Cellulite refers to the appearance of dimpled skin on the thighs, hips, buttocks and abdomen of most women and some men, too. Cellulite is most common in areas of fat deposits and is the result of the unevenness of this fatty tissue beneath the skin surface. It is not a serious medical condition, but cellulite can be unsightly, and it may make you self-conscious when wearing shorts or a swimming suit.
Many cellulite treatments, including massages or cellulite creams, advertise remarkable results. But unfortunately, most of these treatments don't live up to their claims. Researchers are studying possible medical treatments. In the meantime, you can take a couple steps to slightly improve the appearance of cellulite.
Cellulite looks like dimpled or bumpy skin. It's sometimes described as skin with a cottage cheese texture. Cellulite ranges in severity. Mild cases can be seen only when the skin is pinched — the dimpling appears in the pinched skin. More-severe cases make the skin appear rumpled and bumpy with areas of peaks and valleys. Cellulite is most common around the thighs and buttocks, but it can be found on the breasts, lower abdomen and upper arms as well.
When to see a doctor
Cellulite isn't a serious medical condition and treatment isn't necessary. In fact, many doctors consider cellulite a normal occurrence. However, if you're concerned about the appearance of your skin, see your doctor, dermatologist or plastic surgeon.
Cellulite is caused by fibrous connective cords that tether the skin to the underlying muscle, with the fat lying between. As the fat cells accumulate, they push up against the skin, while the long, tough cords are pulling down. This creates an uneven surface or dimpling.
Cellulite is much more common in women than in men. In fact, the majority of women — at least 8 out of 10 — have some degree of cellulite. This is because fat is typically distributed in women in the thighs, hips and buttocks — common areas for cellulite. In addition, cellulite is more common with aging, when the skin loses some of its elasticity.
Weight gain can make cellulite more noticeable, but cellulite may still be present in lean individuals. It tends to run in families, so genetics may play the biggest role in whether you develop cellulite.
Other factors that may increase your chances of having cellulite include:
- An inactive lifestyle
- Using hormonal contraceptives
Preparing for your appointment
Because doctor appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot to cover, it's a good idea to be well prepared for your appointment. Preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your appointment. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For cellulite, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- What is the best course of action?
- What are my treatment options and the pros and cons for each?
- What will the treatments cost? Does medical insurance cover these costs?
- What results can I expect?
- What kind of follow-up, if any, should I expect?
Treatments and drugs
Weight loss — through healthy diet and regular exercise — is probably the most beneficial cellulite treatment. Losing pounds and strengthening muscles in your legs, thighs, buttocks and abdomen can improve the appearance of the dimpled skin. The benefits of weight loss alone are limited, however. Though the cellulite may be less noticeable after weight loss, it won't go away completely.
Lasers and radiofrequency systems
Perhaps the most promising medical therapy is lasers and radiofrequency systems. One system uses combined negative tissue massage, radiofrequency and infrared light to treat cellulite. Another system delivers combined tissue massage with diode laser energy. A third system uses radiofrequency at deep and superficial levels simultaneously to treat cellulite. All three systems offer improvements to cellulite after a series of treatments. Results may last up to six months.
Some people may turn to liposuction as a treatment for cellulite. During liposuction, a surgeon inserts a narrow tube under your skin through tiny incisions and then suctions out fat cells. Though liposuction can shape the body, it won't remove cellulite, and it may make the cellulite appear worse. Laser-assisted liposuction is a newer, less invasive form of this treatment that destroys fat cells while tightening the skin, and may be a more effective treatment for cellulite.
A twice daily application of 0.3 percent retinol cream has been shown to improve the appearance of cellulite after six months.
Many devices, products and creams claim to treat cellulite. But there is little or no scientific evidence to support these claims. If you do find a cellulite treatment that improves your skin, the results aren't likely to last long term.
The following are a few of the many advertised cellulite treatments. Keep in mind that these treatments haven't been proved effective in removing cellulite.
- Vigorous massage. Some cellulite treatments are based on the concept that vigorous massage will increase blood flow, remove toxins and reduce excess fluid in cellulite-prone areas. One method in particular, Endermologie (also referred to as Lipomassage), uses a hand-held machine to knead the skin between rollers. You may notice a slight improvement to your skin after this treatment, but the results are typically short-lived.
- Mesotherapy. This procedure involves injecting a solution — which may contain a combination of aminophylline, hormones, enzymes, herbal extracts, vitamins and minerals — under the skin. This treatment can cause several unwanted effects, including infection, rashes, and bumpy or uneven skin contours.
- Cellulite creams. Creams that contain a variety of ingredients, such as vitamins, minerals, herbal extracts and antioxidants, are often marketed as the cure for cellulite. But no studies show that these creams offer any improvement. And in some cases, the ingredients in these products cause skin reactions or rashes.
There is no way to prevent getting cellulite. Keeping off excess pounds and strengthening your muscles through regular exercise, however, can go a long way toward maintaining your skin tone and texture.