What Is Cellulite and How Do I Make It Go Away?

By definition, cellulite is a cosmetic, localized skin condition that causes a dimpled appearance on the surface of the skin. The bumpy "orange peel" texture is a combination of expanding fat cells that bunch up underneath the skin and fibrous bands (septa) that run perpendicular to the surface of the skin. Enlarged fat cells create small bulges while the tight septa cause puckering. In medical settings, cellulite may be called edematous fibrosclerotic panniculopathy, gynoid lipodystrophy, or adiposis edematosa.

Girl shows holding and pushing the skin of the legs cellulite, orange peel. Treatment and disposal of excess weight, the deposition of subcutaneous fat tissue
Дарья Амосеева / Getty Images

Overview

Cellulite is not a disease, but rather a cosmetic skin condition that is very common, especially among women. The dimply skin condition generally affects certain areas of the abdomen, hips, legs, and buttocks. Many women complain of cellulite on the backs of the thighs. 

Even though almost all women will get cellulite somewhere on their bodies, women are often embarrassed by the texture and try to get rid of cellulite or reduce its appearance. So why are we embarrassed if almost everyone has it? One theory is that media images deceive the public about how common this condition really is, which leads many to feel bad about it. 

Appearance

Most women know what cellulite looks like on the outside. The condition is often compared to the peel of an orange because cellulite has the same bumpy or dimpled appearance. The dimples may be small and scattered, or you may notice a larger indentation on the buttocks or back of the thighs.

So what does cellulite look like on the inside? You might imagine cellulite as a bunch of tiny fat-filled balloons caught between layers of tissue that are connected by large rubber bands.

Underneath the top layers of your skin (the epidermis and dermis), fat cells store excess energy. Small bands of connective tissue run vertically between these fat cells and connect the top layers of skin to deeper tissue in your body. The bands create chambers or mini pockets where normal-sized fat cells have plenty of room to reside.

But when fat cells expand, the chambers get more crowded and begin to bulge, creating a small bump on the top of the skin. The bands, however, remain tethered to deeper tissue and this creates a "valley" appearance on the top of the skin. The combination of bulges and valleys on the top of the skin creates dimpling that we call cellulite.

In some clinical settings, the look of your cellulite may be graded. There are three grades of cellulite appearance:

  • Grade 1: You have smooth skin while laying down and standing up.
  • Grade 2: You have smooth skin while laying down, but some dimpling appears while standing.
  • Grade 3: Dimpling appears while you are standing and laying down

Causes

So why do we get "cottage cheese" or "orange peel" thighs? There is no single answer. The possible causes of cellulite include hormonal changes, genetics, weight gain or weight loss, a poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle, and smoking. Some even say that tight clothing and frequent sitting can cause cellulite.

But most active healthy women will report that even with a good diet and exercise program, cellulite can occur. The way fat is distributed on your body may predispose you to cellulite and your genes may cause dimply thighs as well. Since so many different factors can cause cellulite, almost all women will get it at some point on some part of their body.

Who Is Likely to Get It?

By most estimates, 80% to 90% of women will get cellulite at some point after puberty. The condition gets more common as we get older. As women age, the skin gets thinner and looser, so cellulite is more likely to show. Cellulite is also more likely to show on lighter-skinned women.

Men can get cellulite as well, but it is less common. Researchers think men have a slightly different structure underneath their skin that prevents cellulite from occurring. But some men still get the dimply-skin condition.

Prevention

An active lifestyle and a healthy diet may help you to minimize the appearance of cellulite, but it may not prevent cellulite completely. Additionally, if you maintain a healthy body weight, you may be able to minimize the severity of dimpling that shows up on your thighs or abdomen. Muscle toning exercises for the thighs and belly may also help to shape the areas where cellulite appears, making it less noticeable.

If you are overweight, losing weight may help, but not always. In some people, weight loss helps to prevent or minimize the appearance of cellulite. But in others, losing weight can actually cause the condition to become more noticeable. Loose skin, which often happens after significant weight loss, can make cellulite more noticeable.

Of course, fear of cellulite shouldn't factor into your decision to achieve a healthy weight. Not everyone who loses weight will end up with cellulite. But if you have cellulite before you lose weight, there is no guarantee that weight loss will make it disappear.

There are a few things, however, that may help prevent cellulite. Taking care of your skin is helpful to reduce the appearance of cellulite. Most experts also recommend that you quit smoking, eat nutrient-dense foods, and use sunscreen properly to help keep skin smoother, tighter, and more elastic. Tighter skin can help to reduce the appearance of cellulite.

Can You Get Rid of Cellulite?

Unfortunately, there is no way to permanently remove all of the cellulite on the backs of your thighs, abdomen, or butt. There are ways to make it less noticeable, and there are ways to get reduce severity, but there is no "cure" for cellulite. 

If you visit a medispa, a doctor’s office, or salon and they tell you that they can completely remove cellulite, this may be a good reason to move on, as you’re likely to be disappointed with the result. Even if you get a good result from a treatment, it doesn’t stop the natural processes that cause cellulite in the first place, meaning new cellulite can still develop.

“Cellulite treatments don’t stop the aging process,” says Amanda Sanzone, a licensed medical aesthetician who administers cellulite treatments in New York City alongside Dr. Matthew Schulman, a board-certified plastic surgeon. She says that their office is very careful to counsel patients about what to expect. Many providers will generally patients to expect a 40% to 50% improvement in cellulite with the treatments that they offer, though results will depend on the person's commitment to healthy eating, exercise, and a healthy lifestyle. 

Dr. Z. Paul Lorenc, a New York City board-certified plastic surgeon who provides several different treatments for cellulite, shares that sentiment. He says that he considers it his job to help his patients develop realistic expectations and balance some of the misinformation on the internet. "There is no perfect treatment for cellulite,” he says. “If there was, all of the other treatments would go away.” Dr. Lorenc goes as afar as to turn patients away if he doesn’t feel he can give them a good result.

But he says that some of the current cellulite removal procedures can provide a benefit if they are used as part of a complete program of healthy living. “There is a positive psychological component to these procedures and we see it on our patients' bodies and on their faces,” he says. 

Other physicians point out the skin tightening and cellulite treatments can even boost your weight loss program by improving your self-confidence and motivation.

Treatments

So how do you find the best cellulite treatment for you? Unfortunately, very few cellulite treatments work as well as you want them to. While certain medical treatments have been FDA-approved to address the appearance of cellulite, most of them are not permanent solutions. Doctors will also often advise against liposuction, as it can involve serious medical risks and complications.

Dermatologists and plastic surgeons who do treat the skin condition say that it is important to have reasonable expectations when you investigate different cellulite treatments. 

  • Creams: While they are not likely to get rid of cellulite, creams containing certain ingredients may help to reduce the appearance of cellulite. Specifically, creams containing caffeine can help to dehydrate fat cells, while creams containing retinol may thicken the skin, making cellulite less obvious.
  • Cryolipolysis: Cryolipolysis, commonly known as CoolSculpting, is an FDA-cleared procedure that can diminish the appearance of cellulite by freezing fat cells underneath the skin. While it's non-invasive, it can take several months and repeat treatments in order to see results.
  • Acoustic wave therapy: This non-invasive technique uses shock wave energy to improve circulation and skin elasticity.
  • Laser treatments: This minimally-invasive technique utilizes laser or light-based devices to tighten the skin. Your doctor will numb the skin and then insert this device underneath it, working to disconnect the tight fibers that create a dimpled appearance, while also melting bulging fat.
  • Subcision: This procedure, commonly known as Cellfina, involves inserting a needle just under the skin to break up the tough bands that form the appearance of cellulite. Results are usually temporary, lasting about two years.
  • Vacuum-assisted precise tissue release: Similar to subcision, this method also breaks up the tough bands that create the appearance of cellulite. This procedure involves your doctor using a device with small blades to cut through these bands, moving the tissue upward to get rid of the dimpled skin.
  • Carboxytherapy: This treatment involves injecting carbon dioxide gas beneath the skin to minimize the appearance of cellulite.
  • Ultrasonic liposculpting: This technique uses ultrasound to target and destroy fat to reduce evidence of cellulite.
  • Microdermabrasion: This exfoliating procedure, usually performed by a dermatologist, is primarily used to even out skin tone. In doing so, it may also help to conceal cellulite.
  • Endermologie: Commonly referred to as lipomassage, this deep massage treatment is performed at a spa, using a vacuum-like tool to lift up your skin. Researchers say it can take several treatments to see results, which are usually temporary.

Various home remedies have also been thought to help reduce the appearance of cellulite, such as exfoliating your skin with a loofah sponge or body brush, or even using coffee grounds in lieu of a body scrub, but scientific evidence is lacking.

A Word From Verywell

While many of the treatments mentioned can help to minimize the appearance of cellulite, it's important to keep in mind that none of them are proven to get rid of cellulite for good. Ultimately, the best treatment may be a sense of humor and a healthy dose of self-acceptance. 

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Article Sources
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