If there’s one thing most women have to deal with at some point in their life, it’s the dreaded appearance of cellulite. Although men aren’t immune to dimply skin, cellulite affects almost 90% of women but less than 10% of men. Interestingly, cellulite tends to show up in the same places over and over, particularly around the buttocks and thighs but is relatively uncommon on the upper body. Why are these areas predisposed to cellulite?
First, let’s look at why men get cellulite less often than women. Cellulite is simply subcutaneous fat poking up through the deeper layers of your skin. As you may have noticed, this gives your buttocks and thighs an irregular, “cottage cheese” texture.
Cellulite is classified into four grades. Grade zero is no cellulite. Grade one cellulite is where you have to pinch the skin to see the lumps and dimples. With grade two cellulite, the lumpiness is visible when you’re standing without pinching the skin. Grade three is visible cellulite in any position, lying or standing.
It All Comes Down to the Dermis
Why are men less susceptible to “cottage cheese” thighs? Men have a thicker support structure in the deeper layer of the skin called the dermis. This support structure made out of collagen is not only thicker, but it’s structured differently. In women, the connective tissue is arranged more linearly, affording lots of opportunities for subcutaneous fat to poke through while men have a cross-linked collagen structure that better holds the fat in place. Plus, women have a higher body fat content than men, so there’s more fat to poke through the defect in the dermis.
Why Does Cellulite Affect Mostly Thighs and Buttocks?
According to Dr. Lionel Bissoon, osteopathic physician and author of The Cellulite Cure, women have triple layers of fat in these regions and around the triceps, another place where some women develop cellulite. Women also have more alpha receptors that promote fat storage, and fewer beta-receptors that initiate fat breakdown in their thighs. This causes women to store more fat in the lower body relative to men.
Some women notice cellulite becomes worse after menopause. Why might this be? As you approach menopause and estrogen levels drop, collagen synthesis slows down. Without a strong collagen support structure to brace the fat and hold it in, cellulite becomes more apparent. Some small studies suggest topical retinoids, including retinol in some creams and lotions used to treat acne and for wrinkle reduction, might improve cellulite since retinol stimulates collagen production. Plus, many women gain body fat after menopause, which further exacerbates the problem.
Does Poor Circulation Contribute to the Appearance of Cellulite?
Some evidence suggests that reduced circulation contributes to cellulite, partially by reducing lymphatic drainage. When fluids build up and aren’t removed by the lymphatic system, it makes cellulite more prominent. That’s one-way exercise helps with cellulite, it enhances circulation and lymphatic flow. As Dr. Bissoon points out in his book, women from cultures that are constantly moving and don’t sit during the day have less cellulite. He also believes that wearing tight underwear with elastic bands contribute to cellulite by reducing circulation and lymphatic drainage, although there’s little scientific evidence to confirm this. Still, it may be a factor.
What Effect Does Weight Loss Have on Cellulite?
Losing weight can make cellulite less noticeable because there’s less fat to poke through the dermal layer of the skin. On the other hand, losing weight doesn’t correct the structural defect in the dermis that causes cellulite in the first place. Contrary to popular belief, liposuction won’t help either. In fact, it can worsen the appearance of cellulite. Being lean is no guarantee of being cellulite-free. Thin women can develop cellulite too, although it’s less common in young, active women who are of normal body weight.
This brings up the topic of exercise. An active lifestyle is no assurance of staying cellulite-free since cellulite is a product of structural defects in the dermis of the skin, but a firm muscle underneath the skin and subcutaneous fat can greatly improve the appearance of cellulite. So, strength training should be part of any anti-cellulite program.
Are There Effective Treatments for Cellulite?
Although cellulite isn’t “curable,” it is treatable to some degree and the treatments are improving. One treatment called Cellulaze directs laser energy to the collagen structure in the dermis to “tighten” its structure. A small study showed Cellulaze improved the appearance of cellulite and the improvements were maintained for at least one year, the amount of follow-up time after the study.
Keep in mind that such treatments can be costly, so it’s best to do what you can naturally – strength train, lose weight, sit less, don’t wear tight underwear and clothing, use a retinol-based cream etc. before resorting to expensive procedures that are still relatively new and not well researched. Another suggestion: Cut back on salt and drink plenty of water to reduce fluid retention, which can aggravate cellulite.
What Doesn’t Work for Cellulite
You’ve probably seen ads for cellulite supplements and read that such and such herbal wrap or massage therapy helps cellulite. Massage may transiently improve the appearance of cellulite by improving circulation and lymphatic drainage, but it’s only a short-term improvement and there’s no evidence that herbal wraps and supplements work.
Caffeine creams were once popular for cellulite reduction. These creams contain methylxanthines that break down fat deposits. The problem is delivering enough methylxanthines into the deeper layers of the skin to have benefits. A few studies have shown minor improvements in cellulite after using these creams, but the effects are short-lived.
What about Diet?
While there’s no strong evidence that diet impacts cellulite, it makes sense to reduce the amount of sodium you take in and avoid processed and sugary foods. Fruits and vegetables are an excellent source of potassium, an electrolyte that helps reduce fluid retention.
The Bottom Line
Cellulite isn’t a disease and it’s nothing to be ashamed of, especially when almost all women have it. Control it by leading a healthy lifestyle and with the tips already mentioned, and then stop obsessing over it. Keep in mind that celebrities and even models have cellulite, although it’s airbrushed away in ads. Focus on resistance training. Toned, firm thighs and buttocks will make your cellulite appear far less noticeable.
Scientific American. ‘Is Cellulite Forever?”
Am J Clin Dermatol. 2000 Nov-Dec;1(6):369-74.
Cellulite: Everything You Want to Know and More. By Len Kravitz, Ph.D.
Aesthetic Surgery Journal(2011)31(3): 328-341.
Cellulite: A Review. Rossi AB and Vergnanini AL. (2000)
Related Articles By Cathe: