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What Is Cellulite?

What, Exactly, Is Cellulite?

This is the no-nonsense cellulite article you've been looking for. We're not here to BS you about miracle potions and we're not here to shuttle you off to a room full of magic, cellulite-banishing lasers. We're addressing what cellulite is, how it forms, and why people of all shapes and sizes — including fitness buffs — develop it. We're also here to walk you through cellulite treatments (no sugarcoating involved). And we are OK with breaking the news that, ultimately, there's no way to remove 100 percent of your cellulite.

How and Why Cellulite Develops

Fun fact number one: Roughly 85 percent of women have cellulite.
Fun fact number two: Cellulite isn't about your weight.

"Cellulite is not just about fat, but rather about the structure of the skin," explained board-certified dermatologist Marnie Nussbaum, who specializes in cosmetic dermatology. "It is hypothesized that the circulation under the skin slows, causing fat cells to swell. The elastic bands that hold down the fat gradually weaken, enabling the fat cells in between the bands to pop out and cause the dimpling effect."


Dr. Nussbaum adds that while weight gain and poor diet may increase the development of cellulite, hormones — and the genetic predisposition of slowed circulation, as described above — are the leading causes. In other words, a woman can be at her ideal weight and still have cellulite while a woman who weighs more can be dimple-free.

Over-the-Counter Cellulite Treatments

So just how much hope can you put into all those creams that promise smooth skin? Not a ton. Remember, there's no way to remove 100 percent of cellulite. Still, some can slightly improve skin texture.

"When choosing an at-home lotion or firming cream, look for one that is formulated with antioxidants, as this works to attack free radicals that tend to break down healthy skin cells," Dr. Nussbaum said. "[Additionally], products formulated with caffeine can increase circulation and temporarily shrink fat cells, as well as evenly distribute water between fat cells for a smoother appearance."

Another option is dry brushing, which is exactly what it sounds like. You use a specialized brush to massage the skin, which helps exfoliate, brighten, stimulate circulation, and slightly improve texture.

Products that promise to instantly or completely firm, tone, or remove cellulite aren't giving it to you straight. They may temporarily mask the appearance of cellulite by tightening or smoothing the skin, but these effects last 24 hours, tops, or until you wash off the product.

In-Office Cellulite Treatments

When it comes to the most effective ways to treat cellulite, Dr. Nussbaum advises that those performed at your dermatologist's office are your best bet. However, that comes with the same disclaimer as over-the-counter remedies: you won't see a 100 percent reduction, and there's no treatment that will work on every single patient. Add to that the expense of a doctor service — and often the need to repeat them — and you're talking about a serious investment with a potentially minimal return.

If you want to go the in-office route, though, Dr. Nussbaum has a couple of suggestions.

"Certain infrared and radiofrequency lasers use heat to tighten the collagen bands and break up the fat cells, giving a potentially smoother look. These often only last a few months [and] results vary widely," Dr. Nussbaum said. "Ultrasound can also be used to target pockets of fat in conjunction with lasers to tighten collagen bands. However, again, results are temporary and not permanent."

Another option you might have heard of is subcision. For this service, the surgeon uses a needle to physically break up collagen bands under the skin. Dr. Nussbaum said that "research has shown that it is not all that effective and causes bruising and pain." #nothanks

The Bottom (Get It?) Line

We're not trying to be a Debbie Downer, but cellulite is pretty much impossible to prevent — especially if you're genetically predisposed — and is not likely to go away.

"There are ways to improve the overall look and texture of the skin, but it is important to note that there are no treatments that are permanent, achieve 100 percent resolution, or work for every patient. They can only temporarily achieve a reduction in appearance of cellulite," Dr. Nussbaum stressed. "Expectations must be realistic and tempered with physician guidance."

Cellulite research is still underway, so there may be hope yet for those of you who can't stand your dimples. Meanwhile, you can embrace your body — marks, dimples, warts, lines, and all — and keep treating yourself well by eating right, exercising often, and drinking lots of water.

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