Cellulite Causes and Treatments

The appearance of cellulite is often termed "orange skin" because it resembles the puckered skin of an orange. See more pictures of skin problems.
ŠiStockphoto.com/Burak Demir

To those that have it, cellulite can feel like a hideous monster has crept across their skin, leaving behind a trail of grotesque evidence. At its best, this trail looks like an orange peel. At its worst, it looks like cottage cheese. In either case, it can make its victims feel self-conscious, frustrated and desperate for a cure.

Despite its popular definition as skin that looks like cottage cheese, cellulite is actually fat cells that sit under the skin. Even if cellulite makes you feel like a victim, it has no affect on your health. It is a purely cosmetic issue that affects 90 percent of post-pubescent women [source: Doheny].


Cellulite is so common in women that many dermatologists consider it a secondary sex characteristic [source: Wanner]. In other words, almost every woman has it, skinny or obese. After puberty, the female hormone estrogen triggers the woman's body to store extra fat for pregnancy. Typically, that added fat appears in the buttocks, thighs, hips and lower abdomen (areas that naturally store fat). But it can also show up under the arms, in the breasts and even in the nape of the neck [source: AAD].

In 2008, women dropped $47 million on cellulite-reduction products. Yet those same women only showed a 25 percent to 50 percent improvement, and even that was short-lived [source: Saint Louis].

To be clear, there is no cure for cellulite. While there are a number of treatments that attempt to tackle the appearance of cellulite, the results vary -- and they're not permanent. But there are things, like lifestyle changes, that will make it less obvious. Read on to find out what you can do to treat your cellulite. First, discover the potential causes of cellulite to understand how treatment might work.


Cellulite Causes

Just as researchers haven't found a cure for cellulite, they also haven't been able to pinpoint its cause. Hormones predispose you to fat buildup. Your genes also contribute, determining the way your connective tissues and fat are distributed. But cellulite-prone areas also contain hair follicles, blood vessels and muscle. Researchers still debate which components are responsible for cellulite production.

One hypothesis blames the blood vessels and states that cellulite is created when blood isn't flowing through the vessels properly. As fat expands, it presses against blood vessels. The blood vessels then press against the skin, creating an uneven surface [source: Avram].


Another theory blames white blood cells, which help increase the body's immunity to disease. This hypothesis purports that people with cellulite have chronically inflamed white blood cells. Inflamed cells shrink, causing the skin to lose strength. Stored fat then pushes against weak skin creating the uneven surface [source: Avram].

The most widely accepted hypothesis to date blames connective tissue. Connective tissues are the fibers under the skin that connect the skin to muscle. In men, connective tissues appear in a criss-cross pattern, creating a net-like barrier to keep fat away from the skin. In women, connective tissues appear as parallel bars, giving cellulite fat an opportunity to push up through them. As the fat pushes against the tissues, they begin to bulge, pressing into the skin. The tissues then imprint themselves upon the skin, giving your skin a dimpled, uneven look [source: Bouchez].

If the connective tissue theory is true, then weight gain will only make matters worse, forcing extra fat against cellulite and strained tissues. Age will also increase the likelihood of cellulite's appearance. With age, skin loses strength and elasticity, thereby losing its ability to hide imperfections. Muscle that loses its tone with age may also add to the wrinkled appearance.

Though the cause is unknown, a variety of cellulite treatments has been developed based on these theories. On the next page, learn about exercise as a treatment.


Cellulite Exercises

Exercise, combined with a nutritious diet, may help reduce the appearance of cellulite. It cannot rid the body of cellulite fat cells, but it can decrease fat that comes with weight gain. Weight gain tends to increase the appearance of cellulite, so decreasing fat could decrease cellulite's visibility.

Aerobic exercise combined with strength training helps decrease fat, build and tone muscle, and increase metabolism [source: Dowshen]. These actions can help to reduce the pressure on cellulite in the skin. Exercise is especially important for aging women who naturally lose muscle mass and whose metabolism naturally slows.


Complete aerobic exercises like running, biking or dancing for a total of at least three hours and 45 minutes per week. Include strength training in your workout at least twice per week [source: Mayo Clinic Fitness]. You could use weights, bands or machines and other training equipment to target cellulite-stricken areas. Or go prop free with squats, lunges, crunches and leg presses. For specific exercises, consult a trainer at your local gym.

Regardless of the reason for cellulite, decreasing overall body fat will help diminish the appearance of cellulite by removing the pressure that contributes to the problem. But what if you already exercise and aren't carrying around a lot of extra body fat? Or, what if you just want something to help before that weekend trip to the beach? Women in need of a quick fix sometimes turn to cellulite massage and other temporary treatments. On the next page, find out how cellulite massage works.


Cellulite Massage

Cellulite massage or endermologie, is one of a number of quick treatments aimed at temporarily hiding the appearance of cellulite. If you've ever had a deep-tissue massage, then you'll have some idea of what endermologie feels like. It does not affect connective tissue or underlying fat but may increase circulation and remove unhealthy white blood cells [source: Avram]. If the blood vessel theory or the white blood cell theory is true, massage should be an effective treatment.

During massage, a hand-held, electric machine is used to knead the skin. The tool includes rollers and sometimes light. Some massage tools use suction cups to puff up the skin.


Massage therapy is a common cellulite treatment at spas. But it is expensive and has not been proven effective, as massage only temporarily plumps the top layer of skin, thereby camouflaging the appearance of cellulite [source: Wanner].

Of course, massage isn't the only tool in the cellulite-fighting arsenal. On the next page, learn about treatments like creams, injections and liposuction.


Cellulite Treatments

The cheapest treatment for cellulite involves exercise and a proper diet. This will help you to tone muscle and decrease fat, removing the pressure that fat places on cellulite -- remember, cellulite sits below your skin and any additional fat that's pushing it up through connective tissues can exacerbate its appearance.

But if you have an event to attend or a swimsuit to fit into and you'd like to mask your cellulite as quickly as possible, temporary treatments are available. These include mechanical treatments (like massage), topical treatments, medications and injections.


Topical treatments improve the look of skin with specific ingredients, such as retinoids (which make skin stronger), lactic acids (which remove dead skin cells) and caffeine (which will be discussed on the next page). These treatments promise to strengthen skin, shrink cellulite fat and build collagen and elastin -- proteins that strengthen connective tissue [source: Medical News Today]. Unfortunately, creams cannot get deep into the fat, and their effect is temporary. Worse, creams can cause allergies and irritate skin [source: Saint Louis].

Medications may contain ingredients similar to what you'll find in cellulite creams. These medications can be injected into the skin. Sometimes, fat is injected into the skin to fill the pits of cellulite. Other invasive procedures include liposuction (see sidebar) and subcision, in which a needle is injected into connective fibers to cut and separate them. Invasive procedures could cause pain as well as bruising and irritation around the injection site or surgical opening [source: Avram].

Caffeine is a common ingredient in cellulite treatment. On the next page, learn how it is used in cellulite treatments -- from medications to clothing.


Cellulite and Coffee Grounds

Caffeine is an ingredient often found in cellulite medications and topical treatments. The same ingredient that can give you a boost of energy just might also increase blood flow, remove unwanted fluid in skin cells and decrease fat -- at least that's what some folks think.

Caffeine temporarily speeds up blood flow by increasing the size of blood vessels. It also speeds up metabolism, which helps you burn fat [source: Bouchez]. You could also try using your leftover coffee grounds to combat cellulite. Some women -- including some celebrities -- swear by mixing warm coffee grounds with a bit of olive oil and wrapping the mixture around their legs with plastic wrap. There aren't any scientific studies to determine coffee grounds' effectiveness, but it's an inexpensive alternative you may want to try if you can't find relief otherwise.


In the past, caffeine was thought to be so effective that some companies developed caffeine tights -- panty hose that contained caffeine. Developers believed that when women wore the caffeine tights over their legs, caffeine could be absorbed into the skin and the blood stream. Unfortunately, the effect was temporary and women only lost a few calories per day [source: Sample].

Remember, there is no cure for cellulite. Massage, caffeinated creams and even surgical procedures will only temporarily treat the appearance of cellulite. An ideal treatment would affect all underlying factors, from connective tissues and white blood cells to fat and blood vessels. Unfortunately, such a treatment does not yet exist. Until then, women should remember that almost every woman on Earth has cellulite.

Use the links and sources on the next page to find more information about cellulite research and possible treatments.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Cellulite." 2009. (8/8/09) http://www.aad.org/dermaz/Default.aspx
  • American Council on Exercise. "Exercise and Cellulite." 2006. (8/8/09) http://www.acefitness.org/fitfacts/fitfacts_display.aspx?itemid=356
  • American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. "A Possible Cure for Unsightly Cellulite?"
  • Aesthetic Surgery Journal. 1/21/09. (8/8/09)http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/136075.php
  • Avram, Mathew M., MD, JD. "Cellulite: A Review of Its Physiology and Treatment." Journal of Cosmetic Laser Therapy. 2004. (8/8/09)http://www.elos.fi/files/178/7166.pdf
  • Bouchez, Colette. "Can You Beat Cellulite?" WebMD. 2009. (8/8/09)http://www.webmd.com/skin-beauty/features/can-you-beat-cellulite
  • Crosta, Peter, MA. "What Is Cellulite? What Causes Cellulite?" Medical News Today. 5/10/09. (8/8/09)http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/149465.php
  • Doheny, Kathleen. "Bye-Bye Cellulite." WebMD. 2009. (8/8/09) http://www.webmd.com/skin-beauty/features/bye-bye-cellulite
  • Dowshen, Steven, MD. "What Is Cellulite?" Nemours. 5/09. (8/8/09)http://kidshealth.org/teen/your_body/beautiful/cellulite.html
  • Mayo Clinic. "Cellulite." 6/23/09. (8/8/09)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/cellulite/DS00891
  • Mayo Clinic. "Fitness." 6/23/09. (8/8/09)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/exercise/AN01713
  • Medical News Today. "Do Anti-Cellulite Creams Work?" 6/30/03. (8/8/09)http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/3859.php
  • Nordqvist, Christian. "Fat Melting Laser May Treat Cellulite, Heart Disease and Acne." Medical News Today. 4/10/06. (8/8/09)http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/41335.php
  • Saint Louis, Catherine. "Treating Cellulite? It's Still There." New York Times. 6/24/09. (8/8/09)http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/25/fashion/25skinintro.htm
  • Sample, Ian. "Do Coffee Tights Get Rid of Cellulite?" The Guardian. 3/11/04. (8/8/09)http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2004/mar/11/thisweekssciencequestions3
  • State of Victoria. "Androgen Deficiency in Men." 5/09. (8/8/09)http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Androgen_deficiency
  • Wanner, Molly A., MD, and Mathew M. Avram, MD, JD. "An Evidence-Based Assessment of Treatments for Cellulite." Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. 4/09. (8/8/09)http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0PDG/is_4_7/ai_n25432507/
  • WebMD and Cleveland Clinic. "Your Skin and Stretch Marks." 4/1/05. (8/8/09)http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/stretch-marks