What is it and what can be done about it?

Once again we are in the glory of the hot and bountiful days of summer. The sun is bright, the temperatures high and that means wearing less clothing to keep ourselves cool. But, if you are one of the 85 percent of women who have cellulite, then it is a bittersweet time of year.

Cellulite is that dimpling of the skin that appears on women’s thighs, buttocks, upper arms and sometimes lower abdomen. Rarely is it present on males. It is so unsightly that women try many methods to get rid of it. But, do they really work?

What it is

The human skin is composed of several layers. The epidermis is the outside layer that we see. The dermis is the layer directly underneath the outside layer and is comprised of connective tissue, hair follicles and sweat glands, among other things. Under the dermis are two layers of subcutaneous fat.

Cellulite is actually small herniations of fat from the subcutaneous levels up through the dermis. It is more prevalent in women because in their skin the fat cell chambers of the subcutaneous levels are vertical, whereas in men they crisscross. So in women, there is more structural opportunity for the fat to push up and out and dimple. In men, the crisscross structure of the cell walls blocks this from happening.

The connective tissue of the dermis is primarily comprised of collagen. One prominent theory suggests that cellulite is the result of a weakening in the connective tissue bands. This weakening is what causes the fat to push up in between some areas of the skin and not in others, resulting in that bumpy, lumpy look that cellulite has.

Cellulite is present in women of all races, but seems to be more dominant in Caucasian women. It doesn’t matter what size you are – it is present in slender women as well as heavier women. It seems to get worse with age because as we get older the connective tissue becomes less thick (which means it weakens) and we tend to have more adipose (fat), which means there is more fat to push up against weakened connective tissue. 

It doesn’t help that we are overeating and are more sedentary then ever before and by having more fat, there is more chance of that fat pushing up into the dermis and onto loose connective tissue.

Bad news: There appears to be a genetic link to cellulite, so if your mother had it your chances are higher that you will, too. Smoking is also linked with higher incidence of cellulite because smoking weakens the formation of collagen which is the main component of connective tissue.

What can be done about it?

There are multiple proposed methods for the banishment of cellulite. Most of these methods are ineffective, but there are two that hold promise.

The topical creams are comprised mostly of retinoids, an example of which is Vitamin A. Retinoids have been found to increase the denseness of the epidermis. 

Methylxanthines are another type of substance found in cellulite creams. An example of an methylxanthine is caffeine, which is believed to minimize cellulite by acting as an agent of fat lipolysis. In other words, the methylzanthines function to help burn body fat.

The problem with the creams is that the ingredients must get through the epidermis and dermis layers in order to reach the subcutaneous fat layers. General creams cannot do this. The addition of a process called Iontophoresis, which uses electrical currents to help drive the creams deeper into the skin, is being used. However, to date, this is still a questionable technique.

Endermologie is a European technique involving suction massage delivered by an electric roller device. The treatments last 10-45 minutes and are somewhat painful due to the friction of the rollers on the skin. To date, this procedure has not been found to successfully reduce cellulite, although it has shown to create changes in the dermis.

Thermotherapy involves using high heat to enhance blood flow in order to clear fat, but no evidence is available to support that this process successfully reduces cellulite.

Subcision involves needling into the dermis. The needle is supposed to alter the connective tissue in order to reduce the appearance of the cellulite bumps. This process is painful and can cause excessive bruising, and hasn’t been shown to be effective.

Liposuction, believe it or not, has sometimes been shown to enhance the appearance of cellulite, but it also sometimes worsens it. For this reason, it is not recommended.

There are two methods that show promise in the reduction of cellulite. Laser is a .3-100 MHz high-frequency electric current that produces a heat effect on the targeted tissue. It is showing promise as a method of stimulating the weakened connective tissue to get tighter and firmer, thereby reducing the bumpy effect on the outside layer of skin. There are minimal side effects as a bonus!

A newer method involving laser treatment is also showing promise with minimal side effects and minimal invasiveness during treatments. 

The second method for the treatment of cellulite is the good old-fashioned way of following a reduced-calorie diet and adding both cardiovascular and strength training workouts to your weekly regime. Visible cellulite is dramatically reduced in women who lose weight. And adding muscle, which is underneath the subcutaneous fat of the skin, allows for a firmer base upon which the fat is supported. The firmer base reduces the amount of bumpiness that is the tell-tale characteristic of cellulite.

It isn’t really fun to wear summer clothes when you are self-conscious of ripply fat. Eating right and exercising is one of the most effective ways to reduce the appearance of cellulite. As for lotions, potions, injectables and herbals? Don’t waste your time or money.

Judy Torel is a USAT coach, personal trainer, nutrition consultant and psychotherapist. Her office is located in Planet Fitness, Loudonville. She can be reached at 469.0815 or



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