Myths and Facts About Cellulite

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Got cellulite? You’re not alone: The cosmetic condition affects nearly 90% of women at some point during their lives, even women who are otherwise slender and fit.

As common as cellulite is, there’s also an awful lot of misinformation out there about what it is, what causes it, and how to get rid of it. So before placing blame, scheduling a cosmetic procedure, or spending a fortune on over-the-counter products, read up on the real story behind cellulite.

Cellulite is caused by toxins in your body

Myth

Some over-the-counter cellulite products may claim to help remove impurities and toxins from the body. But neither their efficacy nor their claims about what causes cellulite are supported by science. Rather, cellulite occurs when underlying fat deposits begin to push through layers of collagen fibers, or connective tissue, under the skin (often in the buttocks and thigh areas, but also on arms, stomachs, and other common trouble spots, as well). Connective tissue can be weakened by hormones, lack of exercise and muscle tone, excess fat, and poor circulation, says New York City-based dermatologist Cheryl Karcher, MD. But the condition is not caused by “toxins.”

Women get more cellulite than men

Fact

Women tend to carry more fat around their hips and thighs. We also have less supportive connective tissue to keep it all in place. “If you think of a scaffolding outside a building that has those X crosses on them, that is sort of what men’s fat chambers have,” says David McDaniel, MD, director of the Institute for Anti-Aging and assistant professor of clinical dermatology at Eastern Virginia Medical School. It is estimated, however, that about 10% of men suffer from cellulite, as well.

Cellulite gets worse with age

Fact

Hormones also seem to play a role in the appearance of cellulite: As women age, their bodies produce less estrogen—a hormone that helps keep blood vessels flowing smoothly. Less estrogen can mean poorer circulation, which can also mean a decrease in new collagen production and the breakdown of older connective tissue.

Cellulite may be in your genes

Fact

It’s true that cellulite runs in families; if your mother and grandmother had cellulite, you have a better chance of also developing it. In fact, there’s even a genetic test on the market that can tell you whether you have a gene variant that puts you at higher risk for moderate to severe cellulite—but, considering that most women will develop cellulite in their lifetimes (and the fact that you’ll know it when you see it), it’s not exactly worth its hefty price tag. If you’re not one of the lucky ones with smooth-skinned relatives, take heart: Genetics is only one small part of the cellulite puzzle; factors like diet, exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight also play a role.

Cellulite only happens to out-of-shape people

Myth

Being overweight does make the appearance of cellulite more noticeable; the more fat you have underneath your skin, the more it’s likely to put stress on your connective tissue and bulge out of its weak spots. But cellulite also happens to women of all shapes and sizes, says Shira Ein-Dor, owner of the American Cellulite Reduction Center in New York City. “I even treat Victoria’s Secret models,” she says. “They’re very lean, they work out and eat well, they do everything right but they still have cellulite.”

Exercise can reduce the appearance of cellulite

Fact

A regular exercise practice cannot cure cellulite—but in many cases it can help prevent or reduce its appearance. Cellulite occurs when connective fibers underneath the skin become weak or lose their elasticity, but stretching and strengthening those areas (in addition to burning away excess fat overall) can help. “Firming and toning those muscles will in turn tighten the skin, giving the illusion that cellulite is less noticeable,” says Dr. McDaniel. Yoga routines that target the butt and thighs can help, as well as strength-training moves that build muscle and boost circulation.

Skin-firming creams can cure cellulite

Myth

Despite what you might read on their labels, no topical creams—prescription or over-the-counter—have been shown to permanently reduce the appearance of cellulite. Studies have found, however, that products containing retinoids (labeled as retinol over-the-counter) may provide some temporary effects by creating a thicker skin cover that can help camouflage bumps. There is limited evidence that creams or scrubs with stimulant ingredients, like caffeine, ginger, and green or black tea, may also help by improving circulation and breaking down fat-cell stores, but they are less proven. “Mostly I think if these topical creams work—and I think most probably do little or nothing—they are more likely to help with slimming and body contouring, which is not the same as cellulite,” says Dr. McDaniel.

Non-invasive procedures for cellulite really do work

Fact

Laser, radio-frequency, and massage techniques have been used for several years to reduce the appearance of cellulite—and while their results are not permanent, they are effective in the short-term, says Dr. Karcher. “These are going to work better than some drug-store cream, and they can be worth it if you have the time and the money to spend on them.” Some (like TriActiv and VelaSmooth laser treatments) require 10 to 15 sessions to significantly improve appearance, and require monthly maintenance appointments. Others (like the radio-frequency treatment Thermage CL) are more expensive but results seem to last six months to a year.

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