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There's no shortage of procedures, topical products, diets, massages, at-home machinery, or magical spells floating around to treat cellulite. Despite a sneaking suspicion that neither "vacuum therapy" nor overpriced creams can reduce cellulite's characteristic dimples, we keep buying them—and buying into the notion that cellulite is an abnormal disorder that needs to be corrected.
In fact, about 90% of post-adolescent women have it at some point. "It's something we argue about in medicine. Is it a disease or even an abnormality if 90% of women have it?" says David Bank, MD, a Mt. Kisco, NY-based dermatologist. "It's really just… normal."
I'm sad to say that I'm not a special snowflake in this regard. (Or, maybe I should be happy: I'm normal!) I have cellulite on my outer thighs and butt, and yes, I have entertained the idea of buying a skirted swimsuit. And, lately, I've turned my attention to the "magical" potion of butt-firming creams—at least it sounded better than zapping my ass with a laser.
When treating our lumps and bumps, most of us turn to topical creams, rather than in-office procedures. We all know intellectually that they probably don't do much—yet beauty companies keep making them and we keep buying them.
They don't work, right? Then, why are there so many of them? Surely, they must do something! Would beauty companies really try to get our hopes up in such a mean way?—My internal dialog
There aren't a lot of objective studies that have analyzed whether cellulite creams actually do anything. Generally, companies do their own clinical studies so they can make claims like, "80% of women saw an improvement in the appearance of cellulite," being careful never to say "treatment" or "cure." So, I decided to test some of them as scientifically as possible. Dr. Bank, who also works with the Federal Trade Commission on cases in which cosmetics companies get into hot water for putting misleading labeling on products, seemed like the ideal no-BS guy to help me with this project. He agreed to photograph my cellulite before and after a two-month course of treatment with two different topical creams, and then to analyze the results as objectively as he can. Now, obviously this isn't as rigorous as, say, a double-blind study with 1,000 subjects, but it's better than me taking belfies in my bathroom mirror.
I went into Dr. Bank's office, where I underwent a rather humiliating procedure. Imagine E!'s GlamCam 360, except in a medical office and you have no pants on. I stood in the middle of a small octagon on the floor, and was asked to spin around slowly—sans pants, may I remind you, but also, thankfully, sans Ryan Seacrest—while the doctor's assistant took closeup photos of my butt and thighs from every angle.
I chose two products to test: Mio Shrink to Fit Cellulite Smoother ($56) on my left side, and Talika Back Up 3D ($64) on my right side. I applied them twice a day for eight weeks, missing only a few applications. I used the application technique recommended by Mio, which is to take about 20 seconds to massage in the product vigorously. Sluggish lymphatic drainage is one of the causes of cellulite, and massage can help move things along, so I wanted to increase my chances of a good outcome.
Image: Mary Galloway for Refinery29
Now's a good time to note that there are multiple causes for cellulite. As Dr. Bank explains, the fibrous connective bands that hold our muscles and fat in place run perpendicular to the skin. Fat cells become swollen, thanks to the aforementioned sluggish lymphatic drainage and hormones, and then the cells bulge between the fibrous bands, causing dimpling. Thinner female skin is also a contributor. It doesn't necessarily matter how much you weigh—it can occur on all body types. That's why it's so difficult to pinpoint one ingredient or treatment that will fix it. "I don't personally think there is a home-run treatment at the moment," says Dr. Bank. "Cellulite is so complicated that I think it's going to be a while [before we have one]."
Well, that didn't keep me from trying. Despite his pessimism, Dr. Bank agreed to analyze the ingredient labels of each of the two products. Mio's main ingredients include caffeine, laminaria (which acts as a diuretic), green tea as an antioxidant, shea butter for moisture, and menthol—which gave it a tingly kick that gave, at least, the illusion that something was happening on my skin. It has a thick, creamy consistency and a fresh, slightly spicy scent. The Talika product is a less traditional cellulite cream. It contains several plant extracts that the company claims affect fat storage, moisturizers, and lactic and glycolic acids. It has a thinner consistency—sort of like a gooey serum. Aesthetically, I preferred the Mio product.
According to Dr. Bank, none of these ingredients will "cure" cellulite—your best hope is of making it temporarily look better on a superficial level. Moisturizing and improving the skin's surface are half the battle, and both of these products contain ingredients that do that. The goal is to actually make skin plumper externally while decreasing swelling in fat cells, in order to visually decrease the contrast between the dimples and the non-dimpled skin. Caffeine works as a mild diuretic, trying to get rid of some of that extra fluid that's retained because of the sluggish lymph nodes. Ingredients like fruit acids will help smooth skin; dimethicone and hyaluronate will trap moisture and "plump." "I think [these products] certainly could help the appearance of the cellulite without truly correcting, curing, or fixing the complex underlying biophysiology of what's going on," he says.
After two months of twice-daily application, I returned to Dr. Bank's office for follow-up pictures, which he zoomed in on and analyzed for me. (Let's hope his office never experiences a Sony-level hack, because no one outside of the medical community needs to see those.) The verdict? "On very close inspection of the before and after pictures, there is an ever-so-slight, very subtle smoothing of the skin," he says. "Where there are some undulations and topographical changes, the after pictures do look a bit smoother and more even." He saw this subtle improvement on both sides, so both products seem to have done an equally good job.
I was pleasantly surprised, although the results were obviously minor. "I don't think that if we had done an ultrasound, or a CT scan, or biopsies, that you would have seen any real change in the true cellulite condition," Dr. Bank says. "If anything, you'd see a bit better hydrated skin, which would therefore be a little plumper." Myself, I didn't notice a huge difference visually, although my thighs definitely felt smoother and more taut, sort of like my face feels when I've been using a really good moisturizer regularly. (Plus, the massage I was giving myself twice a day may have helped me see some temporary results.) Honestly, though, applying one of these products twice a day feels like a chore to me—I don't feel as invested in them as I do in my facial products, possibly because very few people are ever privy to the underside of my butt. Still, if cellulite is a concern, I can recommend them with the caveat that you should definitely not expect miracles.
The biggest lesson I learned from all of this: Maybe we should just stop considering cellulite a problem.—Cheryl Wischhover