Your dermatologist can deflate a massive cystic zit with a single injection of cortisone, or make an expression line totally vanish with well-placed Botox. Treating cellulite, though? It’s not as simple. The cause of the condition is somehow still a mystery. And because there's no clear answer on why it pops up, it's famously difficult to treat.
Cellulite most commonly appears on the buttocks and upper thighs. It's believe to be genetic, and is totally independent from a person's weight or body composition. Cellulite predominately affects women, though it can show up on men, too.
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in the Department of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, says to think of cellulite like a quilted bag. The threads are the fibrous cords that run through the skin, and the little squares are the fat between them.
"Unlike deep fat, which can become larger or smaller in size depending on exercise, weight gain, or weight loss, superficial fat that's just under the surface of the skin isn't really affected by a change in weight," he explains. "That type of fat is actually tethered into place by these fibrous bands. You have fat lobules under the skin with bands of fibrous tissue around them, which creates the lumpiness," he explains.
There's no current fix for cellulite, but there are some options for reducing its appearance. Read on for the best options.
"Unfortunately, there is no magic trick that is going to get rid of all cellulite 100% of the time," dermatologist Dr. Mona Gohara confirms. "One way to help is to do exercises that build up the back of thigh and butt muscles." Building muscle in these areas firms up the skin, theoretically making cellulite less visible.
Apart from just cellulite, Dr. Zeichner says that exercise is associated with better skin aging, and helps skin cells function optimally so skin will look healthier in general.
Ever heard of dry brushing? It's when you use a large brush to manually exfoliate the surface of the skin. Dry brushing is said to improve circulation and help slough off dead skin cells. But can it help with cellulite? "Exfoliation in general—whether it's dry brushing, using a scrub, or using a chemical exfoliator—can remove dead cells from the surface of the skin to enhance light reflection, so that the skin looks better and you can minimize the appearance of dimpling," notes Dr. Zeichner. "Depending on how much pressure you use, you may actually cause a little bit of swelling, and that may minimize the appearance."
Dr. Gohara suggests either making a DIY coffee scrub or using a product like Dove Exfoliating Body Polish ($6; target.com), which very gently exfoliates and nourishes the skin in the process.
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There are countless body-firming creams on the market that claim to reduce the appearance of cellulite, but you should know they definitely won't get rid of it. Some firming creams utilize retinol, a popular anti-aging ingredient, to stimulate collagen and elastin to strengthen the skin foundation.
Others—like Nivea's Q10 Skin Firming Hydration Body Lotion ($8; target.com)—use the power of antioxidants to neutralize free radical damage, which helps keep the skin foundation strong.
There are also creams that use caffeine, an ingredient that falls in a class called methylxanthines. "They constrict blood vessels to remove excess fluid," says Dr. Zeichner. "That's why they're also used in under-eye products." He explains that there is data that suggests this ingredient may directly help the body break apart fat, but that it's not conclusive.
These are likely the most effective way to treat cellulite, but again, they don't necessarily eliminate it (and it can always come back). On top of that, these treatments are not cheap; they usually cost a few thousand dollars. Dr. Zeichner says the two most popular in-office procedures are Cellulaze, a laser treatment, and Cellfina, an FDA-cleared treatment where a dermatologist uses a machine to target cellulite. Cellfina is minimally invasive, and the results for each cellulite dimple are said to last a minimum of a year.
In both procedures, the fibrous bands are broken apart so that skin appears smoother. "Instead of having the lobules of fat being broken apart so it looks pebbly, you have a smooth layer of fat," he says.