The Skinny on Cellulite: What is it and Can You Get Rid of It?

Article posted in: Lifestyle
woman holding thigh

Sadly, just about every woman knows what cellulite is—that bumpy, dimply, orange-peel-like appearance on the hips, thighs and butt that sometimes makes you long for jeans and sweater weather in the middle of shorts and swimsuit season.

Cellulite can happen to both sexes, but it’s more common in women, who have more body fat and thinner skin than men. Women’s connective tissue, the fibrous collagen tissue that holds us together, is also different. It’s structured like a honeycomb, which makes the normal fat under the skin appear to be bumpy: The fat cells push against the strong fibrous scaffolding which pulls it down, forcing it to bulge. Estrogen also seems to play a role in the development of cellulite, partly by encouraging fat storage. As we age, the fibrous structure that contributes to cellulite becomes more rigid, making it even more noticeable.

Being overweight may make cellulite more noticeable, but skinny people—even athletes—have cellulite. In fact, by one estimate in the Journal of Cosmetic Laser Therapy, about 85-98 percent of women around the world have cellulite, making it, at least statistically, a normal condition.

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Normal or not, many people spend hundreds and thousands of dollars to get rid of it, with little success. There is no cure for cellulite which, as a group of researchers at the University of Cincinnati pointed out in a 2006 study, is “a complex condition.” Treatments that can be effective at reducing the look of cellulite include twice-daily application of a .03 retinol cream, the use of lasers, radiofrequency technology and infared light, the use of needles to release the tight bands of connective tissue under the skin, and some kinds of massage—all of which may need to be repeated indefinitely.

There are also some promising drugs in the pipeline, including an injectable medication that breaks down the collagen under the skin that’s responsible for the look of the subcutaneous fat. In an early study done at Stony Brook School of Medicine, women experienced a 77 percent reduction in the look of cellulite on their thighs within a day.

While not a perfect remedy, the cheapest and most currently available solution to reducing dimply skin may be losing weight and exercising to tighten muscles in the areas affected by cellulite.

In their study, the University of Cincinnati scientists looked at a group of women enrolled in a medically supervised weight loss program. They found that while weight loss wasn’t a panacea—some of the women actually experienced a worsening of the condition—a significant percentage of the women improved the look of their skin when they lost weight. The effect was most pronounced in those with the most pounds to drop and the worst cellulite. “Improvement was associated with significant reductions in weight and percentage of thigh fat, significantly higher starting body mass index, and significantly greater initial severity,” the researchers wrote in their paper, published in the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.

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Wayne Wescott, PhD, co-author of the book No More Cellulite, writes that a combination of gradual weight loss, 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day, and strength-training and toning exercises for hips, butt and thighs helped a group of women he supervised experience a significant decreases in the appearance of cellulite in just eight weeks. Think step-ups, lunges, and hamstring curls, strength training with resistance bands, even yoga for a smoother look.