What Causes Cellulite and Can It Go Away?

what causes cellulite

Story at-a-glance -

  • Cellulite, or the orange-peel dimpled skin on the surface of legs, buttocks and arms, affects nearly 90 percent of all women and 10 percent of men during their lifetime
  • Risk factors include a reduction of estrogen during menopause, hyperinsulinemia, prolonged sitting and an inactive lifestyle
  • Strategies to reduce the appearance, help prevent the development or halt the progression of cellulite include natural options, exercise, dietary changes and medical intervention

By Dr. Mercola

Cellulite is a normal occurrence, affecting almost 90 percent of women and 10 percent of men during their lifetime. On the surface, cellulite appears as lumpy or dimpled skin. However, the process of developing cellulite is more than skin deep.

The puckering of skin happens when the layer of fat beneath the skin pushes against connective tissue and bulges, causing the characteristic orange-peel or cottage cheese appearance. For women, the risk of developing cellulite increases with age and peaks near menopause.

Hormonal changes, specifically a decline in estrogen levels, may contribute to changes in circulation and a reduction in the production of collagen.1,2 A combination of fat cells becoming larger or increasing in number, a thinner collagen layer and change in blood supply may lead to cellulite.

Technically, cellulite is not dangerous or even a nuisance, but it can be cosmetically unappealing to some people. The beauty industry subsequently has produced hundreds of different creams, lotions, potions and "cures" to reduce the appearance of cellulite.

Risk Factors That Increase Potential for Cellulite Development

The medical term for cellulite is gynoid lipodystrophy.3 The visible changes resulting in cellulite occur when there is a change in fat distribution or metabolism resulting in a change in structure of fat cells and connective tissue.4

The exact etiology and pathophysiology are difficult to pinpoint to one causative factor as there are many processes that take place sequentially and simultaneously, affecting the development of the condition.

Structural changes may be prompted by hormonal imbalances. Reduction in estrogen during menopause significantly increases your potential to develop cellulite.5

Other risk factors include high levels of insulin and catecholamines, both integral in the breakdown and storage of fat molecules.6

High levels of carbohydrates in the diet increase the risk of hyperinsulinemia, which supports lipogenesis, or the formation of fat cells and growth of current cells.7 Other hormones that may play a role are noradrenaline, thyroid hormone and prolactin.8

Women have a higher risk of developing cellulite as there is a significant difference in the way their connective tissue and fat cells are arranged compared to men.9 Fat cells in women tend to be arranged vertically under the skin.

As they grow, the tops bulge and poke through the tissue layer. Fat cells in men are typically arranged horizontally and lay flat against each other.

Prolonged sitting and an inactive lifestyle may change circulatory patterns and increase the risk of developing cellulite. Some researchers have also linked chronic inflammatory changes to an increased risk, finding macrophages and lymphocytes in cellulite tissue.10

Smokers also have a higher risk of developing cellulite, as do those who stand in one place for long periods of time.11 The best time to start making smart decisions is before cellulite begins to appear. There are four stages of development which may begin in women as early as age 16.

  • Grade 0: No cellulite present
  • Grade 1: Smooth skin while standing, bumps and dimples appear while sitting.
  • Grade 2: Orange peel or cottage cheese appearance sitting or standing.
  • Grade 3: Orange peel appearance present while sitting or standing with deep raised and depressed areas.

Natural Remedies for Cellulite

Unfortunately, at this time, researchers and doctors have not identified a cure for cellulite, or a treatment that may permanently reverse the effects.

However, there are strategies you may use to temporarily reduce the appearance of cellulite, as demonstrated in the video above, or which may halt the progression of the process.12,13,14,15

Dry Skin Brushing

Although there are benefits to using dry skin brushing for aesthetic reasons, the technique also offers whole body benefits. Your skin is the largest organ in your body.

Dry skin brushing may help to soften hard fat deposits below the skin while distributing fat deposits more evenly. This may help to diminish the appearance of cellulite.

The technique also stimulates the lymphatic system, exfoliates the skin, increases circulation, improves digestion and may help relieve stress. Read my previous article, "Dry Skin Brushing: Benefits and How To" for instructions on how to use this effectively.

Myofascial Release

This is a simple and effective technique used to release tissue restrictions in the connective tissue beneath the skin, caused by trauma, inflammation or surgical procedures.

A low-load, gentle pressure applied slowly over an area helps to elongate the fascia and connective tissue.16

If getting a weekly massage is not in your budget, you may want to try using a foam roller. This may accomplish both myofascial release and deep tissue massage, reducing muscle immobility and pain. They are inexpensive and often recommended by physical therapists to achieve results at home.

However, certain mistakes may reduce your results or cause further injury, which I describe in "5 Foam Rolling Mistakes to Avoid."

Coffee Scrub or Wrap

As demonstrated in the video above, coffee may help to plump the surrounding tissue and temporarily reduce the appearance of cellulite. Caffeine also stimulates blood and lymphatic flow to an area, may be used to exfoliate and may help tighten the skin.

Scrubs may be made with coconut oil and finely ground coffee beans as a facial mask to tighten and brighten your skin. The effects may last for several hours.

Coffee is a rich source of antioxidants,17,18 which some believe can penetrate the skin and increase your natural production of collagen and elastin, thus reducing the appearance of cellulite.

Naturally Moisturize

There are no strong research studies, as yet, that have linked exposure to toxins with the development of cellulite. However, reducing your overall load of toxic chemicals may help your body function far more optimally.

Use a natural moisturizer, such as coconut oil to avoid perfumes and other chemicals that can absorb into your skin.

Balance Your Hormones

Researchers theorize hormone imbalances or shortages may increase your risk of developing cellulite, thus an increase of women who develop it during menopause.

Hormones control the structure and function of much of your body, so paying attention to your diet, exercise, chemical exposure, sleep and net carbohydrates may affect your hormonal balance, and thus the progression of cellulite.19

Consume Gelatin

Gelatin is composed of amino acids found mostly in bone and connective tissue. There are multiple benefits, from improving your hair and nails, to helping joint recovery and improving digestion.

I recommend using bone broth to consume gelatin, and not a processed variety you might find at the store. In my previous article, "Bone Broth — One of Your Most Healing Diet Staples" is an excellent recipe and list of some of the benefits you'll likely experience when adding this to your diet.

Stop Smoking

Smoking reduces blood flow and the production of quality collagen. Collagen and elastin help reduce the appearance and progression of cellulite. Smoking also triggers premature wrinkles and increases the risk of dry, discolored skin.

Quitting is challenging and often requires a support system. It's never too late to benefit from stopping smoking. I believe the "secret" is to get healthy first, which will make quitting easier.

Begin by implementing the strategies outlined in "Smoking Is a Major Factor in Alzheimer's Disease." Exercise is particularly important here.

Research shows that people who engage in regular exercise (specifically, strength training) are TWICE as likely to succeed in quitting smoking as those who don't exercise.20

Studies also show that two-thirds to three-quarters of ex-smokers stop unaided, 21 so if you're thinking of quitting, try going cold turkey.

However you choose to go about it, I strongly advise against using "anti-smoking" drugs like Chantix, which have potentially serious side effects, including depression, suicidal behavior and a multitude of other problems.

Proper nutrition, regular exercise, sound sleep and good stress management are far better ways of approaching smoking cessation. Emotional Freedom Techniques may also be a powerful tool for keeping tobacco cravings to a minimum.

Grapefruit Essential Oil

One of the most recognized benefits of grapefruit essential oil and other citrus oils is their positive effect on the lymphatic system. Using grapefruit oil may help boost the activity of lymph glands, thereby preventing problems like poor circulation and cellulite.22

Mix one to two drops of grapefruit essential oil with carrier oil and massage into cellulite in a kneading pattern.

Dietary Changes

High levels of insulin increase the amount of fat your body produces.23 Cellulite results from an increasing size and number of fat cells, and your body increases the amount of insulin produced as your intake of net carbs (think sugars) increases. One of the more powerful ways you may help maintain your body weight, reduce your risk of cellulite and reduce your potential risk of diabetes is to eat a diet low in net carbohydrates and high in healthy fats.

Weight loss has been associated with both the reduction in appearance of cellulite, and in making the condition worse. In one study, researchers found many of their participants exhibited improvement of cellulite appearance with weight loss when significant reduction in weight and fat over the thigh muscles was experienced.24

The appearance of cellulite worsened when the participants started with smaller body mass index and experienced a smaller reduction in weight without accompanying change in the percentage of fat over thigh muscles. Eating a healthy, vitamin-rich diet may also help reduce the development of cellulite or halt progression.25

Vitamin C, a water-soluble vitamin found in citrus fruits, broccoli, strawberries and spinach, protects your body from free radicals and reactive oxygen species produced during metabolism.26 Vitamin C is also related to your ability to burn fat.27 Eating foods rich in calcium, zinc, potassium and selenium may also help your body burn fat more efficiently.28

Catechins found in green tea have received media attention, as they are believed to increase your body's ability to burn fat and potentially lose weight.29 Antioxidants found in green tea may also slow mental decline, reduce inflammation and improve heart health.30 The combination of a reduction in inflammation and assistance in fat burning and weight loss may help reduce the appearance of cellulite.

Professional Treatments May Reduce Appearance of Cellulite

In this video, Dr. Oz explains how cellulite may develop and why creams, lotions and potions will not erase the effects of fat cell growth. However, while these will not prevent or cure the condition, there are some professional treatments that may temporarily reduce the visible appearance of cellulite.

Creams and Lotions

The active ingredient in the creams and lotions sold over-the-counter is usually caffeine. You'll get the same benefits using the coffee scrub described above, without the additional chemicals and perfumes in a manufactured product.

Acoustic Wave Therapy

This sends low-energy shock waves through tissue that reportedly reduces fluid retention and breaks down fat molecules. Study results are mixed as to whether there is any short-term benefit to this method.31,32

Laser or Light Therapy

This may be used on the outside of the skin or in an invasive procedure, directly under the skin. Thus far, research on the non-invasive procedure has not been positive.33 The more invasive procedure has demonstrated better results that may last up to six months.34,35

Radio Frequency Treatment

Heating the skin using electromagnetic radio waves reportedly increases collagen production and reduces the appearance of cellulite. However, studies have not yet shown conclusive evidence this treatment is effective.36

Mesotherapy

This controversial treatment involves the injection of off-label drugs (medications approved for other conditions but not this condition) directly into the tissue. It often requires 10 or more sessions. Many experts feel this treatment is not proven and may be risky.37

Subcision

This is a minor surgical procedure developed to reduce the appearance of scars and wrinkles by breaking fibrotic strands.38 It was approved in 2015 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treatment of cellulite with results lasting up to two years.39

Exercises That May Help Combat Cellulite

Exercise is a powerful way of preventing the development of cellulite and toning the muscles beneath fat deposits, which may reduce the orange-peel appearance of the skin. Exercise has many other health benefits that may reduce your risk of disease and help you to maintain a healthy weight. By tightening your thighs and glutes, you may help get rid of cellulite prone areas.

The following exercises were compiled by Skinny Mom and reported in The Huffington Post.40

1. Pile Squat

"Rather than standing with your feet hip-width apart and your toes forward, scoot your legs out a little wider and point each toe to the adjacent wall: left toes toward the left wall, right toes toward the right wall. Keep the same posture and technique as a regular squat.

But when you push back up to standing position, squeeze your inner thighs. Try to tuck your butt inwards and give a little pelvic thrust at the top to make sure you are targeting your inner thighs and outer thighs."

2. Squats With an Exercise Ball

"Stand with feet about shoulder-width and hold the ball overhead. Hinge the hips backward and down as the upper body drops with them. Bring the ball down and in front of you at shoulder level. Even though you're focusing on the ball in front of you, make sure the knees stay behind the toes and the chest is lifted. Exhale and push out of the squat to standing and lift the ball overhead again."

3. Bridge

"Lie down on your back with your arms comfortably at your sides and your feet tucked under your knees. Push through your heels and thrust your hips upward towards the ceiling. The upper part of your back and shoulder blades should be pressed into the mat or floor. Lower yourself back down and repeat the motion. For an extra degree of difficulty, do the lift on one leg!"

4. Mountain Climber

"Start in a standing position. Bend down while placing your hands on the ground and kick your legs out. You should be in a plank position now. Kick your right leg up as close to your right hand as you can; this should feel like a very deep lunge. Pull that leg back and repeat on the left side.

Then swing your right knee out to the side and tuck it on the outside of your shoulder … After each move has been done once on each side, jump or tuck your knees back in and stand up, returning to the start position."

5. Side Leg Lift With a Resistance Band

"Grab a resistance band and lay down on your right side with your legs straight. Wrap the band around your ankles. Lie on your right side with your legs straight, your left leg on top of your right. Use your right forearm as a kickstand, holding your upper body above the floor.

Keeping your legs straight, raise your right leg as high as you can. Focus on keeping your knee straight. Lower your leg back to the starting position. Lift as many times as you can on this side for 30 seconds. Switch to your left side and complete as many side leg raises with band as possible for 30 seconds."

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