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What Is Cellulite, and Can It Be Treated?

BY: Editors | Aug 26, 2016

For quite a few women who spare a glance at their thighs in a full-length mirror during their morning routine, their eyes might linger on the cellulite that's been there nearly as long as they can remember. But even as they frown at the dimples, many probably aren't even sure what's causing them. What is cellulite? Why does it affect some people more than others? And is there anything you can do about it?

A cellulite definition for laypeople

Cellulite isn’t a disease or disorder—it’s a normal skin condition affecting an estimated 80%–98% of women. (It rarely affects men, probably due to differences in fat accumulation, connective-tissue structure, and skin thickness.) Sometimes crudely likened to orange peels or cottage cheese, its signature dimpled appearance is most often found on the thighs, hips, buttocks, and abdomen.

What causes cellulite?

The condition is caused by the topmost layer of fat—also known as subcutaneous fat—bulging into the skin. This fat is also wound in the fibrous connective tissue that connects the skin to underlying muscle; the taut tissue pulls the skin while the fat pushes outward, producing a dimpled appearance.

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As shown in the illustration, women’s fat cells are held in place by cube-like structures formed by fibrous cords of collagen. Men’s fat cells, on the other hand, tend to be contained by a crisscrossing series of fibrous cords. Therefore when women gain weight, their fat cells enlarge and push into the skin. When men gain weight, the arrangement of their fat-cell chambers allows them to stretch evenly.

How does cellulite form in some people but not others?

In addition to the gender differences, there are other factors that determine the likelihood of cellulite or the severity of its appearance. Heredity might be the most significant, which may explain why it’s common in both lean and overweight women. Cellulite is also influenced by hormones, diet, physical activity, total body fat, and age. It can be exacerbated by weight gain.

So if cellulite doesn’t do anything to you, why is it so maligned?

That’s a complicated question with an answer that’s wrapped up in standards of feminine beauty, the machinations of various industries, and simple aesthetics—after all, plenty of women just want their thighs and hips to look as smooth as other body areas.

The word “cellulite” originated in French medical studies, which were investigating it as a disease. The term was rather quickly co-opted, though. Its alleged first-ever English-language appearance? Not in a medical journal or a newspaper article, but in a 1968 issue of Vogue. (The topic is in line with the 1960s’ preoccupation with fad dieting.)

Will losing weight get rid of cellulite?

Well, now that you know what cellulite is, you’ll also realize that accepting and embracing it as a natural part of your body may be the easiest route. You can’t alter the way your body stores fat. However, if you’re willing to do the work, losing weight is a way to minimize its appearance—the less volume fat cells have, the less they need to push outward and dimple the skin. Doctors recommend diet and exercise for weight loss, but there are other methods that can help you along.

If you’re dead set on finding an easier way to diminish the look of cellulite on your body, check out our guide on how to get rid of cellulite. It details a number of cellulite-reduction treatments designed for med spas and at-home use, including Thermage, VelaShape, i-Lipo, and Endermologie.

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Information on cellulite’s appearance, causes, and risk factors comes from the Mayo Clinic.