Our understanding of precisely what causes cellulite actually still isn’t great, although we do recognize many of the factors that contribute to and work against its formation. Cellulite is actually a normal condition that affects the majority of women to some degree.
To get some idea of what causes cellulite and how it forms, let’s start by taking a brief look at the anatomy of what’s underneath your skin.
Skin and Cellulite Anatomy
Your skin is made up of two layers – the epidermis (outer layer), and the dermis (inner layer). Beneath your skin lie three layers of fat – the subcutaneous fat layer (next to the dermis), and two reserve fat layers. Underneath these fat layers is your muscle tissue.
The fat between your skin and muscle is quite weak, so lying parallel to the skin throughout the fat layer is a sheet of connective tissue called superficial fascia. This is in turn connected by strands of connective collagen tissue, called septae, through the fat to the overlying skin and the underlying muscle.
The structure formed by the superficial fascia and the septae is referred to as the superficial fascial system. It helps hold the fat together and keeps your skin from simply sagging down.
The photograph below shows what this superficial fascial system actually looks like:
Cellulite forms in the subcutaneous fat layer – the one nearest your skin. The fat cells in this layer are unique in that they’re arranged into specific chambers, which are squeezed together by the connective tissue around them.
The diagram below shows what this looks like:
Generally speaking, when cellulite appears on your skin, it’s because one or more of the following changes take place:
- Fat cells in the subcutaneous fat and reserve fat layers swell and therefore press up against the dermis. Because the septae remain the same length, the result is bumps, or dimples, on the surface of the skin.
- The septae attaching the skin to the underlying muscle can actually shrink and become less elastic with aging, worsening the effect produced by the swelling fat cells.
- With aging and sun damage, the connective tissue of the superficial fascial system relaxes and stretches, resulting in hanging soft skin and fat tissues, giving the appearance of loose fat deposits.
- The dermis layer of your skin also has strong connective fibers (collagen), as well as elastic fibers (elsatin), infused within it. Both of these fibers become looser with age, causing your skin to become less firm and elastic, and therefore less resistant to the protrusion of fat cells that causes dimpling.
- After the age of 30 the dermis layer of your skin gradually becomes thinner. This also makes it less resistant to the dimpling caused by cellulite.
The diagram below shows what your skin and subcutaneous fat layer look like once cellulite has formed:
As you can see from this diagram, what causes cellulite to dimple your skin are the swollen fat cells pressing against the dermis, or lower layer of skin, while at the same time the septae are straining to hold down the dermis at their connection points.
The diagram below shows a side-by-side representation comparing normal and cellulite-affected skin and fat:
What Causes Cellulite to Form?
What causes cellulite to form is in fact a collection of complex physiological changes that occur in your subcutaneous fat layer. Now that we understand exactly what’s going on under your skin when cellulite forms, let’s take a look at what contributes to all of these physiological changes taking place.
Being a Woman
Unfortunately, the No. 1 factor behind what causes cellulite is something you can’t do much about – being a woman.
The reason that cellulite tends to form around your hips and thighs is that this is where fat in general tends to be stored on a woman’s body.
The storage of body fat is largely controlled by an enzyme known as lipoprotein lipase (LPL). LPL is located on the walls of blood vessels, and it functions like a “regulating” enzyme – it controls the distribution of fat in various sites in your body. It’s been shown that women have a higher LPL concentration and activity in their hip and thigh region.
Being overweight can certainly worsen the appearance of cellulite because of the larger resulting layer of subcutaneous fat beneath your skin. And if you are overweight, losing weight may reduce your cellulite.
This doesn’t mean however, that being overweight causes cellulite, or that having cellulite makes you overweight. If cellulite were solely due to the amount of fat under your skin, men and women with the equal amounts of thigh fat would show similar degrees of cellulite. This clearly isn’t the case.
Even very obese men rarely have cellulite, whereas cellulite can be seen in slender women with good muscle tone who exercise regularly.
One of the major factors behind what causes cellulite is your hormones. Your hormones, not exercise or diet, is what primarily regulates the storage of fat and metabolism in your subcutaneous fat layer.
Female hormones such as estrogen, progesterone and folliculine play an important role in the formation of cellulite.
Estrogen hormone stimulates the storage of fat, which is needed for menstruation, pregnancy, and lactation. In addition to that, during the later phases of pregnancy, estrogen also causes the breakdown of collagen fibers in your body, to enable your cervix to relax, making it possible for you to deliver a baby.
The process, however, doesn’t only occur during the birthing period — it actually continues throughout your lifetime, weakening your skin’s structure. This collagen breakdown sets the stage for the formation of cellulite. It’s believed that progesterone may also contribute to the cellulite problem, by weakening veins and causing water retention and weight gain.
Generally speaking, as a woman, cellulite is for the most part found during your hormonal changes such as puberty, pregnancy, and menopause. It can also occur whilst you’re taking birth control pills.
Rapid Weight Loss
The underlying fat-cell chambers in your subcutaneous fat layer don’t change much as you lose weight. What is important for cellulite reduction, however, is how your skin adapts to your weight loss.
For best skin adaptation to weight loss, you should lose weight progressively and not in an extreme manner.
Rapid weight loss, which is often caused by fad diets and isn’t sustainable anyhow, contributes to the formation of cellulite by not allowing your skin to adapt to the changes taking place. It leads to the connective tissue in your skin relaxing, much like it does through natural aging.
Also, skin elasticity is best up to the age of 35 to 40 years. The collagen and elastic fibers in your skin can retract best from fat loss before this age.
Another very important factor behind what causes cellulite is your metabolism. Your body’s metabolism is controlled by your liver and thyroid gland.
Your liver regulates fat metabolism in your body in several very sophisticated ways. In simple terms, you can look at your liver as an organ that burns unwanted body fat, or pumps excess fat out of your body through bile into your intestines.
Poor liver function reduces the ability of your liver to burn fat and pump fat out of your body through the bile. It also hinders the breakdown of fat-soluble toxins, which then become trapped in fatty tissues and lead to cellulite.
Eating the wrong types of fats (trans fats and saturated fats) increases the workload on your liver.
When your liver filter is damaged by toxins, or blocked with excessive waste material, it’s less able to remove small fat globules (chylomicrons) circulating in your bloodstream. This causes excessive fat to build up in the walls of your blood vessels.
This fat can then gradually build up in many other parts of your body, including other organs and in fatty deposits under your skin. Once this occurs it can then contribute to the development of cellulite.
Glycosaminoglycans, or GAGs, are sugars that form an important part of connective tissues.
The main function of GAGs is to maintain and support collagen and elastin bounce. Because they attract water, they also promote the ability of the collagen and elastin fibers to retain moisture, and therefore remain soluble. They’re essential to maintaining the connective tissues (collagen and elastin) in good condition, and to the metabolism of cells in your epidermis and dermis.
GAGs seep from the small blood vessels in your skin, and when increased deposition of GAGs occurs with aging, it puts pressure on the walls of your blood vessels, making them more permeable. This results in excess fluid in your dermis, fat cells and lobes of your septae, causing swelling.
This swelling is a signifcant contributing factor to what causes cellulite, and it also leads to compression of your blood vessels. This reduces blood flow in the veins, which reduces oxygenation of the tissue in your septae, causing them to shrink and become less able to stretch – another contributor to the appearance of cellulite.
As you’re no doubt beginning to appreciate, there’s no one factor behind what causes cellulite. It’s a combination of many major and minor changes in your body.
Other contributing factors include your total percentage of body fat, the thickness and color of your skin, dehydration, and even genetics. In fact, genes play an important role in the occurrence of cellulite. If other women in your family have cellulite, there’s a good chance that you will as well.