done properly, you can effectively create a barrier between the skin and the fibrous connective issues below, thereby reducing the appearance of the cellulite,” Dugar says. But, he warns, “this may only be temporary as studies have never shown that this is an effective treatment for cellulite. I have noticed that it can temporarily decrease the appearance of it.”
Diet and Exercise
No, it won’t eliminate all your cellulite, but it can have an impact, Shah says, at least on how your cellulite appears. “Being overweight may worsen cellulite because the more subcutaneous fat you have, the more likely it is to put stress on the connective tissue and bulge,” she explains.
Of course, cellulite can also happen in thin individuals, and exercise does not necessarily get rid of cellulite completely, but it can make it appear differently beneath the skin.
“As the connective tissue underneath the skin weakens or loses elasticity, it allows the fat to bulge,” Shah explains. “Strengthening the muscles in those areas will in turn tighten the skin (and burn excess fat overall), making the skin appear smoother and cellulite less noticeable.”
Any exercise is good exercise, but if you’re looking at your workout as a cellulite treatment, you’ll want to mix up your fitness routine.
“Combining aerobic activity with strength training is key to improving the appearance cellulite, and aerobic/cardio exercise alone is unlikely make much of a difference,” Shah says.
At the end of the day, cellulite may not be something that we can beat or even need to be that concerned about. But if you’re focusing on a healthy lifestyle, from diet to exercise to water intake to avoiding smoking, you may be able to help stave of developing more and help the cellulite that’s already there be just a little bit less apparent. If nothing else, a healthier lifestyle will equal a healthier you.