Cellulite is a cosmetic condition that makes your skin appear bumpy and dimpled. It is very common and affects up to 98% of women (1).
While cellulite is not a threat to your physical health, it's often seen as unsightly and undesirable. This can make it a source of stress and anxiety for those who have it.
This article explores the causes of cellulite, whether your diet plays a role and what you can do to get rid of it.
Cellulite, or gynoid lipodystrophy, is a condition in which the skin appears dimpled, bumpy and "orange peel-like." It's caused by changes in the structure of the fat cells and connective tissues that lie underneath your skin's surface (2, 3).
These changes can cause your fat cells to become very large and push outwards into the connective tissue under your skin.
Additionally, changes in the blood supply to cellulite-affected areas may result in extra fluid collecting in the tissue.
This gives your skin the bumpy appearance that is associated with cellulite.
Interestingly, cellulite is seen almost exclusively in women and most commonly develops in the thighs, belly and buttocks.
It's often categorized based on its severity:
- Grade 0: No cellulite.
- Grade 1: Smooth skin when standing, but orange-peel appearance when sitting.
- Grade 2: Skin has orange-peel appearance when standing and sitting.
- Grade 3: Skin has orange-peel appearance when standing with deep raised and depressed areas.
However, there is currently no standard method for evaluating and categorizing this condition.
Summary: Cellulite is a condition in which your skin becomes dimpled and bumpy. It most commonly affects women, especially around the tummy, thighs and butt.
The reason people develop cellulite is still not fully understood, but it's most likely triggered by a combination of factors.
The most common theories involve hormones, gender, lifestyle and inflammation. However, age, genetic susceptibility and body shape may also play a role.
Cellulite develops due to changes in the size and structure of your fat cells.
That's why it has been suggested that hormones like insulin and catecholamines, which are involved in fat breakdown and storage, could play key roles in its formation (4).
For example, it has been suggested that any hormonal imbalance that promotes fat gain over fat breakdown, such as high levels of insulin, could put a person at a higher risk of developing cellulite (5).
Additionally, given that cellulite is almost exclusively seen in women, it's thought that the female sex hormone estrogen could play a part.
This theory may hold some weight, as cellulite develops after women hit puberty. It also tends to worsen during times when women are experiencing changes in estrogen levels, such as pregnancy and menopause.
However, despite this speculation, the exact role that hormones play in cellulite formation is currently unknown.
Women are much more likely to develop cellulite than men (6).
One of the reasons for this involves differences in the way that women's connective tissue and fat cells are arranged under the skin (4).
Women have a large number of fat cells that stand vertically under the skin, with the tops of the cells meeting connective tissue at a right angle.
Contrarily, men tend to have a smaller number of fat cells that are arranged horizontally, so they lie flat against each other.
This makes it much more likely that the fat cells in women will "poke through" into the connective tissue and become visible under the skin.
These structural differences go some way in explaining why cellulite is almost exclusively seen in women.
The appearance of cellulite can be made worse by the accumulation of fluid in the surrounding tissues.
It has been suggested that changes in the blood circulation of cellulite-affected areas could be partially to blame for this (2).
Some scientists have also suggested that this could be caused by an inactive lifestyle.
Prolonged periods of sitting are thought to reduce blood flow and cause these changes in areas prone to cellulite.
Another theory is that cellulite is a connective tissue disorder caused by chronic, low-grade inflammation.
Some scientists have found immune cells that are linked to chronic inflammation, such as macrophages and lymphocytes, in cellulite-affected tissue (7).
However, others have found no evidence of an inflammatory response in these areas.
Summary: The exact reason people develop cellulite is unknown, but it's thought to be due to factors like genetics, hormones and lifestyle.
The role of diet in the development and treatment of cellulite has not been well researched.
One group of scientists has suggested that a diet containing excessive amounts of carbs may make cellulite worse.
Additionally, it's also been suggested that a diet that includes lots of salt may increase fluid retention, possibly making it appear worse.
However, there is currently very little evidence to support these theories.
That said, it's still a good idea to ensure your diet doesn't contain excessive amounts of refined sugars or carbs. It's also important to maintain a healthy weight and stay well hydrated.
This is because weight gain and aging are linked to an increased risk of developing cellulite. So maintaining a healthy, balanced diet could be helpful (8).
Nevertheless, given that cellulite occurs in nearly all women, completely avoiding it may not be possible.
Summary: It's currently unclear what role diet plays in the treatment and prevention of cellulite. However, maintaining a healthy diet, staying hydrated and avoiding weight gain may be helpful.
Weight loss is often promoted as a good way to get rid of cellulite.
One small study found that losing weight helped reduce the severity of cellulite in most people, especially in those who were overweight (10).
However, around 32% of people in this study found that losing weight actually made their cellulite look worse.
The reason for this isn't known, but it may be due to other factors. For example, differences in the structure and elasticity of connective tissue, as well as fluid retention, can contribute to the appearance of cellulite (11).
Overall, most people will find that weight loss improves the appearance of cellulite, but this is not guaranteed to be the case for everyone.
Summary: Weight gain may make cellulite worse. However, weight loss doesn't always help and may make it worse for some people.
Although there is no known cure for cellulite, there is a wide range of treatments available to people concerned about its appearance.
Creams and Lotions
Many creams and lotions claim to reduce the appearance of cellulite.
The active ingredients in these products usually include caffeine, retinol and some plant compounds. They claim to help improve the appearance of cellulite by:
- Breaking down fat
- Improving blood flow
- Improving skin elasticity
- Reducing fluid retention
However, these products haven't been very well studied and their benefits aren't clear (3).
Manual manipulation involves massaging the skin using gentle pressure. This is said to help drain excess fluid and reduce the appearance of cellulite (3).
It's also thought to work by damaging your fat cells so that they "rebuild," realign and become more evenly distributed, making your skin appear smoother.
Observational studies have found that this technique could help reduce the appearance of cellulite in the short term (3).
Acoustic Wave Therapy
Acoustic wave therapy (AWT) sends low-energy shock waves through cellulite-affected tissue. It's thought that this may help increase blood flow, reduce fluid retention and break down fat.
However, other studies have found no effect, and the results are mixed. More studies are needed to find out if AWT is an effective treatment (3).
Laser or Light Therapies
High-powered laser or light-based devices are used either directly on the skin in a non-invasive procedure or used under the skin in a more invasive procedure.
Invasive laser light therapy is thought to work by melting fat cells and some of the connective tissue that pinches the skin and makes it bumpy. It may also rejuvenate the skin and increase collagen production.
Radio-frequency treatment involves heating the skin using electromagnetic radio waves.
Like laser therapy, it works by encouraging skin renewal and collagen production, as well as breaking down fat cells.
The intensity of the treatment can be adjusted by changing the frequency of the radio waves. It's often used in combination with other therapies like massage.
Overall, most of the studies investigating radio-frequency treatments have been of poor quality and produced mixed results (3).
Because of this, it's not currently known how effective this treatment is, especially in the long term.
There are many other treatments that claim to treat and cure cellulite, including:
- Supplements: Including Ginkgo biloba, Centella asiatica and Melilotus officinalis.
- Mesotherapy: Many tiny injections of vitamins into the skin.
- Carbon-dioxide therapy: Infusing carbon dioxide under the skin.
- Subcision: Small incisions to break up the bits of skin-pinching connective tissue.
- Compression stockings: Pressured stockings to help with fluid retention.
- Collagen injections: Injection of collagen into the affected areas.
However, the quality of evidence on these cellulite treatments is generally very low, making it difficult to know how effective they are (3).
Summary: There are many different treatments available for cellulite. However, the studies investigating most of them are of poor quality, and little is known about their long-term effects.
If you're worried about cellulite, some of the methods discussed above may improve its appearance.
Nevertheless, there is currently no treatment that has been shown to be effective for removing it over the long term.
Overall, it may not be possible to completely avoid cellulite. However, eating a healthy diet, exercising and maintaining a healthy weight may help keep it at bay.