Do cellulite treatments work?


Are the results really worth the money?
Are the results really worth the money?
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

If you're a woman, you probably have cellulite somewhere on your body. Although it's considered an unsightly affliction, cellulite isn't a medical condition. It occurs in about 90 percent of women. [source: Harmon]

Here's how cellulite works: At puberty and sometimes in middle age, hormone changes cause women to start storing more fat in their lower bodies. As fat begins to accumulate in key areas, it puts stress on adjacent connective tissues that tug on the skin like rubber bands, causing dimpling. If there's a lot of fat accumulation involved, or the skin is thin, the dimpling is somewhat more noticeable.

Cellulite is an inherited trait, so if your mother or an aunt has it, you're likely to have problems with it too. For the most part, cellulite isn't a symptom of overindulgence. You aren't being punished for a brownie eating marathon back when you were still in braces. It isn't necessarily weight related, either. Thin women have cellulite. Dimpling is common on the thighs of cellulite sufferers, but it can also occur on the buttocks, lower abdomen, hips and arms. It can be exacerbated by factors like fluid retention, poor circulation and lack of exercise, and may become more noticeable after menopause.

From minor dimpling only when the skin is pinched to obvious dimpling even when lying down, the more pronounced the skin distortions from cellulite are, the harder they are to eliminate. Even a minor distribution of cellulite can be difficult to treat successfully, though. Sometimes the cottage cheese texture will diminish somewhat using one therapy or another only to come back a few months after treatment is discontinued.

Some potential therapies are still being evaluated for safety and effectiveness, while others haven't been seriously evaluated at all. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is currently fine tuning its guidelines for cosmeceuticals, products marketed as cosmetic-pharmaceuticals. Some cellulite preparations and treatments fall into this category. That's one reason the effectiveness claims for cellulite preparations and technologies, especially those offering spectacular results, should be approached with caution and some healthy skepticism. [source: Edney]

On the next page, let's take a look at the most popular cellulite treatments on the market. Some aren't worth your money, while others may promise - or at least hint at -- the bump battling results you're looking for.

Types of Cellulite Treatments

If you've ever taken a look at Peter Paul Rubens' painting the "Three Graces," you know that cellulite has been around a while. Those classy ladies looked like they were having a good time despite a few physical imperfections. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

Cellulite treatments fall into a few broad categories. Some can be performed at home, while others must be administered by a licensed technician or dermatologist. Some, like ointments, work from the outside (noninvasive), while others are applied under the skin using surgical procedures. They approach cellulite on a number of fronts to do one or more of the following things believed to reduce the appearance of dimples and bumps:

  • Smooth or eliminate fat deposits under the skin
  • Change the texture or underlying structure beneath the skin to make it firmer (like a girdle)
  • Cut connecting tissues to reduce the tension that makes fat more visible.
  • Increase circulation to eliminate fluid buildup
  • These are some of the popular cellulite preparations you'll find on the market.

Creams and ointments - If you want a fast, painless and convenient way to combat orange peel skin, applying a topical cream is probably it. American consumers spent over $13 million on cellulite creams in 2011, and creams are among the oldest known treatments for cellulite. You typically have to use a cream for months to see any results, and after you stop using it, problems with dimpled skin will often come back. [source: Krieger]

Some of the most popular creams use phosphodiesterase inhibitors or methylxanthines like caffeine to dehydrate fat cells and break down fat. This sounds pretty neat, but the clinical results aren't all that stellar. Some experts contend that topical application probably isn't a very effective delivery method. The jury is still out, though. Other popular creams use retinol to help build collagen and toughen connective tissues to make them thicker and stronger.

There are also dozens of herbal creams for cellulite on the market. Most haven't been tested by independent labs. If you want to try one or two, take a buyer beware approach and avoid products that promise unrealistic results.

  • Massage, kneading, suction and friction - Giving your skin (and underlying tissues) a good rubdown may loosen or redistribute fat and help build collagen and increase the strength of connective tissues. Before you grab a rolling pin and a bottle of baby oil, though, know that most of these methods offer only a temporary reduction in the appearance of dimples. Collectively, these techniques are referred to as lipomassage and can be performed in the home with the purchase of special handheld massage equipment, in a dermatologist's office and even at some spas.
  • Radiofrequency massage - This technique takes the idea of lipomassage to the next level by using massage with heat to sculpt fat and help stimulate collagen production to thicken the skin.
  • Subcision - Subcision is an invasive surgical technique that uses a small cutting tool inserted under the skin to snip connective tissues that exert tension on the skin's surface. Reducing the tension makes fat deposits less noticeable. This technique has been used for years to treat deep acne scars.
  • Mesotherapy and Liposuction - Both these invasive surgical techniques eliminate fat by either suctioning it away (liposuction) or using chemical detergents to liquefy it (mesotherapy). Both can cause scarring and still leave areas of pocked or dimpled skin behind. Surgical procedures also have the risk of infection and temporary discomfort from swelling and tender skin.
  • Lasers - Laser therapy is another treatment method that employs skin irritation to stimulate collagen production. One method marketed under the name Cellulaze uses a laser inserted under the skin in a minimally invasive procedure that does three things: sever connective tissues (like subcision), melt and vaporize fat pockets (for a smoother appearance) and heat the skin from the underside (to increase its thickness and elasticity). Cellulaze treatment has been approved by the FDA and can be administered under a local anesthetic. Laser techniques may be used in combination with other methods on this list for more comprehensive results.

Related Articles

Sources

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "New generation of laser and light therapies could provide future treatment options for skin, hair and nail conditions." 3/16/12. (8/21/12). http://www.aad.org/stories-and-news/news-releases/new-generation-of-laser-and-light-therapies-could-provide-future-treatment-options-for-skin-hair-and-nail-conditions
  • Edney, Anna. "FDA Targets 'Cosmeceuticals' Straddling Regulatory Lines." Bloomberg. 3/17/12. (8/21/12). http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-03-27/fda-targets-cosmeceuticals-straddling-regulatory-lines.html
  • Harmon, Katherine. "Is Cellulite Forever?" Scientific America. 5/8/09. (8/21/12). http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=is-cellulite-forever
  • Hunter, Aina. "Cellulite Treatments: Do They Work?" ABC News. 6/4/08. (8/21/12). http://abcnews.go.com/Health/SkinCare/story?id=4964279&page=1#.UDe7iaOuVp4
  • Krieger, Liz. "Cellulite 'cure' may be a new laser treatment." Harper's Bazaar. 4/10/12. (8/21/12). http://todayhealth.today.com/_news/2012/04/10/11105086-cellulite-cure-may-be-a-new-laser-treatment?lite
  • MedicineNet. "Cellulite Pictures Slideshow: Causes, Myths and Treatments." 6/2/11. (8/21/12). http://www.medicinenet.com/cellulite_pictures_slideshow/article.htm
  • Monroe, Valerie. "The Cure for Cellulite? Seriously?" Oprah.com. 5/2009. (8/21/12). http://www.oprah.com/style/A-Cellulite-Cure-How-to-Get-Rid-of-Cellulite
  • Sadick, Neil S and R Stephen Mulholland. "A prospective clinical study to evaluate the efficacy and safety of cellulite treatment using the combination of optical and RF energies for subcutaneous tissue heating." Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy. (8/21/12). http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14764170410003039
  • Saint Louis, Catherine. "Zeroing In on Cellulite." 5/2/12. (8/21/12). http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/03/fashion/a-new-treatment-zeroes-in-on-cellulite.html?pagewanted=all
  • The Dr. Oz Show. "Cellulite Treatments." Video Clip. (8/21/12). http://www.doctoroz.com/videos/cellulite-treatments