Cellulite is not a medical disease but a harmless
condition where fat underneath the skin gives it a dimpled,
bumpy, or “orange peel” appearance.
For many people, the idea of being able to reduce cellulite with an over-the-counter cream is an
attractive one. A large industry has built up to market and
sell such creams and lotions as a result.
These creams are typically applied to affected areas of skin.
Manufacturers claim that they can help reduce the bumpy
appearance of cellulite. But are they worth the expense?
What is cellulite?
Fat deposits pushing through the skin gives cellulite its
The lumpy appearance results from fat deposits pushing through
the connective tissues beneath the skin. Cellulite usually
affects the buttocks, thighs, hips, and waist.
It is significantly more common in women than men due to gender
differences in the structure of these fibrous tissues. Indeed,
it is estimated that between 85 and 90 percent of women over the age of
20 have some cellulite.
Cellulite is classed as either mild, moderate, or severe based
on the amount of skin dimpling and sagging.
Causes and risk factors
It is unclear why some people develop cellulite and others do
not. The following risk factors are thought to play a role:
Genetics: Certain genes linked with metabolism,
circulation, fat distribution, and hormone levels may make
people more likely to develop cellulite.
Age: The skin loses some of its elasticity and flexibility
as it ages, which can worsen the appearance of skin dimples and
Hormones: The release and balance of hormones such as
estrogen, insulin, thyroid hormones, prolactin, and
norepinephrine may play an important role in cellulite
Diet: An unbalanced diet that is high in fat and low in
fiber may worsen the appearance of cellulite by adding to the
fatty deposits beneath the skin.
Lifestyle: Lack of exercise and weight gain may add to the
worsening appearance of cellulite. However, cellulite can
develop in people who get plenty of exercise who are of normal
weight. Other lifestyle factors such as inadequate fluid
intake, smoking, and high stress levels may also aid the development of
Do anticellulite creams work?
Skin creams and lotions are among the most commonly used
methods to help reduce the appearance of cellulite. The
presumed effect of these creams is through the active
ingredients, which often include:
Methylxanthines – the most common type of these chemicals
used in cellulite creams are caffeine, aminophylline, and
theophylline. Caffeine is thought to increase fat metabolism.
Aminophylline and theophylline are muscle relaxants that may
help promote smoother skin and break down fatty deposits.
Retinol – a vitamin A derivative that may improve blood flow
to the skin and improve skin thickness and strength.
Botanical derivatives – such as Gingko biloba,
Centella asiatica, and horse chestnut. The potential
aims of including these in cellulite creams are to slow the
formation of fat, help to break down fat, and reduce inflammation.
A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical
Dermatology reviewed the evidence on the effectiveness
of various treatment options for reducing cellulite.
There is little evidence that topical treatments have a
positive effect on the appearance of cellulite.
They identified a total of 17 studies, involving more than 600
participants, which published results on the treatment of
cellulite with creams and lotions.
Around half the studies looked at complex mixtures combining
caffeine and retinol with other ingredients. Two studies tested
the effects of caffeine alone, and two assessed retinol alone.
Of the four studies that tested a single active ingredient,
only one showed that treatment with a cream was more promising
at reducing cellulite than treatment with a placebo or dummy cream.
Of the 14 studies that tested complex mixtures, only five
showed an improvement in cellulite after treatment with the
Overall, the team concludes that “there is little evidence that
topical [skin cream] treatments have a potential positive
effect on the appearance of cellulite.”
Other potential treatments for cellulite
There are many other treatments available for cellulite. A few
examples are below.
Massage therapy for cellulite usually involves machines that
use either rolling cylinders, suction devices, or other
apparatus to manipulate the skin, pulling and squeezing
affected areas. A number of massage sessions, lasting up to 45
minutes each, are usually needed to show any notable effects of
areas of cellulite.
Any decrease in the appearance of dimply skin is likely to be
short-lived, needing further sessions to maintain the effect.
The effects of this treatment are likely due to the
redistribution of fat under the skin, rather than any lasting
reduction in cellulite.
Mesotherapy involves injecting a mix of enzymes, amino acids,
and vitamins under the skin to help break down fat. This may
result in a slight improvement in the appearance of cellulite.
Multiple injections are needed over time. The procedure may
also have side effects such as swelling, and carries a risk of
Laser or light treatment
There are different types of laser and light treatments for
cellulite. They are sometimes combined with suction and skin
manipulation, or massage. In general, they all aim to achieve a
reduction in cellulite by melting fat and breaking down tissues
under the skin.
Although this treatment has shown some success, multiple costly
sessions are needed. Results only last for a few months before
further sessions are needed.
A relatively new treatment for cellulite involves the injection
of collagenase. This natural enzyme breaks down collagen. Early trials of the treatment have
proved promising, but further research is needed to determine
whether it is an effective and safe treatment.
Grape seed extract is one of the ingredients in supplements
available for treatment of cellulite.
These supplements contain various ingredients, such as:
Grape seed extract
Extract of focus
However, there is no evidence to support the use of such
supplements for the reduction of cellulite. Some may even
interfere with the action of prescription medications.
Acoustic wave therapy
This form of therapy involves targeting cellulite with sound
waves from a hand-held device. Its aim is to improve blood
flow, skin stretchiness, collagen production, and reduce fatty
deposits under the skin.
There is some evidence to suggest that acoustic wave therapy
may be effective at reducing cellulite, but further studies are
needed to confirm any benefits.
Liposuction involves removing body fat by suction through small
tubes inserted into the skin. It is not recommended as a
treatment for cellulite and may make the appearance of dimples
The best ways of preventing cellulite are avoiding gaining
weight, maintaining a healthy diet, and exercising regularly.
These would also appear to be the best ways to reduce the
appearance of cellulite through weight loss. It may take some
time before the effects become noticeable, however.
Although there appears to be little evidence to back up claims
made by some manufacturers of anticellulite creams, they may
work for some people. This may be the case when combined with a
healthy lifestyle and weight loss.
People should also be cautious about surgical treatments,
dietary supplements, or other complex methods claiming to
reduce cellulite that are not backed-up by scientific evidence.
People should consult with their doctors about what might work
best for them.
Written by Mark Cowen