All About Cellulite

Cellulite is extremely common among women, and also a very common concern among women. It's not a medical concern, but the cottage cheese-like appearance can be alarming for some people. With cellulite, normal fat beneath the skin pushes up against the connective tissues, causing its appearance.

What is Cellulite and why do women get it?

Cellulite is an uneven skin texture that usually appears on the thighs, hips, and buttocks, but can sometimes be seen on the stomach as well. It's characterized by a dimpled appearance of the surface skin when cellulite is mild. The skin becomes noticeably rumped and bumpy if it is severe. The term cellulite is a hot, if negative, buzzword now, but it didn't really enter public vocabulary until the 80s when magazines started covering them. Google trends also provides anecdotal but interesting data--Cellulite is searched much more in the summertime during the beach months (unsurprisingly), but searched at a much higher frequency in countries where people of European descent predominate the population1.

Over 90% of women have cellulite2. It's closer to a sexual characteristic than it is a condition, but genetics and hormones play an important factor in its formation. Cellulite may be more noticeable on overweight people, as the extra fat can accentuate its appearance, but cellulite can affect people of healthy weight or even those who are underweight. It also affects people of all races, although the appearance of cellulite is often less noticeable on darker skin tones. There may3 also be other factors that are related to cellulite formation:

  • Poor diet or fad dieting
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Slow metabolism
  • Underwear that cuts off circulation

Cellulite isn't a problem that's exclusive to women. About 10% of men also have cellulite. In men, however, the symptoms are often milder and therefore, harder to notice. As women have more fat around the hips and thighs, and less connective tissue to keep them in place and structured, they are biologically more prone to cellulite. It's not fair, but when it comes to cellulite, it's a concern that men will often not be able to empathize with due to lack of experience. On the other hand, it seems that men don't seem to find cellulite nearly as unappealing as women sometimes think it is4.

Can you Prevent or Reverse Cellulite?

In general, Cellulite is extremely challenging to remove once formed, and there are no miracle creams or simple procedures to get rid of them, so don't bother with the $39.99 cream that claims your cellulite will disappear with use; it won't. What about exercise and diet--shaping up? That's your best bet for both prevention and reversing cellulite. Exercise in particular will stretch and strengthen connective tissues and fibres which is significant, but unfortunately, it's far from a guarantee to rid yourself of cellulite. Although cellulite is often more noticeable in overweight people, cellulite is not a weight problem and it can affect people of all shapes and sizes. So, what can be done?

  • Exercise
  • Diet
  • Retinoids
  • Tanner

A healthy lifestyle has many important benefits (even though cellulite might be immediately distressing to you, in the scheme of things it's not a big deal). A healthy diet is the flip side of the coin that goes hand in hand with exercise. What about creams to treat cellulite? Unfortunately, the evidence doesn't support the claims. As a rule, over the counter creams which are classified as cosmetics and not drugs, cannot alter the structure or function of the body5. Almost by definition, cosmetics can only change the “appearance” of a problem, and if the companies are complying, the claims should be carefully worded so as not to mislead the consumer. The takeaway here is not to be misled by over the top claims about erasing cellulite; it might help its appearance, but it will not be a miracle cure. Prescription strength retinoids may help a little, by boosting collagen production and speeding up the sloughing of skin and subsequent turnover. This said, the problem of collagen is deeper so a miracle cure is unlikely. A more practical and immediate solution may be to apply some artificial tanners. While it won't do anything for the cellulite, it tends to be less noticeable on darker skin tones. The other more involved treatments like liposuction are generally not recommended by dermatologists at this time for treating cellulite as there is little evidence supporting improvement and in some cases, may make it worse6.

1It's difficult to extrapolate too much from this obviously, as this is simple search data and the results are hardly uniform, but it may provide a hint as to which populations may be more prone to cellulite formation (or which populations care).
2Also, about 10% of men.
3These are less certain and less of a factor than simple genetics or hormonal factors. At the end of the day, cellulite is not a “condition” and very understudied, and our understanding very limited both in terms of how it's formed and how it can be reversed, if at all.
4From the rather arbitrary anecdotes of Cosmo and Reddit.
5This is from the FDA in the US, but the demarcation between cosmetic and drug is clear in Health Canada as well as the majority of regulatory bodies in other countries.