What is cellulite?


Cellulite is a normal human variation that is viewed by a segment of the public (with the help of the media, some physicians, and salesmen of various sorts) as some sort of a disease. The term "cellulite" was coined in 1973 to refer to the dimpled appearance of the skin that some people have on their hips, thighs, and buttocks. This appearance is much more common in women than in men because of differences in the way fat, muscle, and connective tissue are distributed in men and women's skin. Although female hormones may play a role in contributing to this fat distribution, cellulite is not treatable by hormone therapy.

In other words, the dimpled appearance of cellulite is one way many perfectly normal human beings look. Just as some people have thick hair while others have thin hair and some have large noses and others small, some women have the smooth buttocks and thighs that everyone seems to want while others have less satisfactory, dimpled ones. These are all normal variations.

What are the supposed treatments for cellulite?

Most people dislike bumps and indentations on their bodies and prefer to be as smooth as they possibly can. Additionally, because hope springs eternal, much has been written about cellulite and its causes and many treatments have been promoted. Some of these therapies include:

  1. A low-fat diet: Eating in a healthy manner is always a good idea and a low-fat diet is usually recommended as part of a weight maintenance lifestyle. However, the notion that you can shrink a localized fat lump or smooth out a dimple by eating less fat makes as little sense when it comes to cellulite as it does when it comes to flabby thighs or "love handles."
  1. Dietary supplements: Several of these products have been marketed and contain a variety of ingredients such as ginkgo biloba, sweet clover, grape seed bioflavinoids, bladderwrack extract, oil of evening primrose, fish oil, and soy lecithin. These preparations claim to have positive effects on the body such as boosting metabolism, improving circulation, protecting against cell damage, and breaking down fats. Such claims are difficult to evaluate as is the case with similar assertions made on behalf of many supplements and alternative therapies. Concepts such as "metabolism," "circulation," or "cell damage" cannot be easily measured on an objective basis to determine whether or not any improvement has been achieved. Additionally, because these products are sold as dietary supplements and not as drugs, they are not subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They are therefore exempt from meeting the scientific standards for both safety and effectiveness that are applied to drugs.
  2. Furthermore, there are no valid clinical studies to support the use of these dietary supplements for the treatment of cellulite. Studies that have been conducted have not demonstrated any value of these supplements.

    For example, one product containing a mixture of herbs marketed as a "cure" for cellulite was tested to see whether it had any effect on cellulite, body weight, fat content, or the circumference of the thighs and hips. No beneficial changes were found when results of those taking the dietary supplement were compared to those taking the placebo (sugar pill). The only significant changes were an increase in cellulite and body weight in the majority of women who took the "miracle cure" product.

    Some dietary supplements that are promoted for the treatment of cellulite may also pose some risk. One popular cellulite product, for instance, contains iodine, which may be harmful to patients with thyroid and certain other conditions. Other preparations may interact with certain prescription drugs.

  1. Massage treatments: In the past few years, several machines have been introduced that massage the areas affected by cellulite. These machines use rolling cylinders to gather areas of skin and massage them inside a chamber. Again, no scientific studies are available to demonstrate the effectiveness of this treatment, which appears to redistribute fat rather than permanently alter its configuration under the skin.

Other exotic, but equally unproven treatments include electrical stimulation of muscle cells and application of an electric current to the fat tissue itself.

How about liposuction?

Nope, sorry .... This technique of extracting fat by vacuuming it from under the skin is not effective for cellulite. In fact, liposuction may worsen the appearance of the skin by sucking out the cushion of fat that resides just under the skin. The result is additional dimpling of the skin.
Some doctors claim to be able to "break up" fat under the skin by using thin rods, but this technique is not accepted or established within the plastic surgery community and it may be associated with a worsened appearance or scarring.

What can be done about cellulite?

In sum, eating a healthy diet and keeping muscles toned by regular exercise seem like reasonable approaches to keeping the body as taut and smooth as it can be. Patients should be very cautious before trying out surgical procedures, dietary supplements, or elaborate massage techniques of unproven value.