Fighting Cellulite: 'Jean' Therapy to Creams

No cellulite treatments work permanently, but we keep trying them anyway

By R. Morgan Griffin
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

The world's relentless war on cellulite has a new front. This year, an Italian clothing company released the first line of anticellulite pants. As you casually sashay about town, the friction between your body and the jeans reportedly releases an anticellulite cream -- all for $139. Does it work? The world's dermatologists are unconvinced.

Jeans saturated with skin cream are only one of many remarkable cellulite treatments. We've all seen other miracle cures: creams, herbs, massage machines, and lasers. But let's cut to the chase: Is there any treatment out there that will get rid of cellulite?

"There's really nothing that works well," says Lisa Donofrio, MD, associate clinical professor of Dermatology at Yale University.

But this stark fact -- there is no cure for cellulite -- doesn't stop us from hoping and shelling out a lot of money. Even the most savvy and cynical among us tend to get wide-eyed and trusting when we read the claims on a tube of a miracle cream.

While there aren't any permanent cures, there are some cellulite treatments out there that might -- might -- help some people get temporary improvement. So to guide you in the right direction, here's a survey of what's out there: from the harmless (and maybe just a little bit effective) to the unproven and potentially dangerous.

What Is Cellulite?

From a medical standpoint, the fat in cellulite is just fat, the same as any other fat on your body. The term cellulite has only been used in the U.S. for about 30 years -- it was popularized in 1973 by a book-writing spa owner. The term refers to the dimpled appearance of the skin seen in areas of the hips, thighs, and buttocks. It is more commonly seen in women because of the way a women's body distributes fat. Experts estimate that about 85% of women develop cellulite.

"You often see it at times of hormonal surge, like pregnancy or puberty," says Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, co-director of laser surgery at the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery in Washington.

Tanzi says that men may be less likely to have cellulite because they have thicker skin, which is much better at hiding the fat beneath.

While many look at cellulite as a disease -- a harmful build-up of toxins that must be healed -- it's no such thing. It's a perfectly normal and natural way of carrying fat.

The Treatments

Even though cellulite isn't an illness and doesn't need a cure, there are plenty of cellulite treatments nonetheless. Here's the rundown:

Exercise and Diet

Getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet lower in calories, and maintaining a normal weight may work as a cellulite treatment for some people. No special diet is necessary: just a commonsense one that's high in fruits and vegetables and low in fat.

But exercise and diet won't necessarily solve the problem. Losing weight will reduce the proportion of fat in your body, and hence a proportion of the fat that's trapped in cellulite.

However, the appearance of cellulite is really genetically predetermined. "I always recommend exercise and a good diet as a way to deal with cellulite," says Tanzi. "But it's true that in some women, exercise and diet don't do a thing."

Creams

There are countless creams available as cellulite treatments. Many are over the counter and a few are by prescription. Most have some eye-catching ingredient -- prehistoric mud, the pollen of the most rare Alpine weed, and so on.

Do any of them work? According to some doctors, these cellulite treatments may work in some people. However, even proponents caution that the effects are modest and not permanent.

"I don't recommend creams, but if patients want to try one, I generally don't have a problem with it," Tanzi tells WebMD. She suggests looking for creams that contain caffeine or theophylline. There are some studies that show these ingredients might have an effect on cellulite, causing fat cells to dissolve. Other studies disagree.

Even if these ingredients might cause fat to dissolve theoretically, slathering it on the surface of your skin isn't going to do much, Donofrio says. Your skin is designed to keep things out, after all. Expecting a topical cream to "soak into" the fat is kind of like placing a sandwich on your belly and expecting it "soak into" your stomach. The cream will never get near the fat deposits.

"I think that the effects of any cream are doubtful," says Donofrio. "But I do have some patients that swear by them." If you want to try them, she strongly advises that you go with an $8 bottle you can pick up from a drugstore. "The ingredients are really no different from the fancy ones that cost $100 a bottle," she says.