For women with the all-too-common lumps and bumps of cellulite, wearing a bathing suit or shorts in public may make them feel self-conscious or embarrassed. The condition, which makes the skin on the rear end and backs of thighs appear bumpy and dimpled, affects more than 85 percent of adult women, according to some estimates.
No one knows why women get cellulite, said Dr. Michael Kaminer, an associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicineand one of the founders of SkinCare Physicians in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.But cellulite is almost always related to genetics and how skin and muscle attach in women, he said.
Although it plagues the vast majority of women — even those who are fit and slim — the question of how to banish cellulite has stumped scientists. But Cellfina, a new cosmetic procedure first approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2014, may make it easier to fix cellulite. The treatment helps improve the appearance of dimpled skin for at least two years, and may even have longer-lasting results, experts say.
Cellfina works by releasing the fibrous bands under the skin known as "septae" that can pull down skin and create cellulite, said Kaminer, who helped develop the concept for the procedure and was involved in the original pilot studies that led to its FDA approval. [7 Beauty Trends That Are Bad for Your Health]
This is not the first FDA-approved device for cellulite.
There have been other devices that have purported to get rid of cellulite using laser or radio-frequency energy, and they have produced mild to moderate benefits, said Dr. Matthew Avram, director of the dermatology, laser and cosmetic center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who was not involved in the development of Cellfina. But these treatments only had temporary effects and they did not change the underlying structure of cellulite, he said.
Cellfina, on the other hand, targets the architecture of the skin and the fat associated with dimpling, Avram said. The procedure appears to be safe, and it is designed to tackle cellulite's underlying cause and produce a real improvement in the appearance of dimpled skin, he said. (Avram noted, however, that he has not yet used Cellfina on his patients, but is planning to do so soon.
By releasing the fibrous bands of connective tissue that pull on the skin from the fat below, Cellfina allows the skin's surface to become more flat and even rather than having an undulating or cottage-cheese appearance, Avram told Live Science.
Under the skin
The minimally invasive procedure is approved for treating "pinky-nail to thumbnail-size dimpled cellulite found on the rear end, the back of thighs and outer thighs," said Kaminer, who uses the treatment in his practice. [5 Ways Skin Can Signal Health Problems]
To be a good candidate for the procedure, a woman should be within 10 pounds of her normal body weight, Kaminer said. Women who are significantly overweight have extra fat underneath the skin, which creates more weight to the skin, he said. Cellfina would not produce a noticeable change in cellulite's appearance in these women, he said.
During the hour-long procedure, a doctor may be able to treat, on average, 20 to 30 dimples. After the dimples were marked, a device is used to inject an anesthetic liquid under the skin to numb the treatment area. (On a pain scale of zero to 10, most women rate this part of the process between a 3 and a 4, Kaminer said.)
Next, the same device is used to attach a suction cup to the dimpled skin in order to stabilize it. A physician then inserts a tiny needle into the skin to cut the fibrous bands of connective tissue, he said.
Kaminer said about half the women he treats need Tylenol for pain relief afterward. Women are also advised to wear Spanx or a similar compression garment every day for a week following the procedure, he said.
The side effects of Cellfina may include bruising, swelling, soreness and red dots in the areas where the suction cups and needle were used. But Kaminer said that because the needle used to release the fibrous bands is so tiny, there is no scarring. Once the fibrous bands are released, they don't appear to grow back and reform cellulite, he said.
Kaminer tells his patients to give the treated area about two to three months before expecting to see improvements from the procedure. But many women have told him that they can see a difference in their skin within a week, if they don't have much swelling and bruising.
"For the first year after treatment, the appearance of the skin gets better and better," Kaminer told Live Science. A study of the first 55 women to undergo the procedure showed that 99 percent of them had improvements in the appearance of their cellulite and produced a 94 percent satisfaction rate one year after the treatment, he said.
Many women that Kaminer has treated say they feel happier that they can now wear certain clothes again, such as white pants or tight-fitting yoga pants, Kaminer said.
But the procedure comes at a cost. The $4,000 to $6,000 price tag of Cellfina is generally not covered by health insurance. The procedure was first released for commercial use in 2015, and currently 40 to 50 physicians throughout the country offer it, Kaminer said. [Body Enhancement Nightmares: The Top 10 Crimes Against Nature]
Before Cellfina became available, Kaminer said most treatments for cellulite were based on massage. Those treatments tended to produce a 10 to 15 percent improvement in appearance that lasted for about a month before needing to be repeated, he said.
So far, the evidence on the Cellfina procedure comes from a small sampling of women, and shows the benefits have endured for at least two years with no indication the results are reversing, Avram told Live Science.
To measure Cellfina's true effectiveness, additional studies are needed on more women who have had the procedure and been followed over longer periods, he said.