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Cellulite

Overview

Cellulite is a term for lumpy, dimpled flesh on the thighs, hips, buttocks and abdomen. It's most common in adolescent and adult women. Although not a serious medical condition, your cellulite might embarrass you.

Many cellulite treatments, including massages or cellulite creams, advertise remarkable results. Most of these treatments don't live up to their claims. Researchers are studying possible medical treatments. In the meantime, you can take steps to slightly improve the appearance of cellulite.

Anatomy of cellulite

As fat cells enlarge, they push up against the skin. Tough, long connective cords pull down. This creates an uneven surface or dimpling, often referred to as cellulite.

Symptoms

Cellulite looks like dimpled or bumpy skin. It's sometimes described as having a cottage cheese or orange peel texture.

You can see mild cellulite only if you pinch your skin in an area where you have cellulite, such as your thighs. More-severe cellulite makes the skin appear rumpled and bumpy with areas of peaks and valleys.

Cellulite is most common around the thighs and buttocks, but it can be found on the breasts, lower abdomen and upper arms as well.

When to see a doctor

Cellulite isn't a serious medical condition, and treatment isn't necessary. In fact, many doctors consider cellulite a normal occurrence. If you're concerned about the appearance of your skin, see your doctor, dermatologist or plastic surgeon.

Causes

Little is known about what causes cellulite. It involves fibrous connective cords that tether the skin to the underlying muscle, with the fat lying between. As fat cells accumulate, they push up against the skin, while the long, tough cords pull down. This creates an uneven surface or dimpling.

Risk factors

Cellulite is much more common in women than in men. In fact, most women develop some cellulite after puberty. This is because women's fat is typically distributed in the thighs, hips and buttocks — common areas for cellulite. Cellulite is also more common with aging, when the skin loses elasticity.

Weight gain can make cellulite more noticeable, but some lean people have cellulite, as well. It tends to run in families, so genetics might play the biggest role in whether you develop cellulite. An inactive lifestyle also can increase your chances of having cellulite, as can pregnancy.

Treatment

No single treatment for cellulite is entirely effective. The following treatments might improve the appearance of cellulite, at least temporarily:

Weight loss

If you're overweight or obese, weight loss — through healthy eating and regular exercise — might improve the appearance of the dimpled skin. Weight loss and exercise won't make it go away completely.

Lasers and radiofrequency systems

Perhaps the most promising medical therapy is one that uses lasers and radiofrequency systems. One system combines tissue massage, radiofrequency technology and infrared light to treat cellulite. Another system delivers combined tissue massage with diode laser energy. A third system uses radiofrequency at deep and superficial levels simultaneously to treat cellulite.

All three systems offer improvements to cellulite after a series of treatments. Results can last up to six months.

Liposuction

Some people turn to liposuction as a treatment for cellulite. During liposuction, a surgeon inserts a narrow tube under your skin through tiny incisions and suctions out fat cells.

Though liposuction can shape the body, it won't remove cellulite, and it might worsen the appearance of cellulite. Laser-assisted liposuction — a newer, less invasive form of this treatment that destroys fat cells while tightening the skin — might be more effective for cellulite. More study is needed.

Topical treatment

A twice-daily application of 0.3 percent retinol cream has been shown to improve the appearance of cellulite after six months.

Cryolipolysis

This noninvasive procedure approved by the Food and Drug Administration shows promise in improving the appearance of cellulite. It removes abdominal fat and fat along the sides of the body by freezing the lipids in fat cells.

It can take three treatments to dissolve an inch of fat and three or four months to see improvement.

Ultrasound

This noninvasive procedure uses sound waves to reduce targeted fat in the abdomen and thighs. Results take two or three months, and include an improvement in the appearance of cellulite.

Alternative medicine

Many devices, products and creams claim to treat cellulite, but with little or no scientific evidence to support these claims. If you do find a cellulite treatment that improves your skin, the results aren't likely to last.

The following are a few of the many advertised cellulite treatments. Keep in mind that these treatments haven't been proved effective in removing cellulite.

  • Vigorous massage. Some cellulite treatments are based on the concept that vigorous massage will increase blood flow, remove toxins and reduce excess fluid in cellulite-prone areas. One method in particular, Endermologie (also referred to as Lipomassage), uses a hand-held machine to knead the skin between rollers. You might notice a slight improvement to your skin, but the results are typically short-lived.
  • Mesotherapy. This procedure involves injecting a solution — which might contain aminophylline, hormones, enzymes, herbal extracts, vitamins and minerals — under the skin. This treatment can cause several unwanted effects, including infection, rashes, and bumpy or uneven skin contours.
  • Cellulite creams. Creams that contain a variety of ingredients, such as vitamins, minerals, herbal extracts and antioxidants, are often marketed as the cure for cellulite. But no studies show that these creams alone offer improvement. Some of these products contain ingredients that can cause skin reactions or rashes.

Preparing for an appointment

Preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time with your doctor. For cellulite, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:

  • What is the best course of action?
  • What are my treatment options and the pros and cons for each?
  • What will the treatments cost?
  • What results can I expect?
  • What kind of follow-up, if any, will I have?

Last updated: November 8th, 2016

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