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Do Anti-Cellulite Treatments Work? Expert Says We’re Asking The Wrong Question.

Posted 29 June 2024

Anti-cellulite products are big business – but here’s what the science says

Published: June 24, 2024 5.04pm SAST

https://theconversation.com/anti-cellulite-products-are-big-business-but-heres-what-the-science-says-232318

Although 90% of women have cellulite, we’re yet to see it represented as a normal anatomical characteristic in popular culture. In Greta Gerwig’s 2023 Hollywood blockbuster, for instance, Stereotypical Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, develops dimples on her upper thigh as part of her existential crisis – along with other human faults such as halitosis, flat feet and irrepressible thoughts of death.

When Stereotypical Barbie asks doll sage Weird Barbie what the dimples are, she explains: “That’s cellulite. That’s going to spread everywhere. Then you’re going to start getting sad and mushy and complicated.” Barbie’s perfect smooth plastic perfection is marred.

Despite its prevalence, then, cellulite has been constructed as a flaw in need of correction. Consumers, it seems, agree, especially when fed a diet of the photoshop smoothed skin of models, social media influencers – and Hollywood stars.

“NO!” Barbie shouts when Weird Barbie tells her she has cellulite.

Cellulite’s usually found in areas that have greater amounts of subcutaneous fat, when fat deposits push through the connective tissue beneath the skin, leading to a lumpy appearance. It is common, usually painless and harmless.

The human skin is the body’s largest organ, made up of three layers. At the surface, the epidermis acts as our first line of defence against the environment. This outermost, impermeable layer is made up of cells that are constantly renewed and shed, protecting our body from external elements.

Beneath the epidermis lies the dermis, a robust layer containing fibroblasts, the cells responsible for producing essential proteins such as collagen and elastin. These proteins provide structure and elasticity, contributing to the skin’s strength and flexibility.

Deeper still is the hypodermis, also known as the subcutaneous layer. This layer is rich in adipose tissue – mostly made up of fat, which plays a crucial role in cushioning and insulating the body, as well as storing fat that can be used when needed. Beneath these three layers of skin, there is muscle. Running from the muscle to the dermis are bands of connective tissue, that holds the adipose tissue in “pockets”.

Cellulite does not affect health, although some people report that it affects their self-esteem and body image but that’s more to do with the social pressure on women to be physically perfect – or spend money, time and energy trying to be as close to perfect as possible.

Cellulite, then, has become big business for the beauty industry. In the lead up to summer especially, companies will promote all manner of products from creams and serums to gadgets and pills, all aimed at creating perfectly smooth limbs. The most popular question seems to be, “Do these treatments work?” but as an anatomist I think the more pressing question is, “Why are healthy women’s bodies considered something to treat, cure or correct?”

The beauty and wellness industry has long capitalised on societal standards of beauty. The idea that cellulite is undesirable and should be corrected has been perpetuated since Vogue magazine was the first English language magazine to use the term “cellulite”, introducing the concept to thousands of women. This marketing strategy taps into the insecurities of consumers, particularly women, and promotes an endless pursuit of “perfection” for bodies that have normal anatomical variation.

By framing cellulite as a condition that needs treatment, companies can sell a wide range of products and services, bolstered by celebrity endorsements, which lend credibility and aspirational value to pseudo-medical “smoothing” products. However, there is limited scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of these supplements in treating cellulite. In fact, the first scientific paper on cellulite, published in 1978, referred to it as “so called cellulite: the invented disease”.

Recent product launches include, Lemme Smooth, Kourtney Kardashian-Barker’s latest addition to her vitamin and supplement range. The product’s promotional materials claim that the capsule “visibly reduces cellulite in 28 days”. But what does the science tell us?

Supplements like Lemme Smooth claim to improve skin texture and reduce cellulite from within. Kardashian-Barker’s supplement contains a mixture of french cantaloupe melon, hyaluronic acid, chromium and vitamin C among other ingredients. The body’s ability to absorb and utilise these ingredients in a way that would impact cellulite is still a subject of debate.

There is evidence that ingested hyaluronic acid can migrate into the skin, stimulating the production of collagens within the dermis – and vitamin C has been shown to thicken the surface layer of the skin. However, the lack of standardisation in testing for the use of these ingredients in the treatment of cellulite means it’s still not clear if they will have a significant effect.

Other products marketed to reduce the appearance of cellulite include topical creams and lotions, containing ingredients like caffeine, retinol, and herbal extracts. Cosmetic products are not able to penetrate the epidermis enough to significantly affect the underlying fat deposits and connective tissue.

Some invasive treatments, such as laser therapy, subcision, and acoustic wave therapy can offer more promising results. These procedures work by breaking down the connective tissue bands that cause dimpling and stimulating collagen production in the dermis to improve skin elasticity. While these methods may be more effective, they are often expensive, require multiple sessions to achieve results – and aren’t without risk.

Maintaining a healthy diet, drinking lots of water, and regular physical activity can help improve the overall appearance of the skin and reduce the visibility of cellulite. Losing weight and strengthening the muscles in the legs, buttocks and abdomen may make cellulite less noticeable, but it won’t make it disappear altogether.

The bottom line, though, is that cellulite does not need to be treated. It’s a normal anatomical variation that’s been transformed into a condition driving a lucrative market for cures that don’t exist.

My top expert advice in the run up to summer? Be wary of claims from cosmetic companies and save your money.

 

Rebecca Shepherd Senior Lecturer in Human Anatomy, School of Anatomy, University of Bristol

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