First let’s get the bad news out of the way: There’s still no easy cure for cellulite, a condition that plagues roughly 85 percent of women over the age of 20. That said, there are some things you can do to downplay its appearance.
Under your skin, there’s a network of connective-tissue strands, called septae, that hold the fat in place. If the septae aren’t strong and tightly woven together (which may be determined by genetics), the fat can bulge out between them, creating ripples on the skin’s surface—a.k.a. cellulite. Women are more likely than men to have cellulite, since they have fewer and less tightly arranged septae. Women also have thinner skin, as well as hormones that can affect the size of fat cells and the strength of the septae. To truly eliminate the problem, says dermatologist Molly Wanner, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, “you would have to get rid of the fat and, essentially, change the interior structure of the skin.”
Because half the cellulite equation is fat, it would seem that losing weight through diet and exercise would help. And it might—but that depends on your skin’s elasticity. “If your skin bounces back after weight loss, you may notice a reduction in cellulite,” says Wanner. However, she adds, if your skin isn’t quite so resilient (hormones and aging could be partly to blame), “it can sag, which can make bumps look worse.”
The easiest short-term way to improve the appearance of cellulite is with a lotion or a cream, which fall into two main camps: those that contain caffeine, which has a temporary tightening effect and help bumps look smoother, and those with a vitamin A derivative, which over time can thicken the outer layer of the skin and make lumps less visible. These ingredients can be combined with others, such as gingko and vitamin C, both of which may improve circulation to minimize bumps and tighten the skin. Two good choices are Vichy CelluDestock ($39.50 at drugstores and amazon.com), with caffeine, and Murad Firm and Tone Serum ($77, murad.com), with retinyl palmitate. For best results, massage the cream on vigorously—this helps plump up skin. (Alas, results are fleeting—they last only until your next shower.) For maximum camouflage, try combining a cream with everyone’s favorite skin perfecter, self-tanner.
If you’re looking for a longer-lasting solution, there are a few options. Endermologie, which is available at many spas, involves kneading the skin with a rolling suction device to boost circulation and stimulate collagen production. You’ll probably need at least six sessions, which cost $50 to $150 each; the (subtle) results could last up to a few months.
Want to go one step further? Dermatologists offer more high-tech (and more expensive) treatments. The gold standards are lasers and radio-frequency (RF) devices, both of which use massage and suction to stimulate collagen production and alter the septae so they don’t pull as hard on the skin, causing dimples. These relatively painless treatments also add heat energy to help shrink fat cells (your liver then processes the fat). “Lasers and RF work equally well,” says Robert Weiss, an associate professor of dermatology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, in Baltimore. You’ll need about four to eight 30-minute sessions at $300 to $500 a pop, and you can expect to see up to a 50 percent reduction in dimples. Results can last from six months to two years or longer. “After that you’ll need one or two maintenance treatments each year,” says Weiss.
If you absolutely won’t rest until you’ve done everything you can to get rid of your lumps, you might consider laser-assisted liposuction. Often called Smartlipo, this surgery (which requires local anesthesia) involves inserting a tiny laser fiber under the skin to melt the fat; a cannula then suctions it out. The procedure takes about two hours, and you’ll be sore for a few days afterward. One session typically does the trick, but it costs about $5,000. And, still, it’s not a permanent solution: Results can last for up to six years, but that means you’ll eventually need a repeat treatment.
For those seeking a onetime, single-session solution, a new procedure called Cellulaze, now available in Europe, is awaiting clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It is similar to laser-assisted lipo but uses a bidirectional beam to cut stubborn septae and liquefy fat cells, says Bruce Katz, a clinical professor of dermatology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City. Results are long-term, and the procedure is expected to cost from $2,500 to $3,000 per area.