The Truth About Cellulite

I was in my mid-twenties when I noticed cellulite on the back of my thighs. It’s possible it was there for years, dormant and unproblematic, waiting to be seen as otherwise until the day I caught it in a different light. By now I’m fully cognizant of the fact that I have it, and that it’s seen as unsightly or unhealthy, at least by the swaths of health and beauty brands suggesting I try to get rid of it.

But besides them, who says I have to get rid of it? Because it’s often misunderstood and oversimplified, I asked some experts to dispel the myths about how it forms and how it ought to be treated, if at all. Here’s what they told me.

Nearly every woman has cellulite

Up to 98 percent of women have cellulite, says New Jersey-based dermatologist Asma Ahmed. It usually shows up in post-puberty years and tends to intensify with age. It’s much more common in women than men, only 10 percent of whom will ever get cellulite. (More on why in a bit.)

The data should be a good reason to not feel shame about it, says registered dietitian and Central Connecticut State University assistant professor Cassandra Forsythe, who last year penned a detailed post at Girls Gone Strong about why we have cellulite. “I have it lightly on the back of my thighs,” she says. “So does my seven-year-old daughter. I’ve looked at many other women and have finally come to realize that we all have it in some way, shape or form.”

Cellulite is a result of decreased circulation

“Cellulite is caused by fibrous bands that run from skin to muscle through the fat, and when they pull downward on the skin, the fat pushes upward,” Ahmed says. “This creates an orange peel appearance with dimpled skin, which is what we know as cellulite.”

As far as why it happens to more women than it does men, there are a few reasons, but as osteopathic physician Lionel Bissoon, who wrote The Cellulite Cure in 2006, explained to Scientific American: “When estrogen starts to decrease, you lose receptors in blood vessels and thighs, so you have decreased circulation. With decreased circulation you get less oxygen and nutrition to that area, and with that we see a decrease in collagen production.” He goes on to explain that fat cells also start becoming larger, which causes them to protrude through the collagen and become what we know to be cellulite.

He added: “Estrogen also makes fat, whereas testosterone breaks down fat. So a woman’s body is basically… genetically designed to be a place for cellulite to develop.”

That said, it has nothing to do with body fat percentage

Cellulite is not a symptom of obesity, Ahmed says. One common cellulite myth is that it only happens to overweight or unhealthy people, but that’s not the case. “Cellulite can occur in someone who is thin, normal weight and underweight, meaning it has no correlation to body fat percentage but rather the structure of the fat,” she says.

It does have to do with genetics

Among the risk factors that increase a person’s chance of developing cellulite is genetics, says dermatologist Brent Schillinger. If your mom and grandmother had cellulite, chances are you will, too. Ethnicity plays a role too — white women have a higher predisposition to get cellulite than Asian women, for example.

You can’t really get rid of it

According to several studies, there is no clear evidence that there are any effective treatments to eliminate cellulite. Anti-cellulite treatments don’t really cure or get rid of cellulite, but if you’re really bothered by it, there are some treatments and lifestyle changes that can make it less noticeable, dermatologists say.

Being genetically predisposed to it doesn’t mean you have to develop it, Bissoon told Scientific American. Being active and eating healthy can reduce the chances of getting cellulite, or at least help improve the appearance of it. In his book, Bissoon writes, “There is some connection between cellulite, diet and exercise, but not a direct one. Although a healthier lifestyle can reduce the appearance of cellulite, it’s not a real or effective treatment. Connective tissues behave like an accordion. When your weight decreases, the issues collapse onto each other; when you gain weight, the issues expand to display visible cellulite.”

Most products and services don’t work

The creams? They only offer temporary solutions, if they even work at all. “Most all creams will only address the fat,” not the connective tissue or circulation issues associated with cellulite, Bissoon told Scientific American. And while dry brushing, the technique of using a natural brush against the skin that gets rave reviews from places like Goop, can definitely exfoliate the skin, the claims that it reduces cellulite are largely unstudied and unfounded.

“Other treatments lacking evidence that they work for cellulite: Ionithermie cellulite reduction, radiofrequency, coolsculpting (cryolipolysis), mesotherapy, caffeine, grape seed extract, or ginkgo biloba supplements,” Ahmed says. Same goes for a deep massage called endermologie that uses a vacuum-like device to lift the skin. Although it’s FDA approved, there’s little evidence it’s effective.

No one ever died of cellulite and it doesn’t have a direct correlation with any underlying disease.

Laser treatments, and even surgery, are also common treatments for cellulite, but they’re not all effective, either. “There are currently a number of lasers and devices that are being offered in dermatologist and plastic surgery offices for cellulite treatment,” Ahmed says. Lasers work by actually breaking up the fibrous septae that cause cellulite and thickening the skin helping to improve the dimpling. But the cellulite then is only “gone” for about one year before another session is needed. Ahmed says more studies are still needed to determine the efficacy of lasers.

Another popular cellulite treatment is a procedure called subcision, which involves inserting a needle just under the skin to break up the fibrous bands to help release the fat herniations, improving the appearance of cellulite for up to two years. “In a study of 232 patients, 99 percent of them said they were satisfied with the results,” Ahmed says.

These kinds of treatments can be expensive though, and Schillinger says results are often inconsistent and minimal at best.

Cellulite has only been considered a problem in recent decades

Perhaps the more important conversation than treatments is why we would need to treat it at all. The first-known use of word “cellulite” appeared in 1873 in a French medical dictionary, Ahmed says. It was defined as the inflammation of the cell tissue or laminate tissue.

In 1968, the word took on a negative connotation as something that needed fixing. “The cellulite phrase and concern stayed regional to France, until 1968 when Vogue Magazine published on the front cover the title, ‘Cellulite, the fat you couldn’t lose before,’ Ahmed says. “Then the cellulite craze really took off in the U.S. at that time and has stayed since then.”

Fortunately, there’s a movement toward acceptance

“First of all, it is important to realize that cellulite is not a serious medical condition,” Shillinger says. “No one ever died of cellulite and it doesn’t have a direct correlation with any underlying disease.”

While cellulite is an aesthetic concern for some people, in recent years, there’s been push-back to the idea that cellulite is a problem. As part of the body positivity and body neutrality movements, women have taken to social media to show that there’s nothing wrong or unusual about having cellulite. A few years ago, the hashtag #CelluliteSaturdays became popular, and celebrities and athletes have spoken up about it as well. Times are changing.

Six years ago, Dodai Stewart of Jezebel astutely asked: “Years from now, will we look at our manic obsession with cellulite as a sad waste of time, energy and money — that says way more about the Human Psyche than it does about cellulite — the same way we shake our heads at the freak shows of yore?”

To me, the answer is clear: Yes — cellulite is non-threatening, common and not a problem you can fix (or a problem at all). But the question lingering on my mind is: Which is bolder: showing it, loving it or forgetting about it altogether?

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  • Belle

    It’s interesting to know that everyone (more or less) has it, and none of treatments are very effective. We really shouldn’t worry about something that’s so normal, and common, that can’t be changed. That doesn’t mean you need to flaunt it, but it would be a shame to lose sleep (or self confidence) over it.

  • Louise Rhodes

    My baby boy has it on his little peachy bottom, and that’s when I realised that cellulite can be ADORABLE. I have made my peace with mine.

    • Fat baby butts ARE THE BEST!

      • Louise Rhodes

        His is so perfect! I really want to share a pic of it but I’m fairly sure that behaviour is like #1 Parenting Don’ts.

        • Anne Dyer


  • Spot on :-). I never think about it, don’t check my legs or do anything – I simply assume my love for workout and outdoor activities will either help or it won’t, against everything that can be changed by an active life.
    Or so I thought.
    … last week I was doing my yoga practice without my trusty grampa shorts … just granny pants, don’t know why. So there I was, Downward Dog, my head hanging low, enjoying it as always … and then I took a look at my thighs.
    Damn, that scared me for life. I really had no idea. So from now on I am never ever going to do yoga without my Grampa Shorts. What else. 😀

  • I have a little bit of cellulite. I can only see it when the skin is being stretched a bit (like when I’m sitting forward). Most of the times I try to forget about it because I know it’s not super visible. When I do see it I get a moment of panic but then I remind myself that it’s just a few dimples.

  • rolaroid

    I love my cellulite. Part of being a woman! My mom has a ton of cellulite and I credit her for helping me love mine. She thinks it’s cute and highlights that as opposed to saying it’s gross.

  • gwendomouse

    ‘No one has ever died of cellulite.’ I would like this sentence plastered across the cover/ home page of every women’s magazine. Even at my most insecure (late teens, early 20s) I felt I had better things to worry about than what the skin on my bum looks like. I have always had a suspicion I am being brainwashed into believing my thighs, hips and behind are not good enough and need improving with expensive (and ineffective) treatments.

  • moon_water

    It’s really unbelievable to me that a physical trait shared by nearly EVERY adult woman has been so pathologized (perhaps aside from body hair, although that’s considerably easier to remove). What does this say about our culture?

    • Ciara Sophia Rudas

      Women’s bodies have been subjected to being pathologized in many many ways. Cellulite is just one of many. Example: PMS: pre-menstrual syndrome.. a natural process in our bodies that happens every month is a called a syndrome. Makes you consider every other medicalized “process” of our bodies that was once considered natural (and still very much is).

  • Rosemary

    “a woman’s body is basically… genetically designed to be a place for cellulite to develop.” This says it all! Can we just treat it the same as boobs, your period, or other characteristics that 98% of women have? I rarely notice my cellulite, even though it’s fairly prominent (at 20! on a fairly active and in-shape bod!), and when I do notice it’s always more of a “oh hey, that’s pretty cute”. The first time I saw anti-cellulite advertising in the media I was so confused. It’s not a flaw, not something we have to hide, not something that even CAN be “fixed” or altered. Thank you so much for posting this and calling out the completely fake messaging from companies and media about this trait!

    • Elly

      It’s probably the fact that it can’t be fixed that makes it so luctrative for the cosmetics industry. But actually I can’t remember the first time I saw anti-cellulite stuff advertised, because it was already in the teen magazines I read when I was 15 or 16. In French we call it “la culotte de cheval”, which I always read as “horses’ pants” but I think it means, like, built-in jodhpurs or something.

      • Rosemary

        That’s such a cute idiom!

  • The “no one ever died from cellulite” pull quote sounds like something #WokeCharlotte would say to the girls over brunch (shout out to Every Outfit on SATC). 😀

  • Anne Dyer

    Gawd I love this article. I sit patiently and wait for the day we say the same thing about wrinkles. I feel sad every time I see a frozen face or pulled back hairline. I’m leaning in and being kind to my sweet little laugh lines.

    • Rosemary

      I love this!! Laugh-lines are signs of a life spent laughing.

    • Elly

      Oh god, I hate that we’re supposed to start apologizing and paying for palliative anti-ageing care to hide the fact that we’ve lived past the age of 30.

    • Basil

      I realised the other day that the two lines between my eyebrows have taken up permanent residence (my “oh FFS” lines if you will). And while it bothered me initially, I’m learning to accept them because I went through a whole of a lot to get them and they show that I’ve lived

  • Bella Zaydenberg

    Cellulite, stretch marks, scars — all of those make bodies BEAUTIFUL. And besides, if Ashley Graham (and a whole host of other curve/plus-size models) can make cellulite sexy, why is it still being so vilified?

    • lateshift

      [sigh x1000] No. Cellulite and scars and stretch marks are not “beautiful” (yes, some element of “beauty” is an objective thing — it’s not about what you condition yourself to try to feel, it’s about your instinctive reaction, based in millions of years of evolution. If, for whatever reason, most people are not instinctively attracted to a thing, or if they are actively physically repulsed by it, then it isn’t “beautiful.” Scars, for instance, will never be “beautiful” to an average human, because evolutionarily, we are programmed to be repelled by obvious signs of physical injury. A PERSON with scars can, on balance, be beautiful. That does not make the scars themselves beautiful.)

      But here’s the thing…and I will NEVER stop shouting this from the rooftops…sweet jeebus, IT. DOESN’T. MATTER. Why, why, why is beauty considered a mandatory trait for a woman, and implying that someone who possesses a laundry list of fabulous traits — the ones that actually matter — doesn’t also possess physical features that are uniformly, 100% attractive (which for adult women basically means, desired by potential partners) considered some kind of high insult? If some physical trait is not naturally attractive, the answer is not to pretend that it is. It’s to remind people that physical desirability is the LEAST important thing about a person, and that as a society, we should be reminding ourselves constantly how irrelevant it is.

      Look, I get the impulse behind this sort of thing: if everyone is beautiful, then no one is beautiful, and the term is meaningless. But that’s still promoting the idea that beauty is a thing everyone should possess, and that every single trait, from dandruff to toe fungus, must be classified as “beautiful” in and of itself. Some things are not a matter of changeable cultural conditioning, unlike society’s ridiculous weight standards…. and so we don’t live in a world where people will ever instinctively find pus-filled pimples beautiful, or crusty scabs gorgeous, or ingrown toenails hot. And no matter how much we try to shame people into saying these things are attractive features in an objective sense, we never will. What we should do instead is condition ourselves to look past them — to remind people that those things are so unimportant, they’re not even worth mentioning at all.

      (Sorry to rant, but this drives me wild: I’m not beautiful. But it’s way, waaaaaay down on the list of traits I’d ever wish for. If you tell me I am tall, it will not magically make me tall. If you tell me I’m athletic, it won’t magically make me good at sports. If you tell me every single physical trait I possess is beautiful, 100% perfection, it won’t make me a supermodel. Anyone who pretends I embody some trait that I very clearly do not doesn’t come across as supportive; they come across as patronizing. I’m short. I’m uncoordinated. I have some nice physical features, others that are not so great, and I’m not “beautiful.” AND THAT’S OK.)

  • Cynthia Schoonover

    I have more important things to worry about.

  • elpug

    Recently found an instagram movement called cellulite saturday and am in love!

  • Helena

    I low-key hate my cellulite all through the winter (I have some on my butt and upper thighs) but when warmer weather rolls around I just make peace with it. I live in Greece where summer pretty much lasts for 5 months and I love summer and going to the beach far too much to let cellulite ruin it for me.