The Skinny on Cellulite

Cellulite overview and what causes it

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Cellulite is a condition that affects the appearance of the skin in areas with underlying fat deposits (most noticeably on the buttocks and thighs), giving the skin a dimpled, lumpy appearance. Fat, in and of itself, is not responsible for the appearance of cellulite. In fact, fat injections are sometimes used as a treatment to improve the appearance of cellulite. It's actually the structure of the overlying skin and of the underlying connective tissue that determines whether a given area has a smooth or rippled appearance.

Causes

While the appearance of cellulite tends to worsen in proportion to the amount of fat present in the affected area, cellulite can affect even the thinnest people. The reason for this is that while fat deposits do exacerbate the condition, fat itself is not the primary cause.

Underneath the skin lies a layer of fibrous connective tissue that is responsible for adhering the skin to the muscle beneath it. But the way this tissue is arranged can vary. In most males, this connective tissue is arranged in a cross-hatched or diagonal manner, in a smooth and continuous pattern.

In females, connective tissue tends to run vertically (perpendicular to the skin). Because of this, these fibrous bands (called septae) tether the skin to the underlying tissue at certain points, essentially creating discrete “fat chambers” to push up on the skin while the bands pull the skin downward.

This difference in connective tissue arrangement (coupled with the fact that males generally have a thicker skin layer than females) explains why far fewer males have cellulite than females.

Increases With Age

When we are young, our connective tissue is supple and elastic, stretching and giving with the skin so that everything remains smooth. Then puberty hits, and hormones wreak havoc on the connective tissue, making it stiffer and less elastic. At the same time, our fat cells tend to expand in certain areas, pushing out on the skin.

As the bands of connective tissue contract and stiffen with age, they pull down on the skin even more. At the same time, increasing fat stores push outward in the surrounding areas.

As we get older, the outer layer of skin weakens, thins, and loses elasticity. Gravity takes its toll, and the skin begins to sag. Since the connective septae remain intact and often contracts and stiffens further as time marches on, the appearance of cellulite continues to worsen with age.

Another probable aggravating factor in the development of cellulite is significant weight loss, which may compromise skin elasticity, making cellulite more pronounced.

Treatment

There are some cellulite treatments and procedures that are effective for some people. Even with these treatments, however, it's important to be realistic. Before you consider having a surgical procedure, discuss the risks/benefits with your primary care physician.

Prevention

You may be able to improve the appearance of cellulite by living a healthy lifestyle. That means staying hydrated, not smoking, and following a sensible diet and exercise program.

A combination of proper diet and exercise will decrease the layer of fat underneath the skin, making cellulite less noticeable. A proper diet rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, plant-based fats, and lean protein can also be helpful in keeping the skin and connective tissue stronger, healthier, and more supple. In addition, staying hydrated and eating well will help prevent water retention (which exacerbates cellulite).

Exercise helps with cellulite in a multitude of ways. Not only does it help keep body fat levels lower, it also improves circulation and muscle tone in cellulite-prone areas. Improved circulation will keep both the skin and connective tissue healthier, as well as helping with the elimination of waste and excess fluid retention.

If you're worried that quitting smoking will cause you to gain weight, and hence, increase cellulite, think again. Smoking is harmful to connective tissue, causing the normal aging process of stiffening and contracting of connective tissue to go into hyperdrive. If you're still having a hard time kicking the habit, remember that smoking not only affects connective tissue (which leads to cellulite) but smoking damages your skin (think wrinkling) in at least nine different ways.

A Word From Verywell

Even with healthy lifestyle habits, you may still have cellulite. The presence, severity, and location of cellulite are in large part determined by hormones and heredity.

While there are a few cellulite treatments that can somewhat improve the appearance of cellulite, there is no cure for cellulite. In fact, most of the cellulite solutions offered are little more than expensive placebos.

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