Dough Begone: We Test the Latest Cellulite Treatments

With a case of cellulite resistant to everything she's tried to date, Ellen Himelfarb looks to the latest treatments—at the spa, the doctor's office and the drugstore—in the quest to firm her bumpy backside

Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

I’m lying face down at Bliss Spa in London, bare but for a paper thong, while therapist Elizabeth Chate runs a Hoover-like wand on my legs and butt like a lost house cleaner.

The first slurp is a bit of a shocker—which is precisely the point of this anti-cellulite thrashing, promisingly dubbed FatGirlSlim. For $200 a visit, it supposedly deflates those bulging globs. The vacuum isn’t actually swallowing anything, but allegedly rousing my lazy lymph nodes with its sucking action. Next, Chate switches to a roller, which directs the lymph’s “flow” up my legs and bum, towards my upper body. “We’re waking it all up… flushing it all out, all the toxins,” she says.

Here she’s referring to spa dogma: the notion that chemical nasties are clogging our system and getting wedged in fatty tissue. Treatments like FatGirlSlim give our bodies the proverbial face slap, like Cher in Moonstruck: “Snap out of it!”

I say “thrashing,” but it feels quite nice to do nothing for 75 minutes while a congenial stranger imitates a toddler rolling a Tonka Truck up your thighs. I only had to stop Chate once, when she dialed the vacuum up to “high” and I felt my veins try to escape. Admittedly, it will make you feel ridiculous, the modern equivalent of the 1950s vibrating belt. Chate concedes FatGirlSlim will do nothing if you taxi home to eat a pizza, yet it’s billed as “seriously thigh-tech.”

A full 85 percent of women claim to have skin textured like clumpy dough. Afflicting the svelte and Rubenesque alike, it’s so common that some doctors consider cellulite a female secondary sex characteristic—as inevitable as boobs. Which is why a multi-zillion-dollar industry operates to help eliminate it, or at least improve its appearance. Spa services like FatGirlSlim and LPG Systems’ Lipomassage (a new treatment that’s similar but entails wearing a body stocking) promise to knead it into submission. Science-y lotions claim to tighten the skin over it. And doctors’ offices profess to blast the fat that creates it.

Now the bad news: If you think the roll-out of these newfangled remedies means we’re closer to discovering a definitive cellulite cure, you are what marketers call an easy target. In reality, we’re about as close as Galileo was to a moon landing. Yet hope springs eternal that we can make a difference—even if it’s modest and temporary—which is what has women hustling to spas and filling shopping carts for a fix that will last at least a beach jaunt.

This much is known: Between our skin and our fat, there’s a layer of connective tissue—so called because it connects skin to muscle. Age and estrogen fluctuations cause this tissue’s collagen to lose elasticity and pull on skin. As fat cells grow, they push on that rigid tissue.

Most experts agree the resulting lumps are Mother Nature’s joke on her fellow women: Our connective tissue sits vertically rather than in the male crosshatch pattern, so there’s more opportunity for fat to get trapped up against the skin. But that’s where the agreement ends.

Whereas spa sages talk up the toxin-purging powers of deep massage, seaweed wraps and “Endermologie”-style kneading machines like FatGirlSlim, there’s a dearth of real research to back up the toxin-cellulite link. If you buy it, the notion is that certain substances collect in zones of poor circulation, leading to inflammation and other cellular changes that may, in turn, exacerbate the look of cellulite.

Doctors, however, tend not to talk about these so-called toxins, instead focusing on plumping the skin  or melting the fat, with varying degrees of success. Cellulite remains a “nebulous concept,” admits Dr. Charles Lynde of the Lynde Centre for Dermatology in Markham, Ont. An associate professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, he lists a half-dozen lasers that have just won FDA approval for reducing cellulite, before pouring cold water: “You can’t really put your hat on any of these studies. It’s a lot of ‘emperor has no clothes.’”

So Dr. Lynde’s advice is to exercise, eat healthier, take multi-vitamins. He also prescribes Retin-A, the same cream renowned for its wrinkle-smoothing and acne-clearing prowess. Applying a dime-size amount at night can help build collagen to make your backside look tauter—but it won’t be dimple-free.

Dr. Lynde refers the real sticklers to colleagues who do laser lipolysis. The noninvasive treatment entails injecting a natural substance called phosphatidylcholine to break down fat cells. But even this has only short-term effects, if any. And it can cost up to $4,000 for 20 minutes.

“It’s human nature to want that magic cure,” says Dr. Lynde, “but I say ‘buyer beware.’”

Yet optimists flock to SpaMedica, Dr. R. Stephen Mulholland’s clinic in Toronto. In the ’90s, he used a suction-massage device similar to Bliss’s. In 2006, he got his first laser lipolysis machine; in 2009, he introduced Cellulaze, a $200,000 radio-frequency contraption. “It’s one of the first that uses thermal stimulation [or heat] on cellulite,” he says, “melting the fat.”

While I try to banish images of draining the grease from my ground beef, Dr. Mulholland explains how he makes tiny incisions into trouble spots (patients are given local anesthesia). A fine, catheter-like tube, or cannula, is pierced into the skin, through which a laser fibre pulses to heat up fat nodules. This liquefied fat oozes out of the damaged cell membrane, to be absorbed into the lymphatic system. Over time, the connective tissue produces collagen and tightens.

Sound messy? It is. “Because there are tiny entry holes, the fat can leak out,” Dr. Mulholland says. Patients can quarantine themselves for 24 hours, until their body ceases to be a fat fountain. Then they’ll wear a Spanx-like garment for three weeks, “to ‘shrink wrap’ the skin while it’s contracting.”

It costs upwards of $2,500 to treat one area, but in his experience, Dr. Mulholland says, Cellulaze will give most women a 70 percent improvement in the look of cellulite, with results that could last years, the boldest claims of any treatment I surveyed. (If you’re wondering, percentages are entirely subjective— judged by appearance.)

His menu of other options ranges in cost and effect. There’s a topical laser called SmoothShapes “for mild cellulite,” which supposedly yields a 20 to 30 percent improvement after about eight weekly treatments (at about $250 a pop). And there’s BodyTite, which uses radio frequency energy to liquefy fat and coagulate blood vessels. It requires only one trip ($2,500 to $5,000), “with a 40 to 90 percent reduction” in cellulite, says Dr. Mulholland.

With fat melters like Cellulaze, you don’t need the same ongoing upkeep associated with procedures that target only the skin’s surface, he assures. That’s because the latter treatments shrink fat cells, but don’t kill them; they invariably bulk up again. In those cases, Dr. Mulholland’s patients generally come back three to four times annually “to keep it tight.”

Sounds tempting, but that level of maintenance is broaching Joan Rivers territory, many steps further than I’m willing to go.

As it is, a week into my new cellulite-busting regimen, I’m struggling to keep up. What sagging I may be banishing from my ass is reappearing under my eyes.

I get my hands on the Biotherm Celluli Eraser Visible Cellulite Reducer Concentrate, the latest edition of the popular body smoother, which touts caffeine, thought to increase microcirculation and help release lipids from fatty tissue, and a calcium-rich algae. Biotherm invested in the latter after finding that fat cells exposed to calcium will stop proliferating. For $56, it pledges to lessen the look of cellulite by 25 percent after four weeks.

I massage it vigorously into my podgy parts twice daily. In between, I contend with Bliss’s new Lean Machine, $170, a melon-size apparatus that slips onto my hand like a catcher’s mitt and squawks like a family of geese. A milder version of the in-spa contraption, it’s meant for at-home maintenance—three to five minutes on each trouble spot every day. It comes with its own lotion to help the rollers glide, so I am engaged in a cycle of applying creams and waiting for them to dry before applying others, then finding a private place for my fat vibrator.

I become a curiosity in my house, fielding questions from my kids, who are confused by this newfound vanity, and from my husband, who needs the batteries for the remote. After this I can’t do much but sit in front of the TV with a jar of Nutella, which is, of course, a no-no.

No product purports to work miracles without a patient who meets it halfway with exercise and a junk- free diet. Even Elisa Simonpietri, international scientific director for Biotherm, insists Celluli Eraser is only part of the solution. “It’s designed not for losing weight but to reduce the aspect of cellulite.”

The problem with exercise and dieting is that they suck. Besides, as dermatologists will attest, cellulite can resist even the healthiest habits. Nonsense, counters Charly Kelly, a certified personal trainer with Calgary’s EnergyLife Sciences: “It’s a combination of muscle tone, definition and cleaning the body— the elimination of toxins—that has an impact on [the visibility of] cellulite.” She recommends avoiding processed sugar, refined foods— anything with a label must go.

I ask Kelly, whose hard body belies her new-mom status, for her exercise hot list. “Walking lunges. They’re an all-time favourite,” she says, along with jumping and running lunges and kettle-bell training. In fact, all heavy lifting.

“It’s a holistic approach,” she says. What it doesn’t include is the topical cream I’m using. I recall what Bliss’s Chate said about creams: “They’re the icing on the cake.”

All this advice is so exhausting, I might as well be working out. Imagine how it must have felt in the days of the vibrating belt. At least they thought they had the answer.

Meanwhile, my body, much like the mind that controls it, appears to be in rebel mode—resistant to my tactics. I do feel a bit of a tighter pull in the areas I treated, and I have gained a new awareness of what I’ve been putting into my body, and how I’ve been neglecting my skin. I predict I’ll still be wedded to my one-piece this summer, but it’s early days yet.

Smooth Movers: Promises from the latest cellulite fighters

all natural

Photo by Ivan Engler

1. The All-Natural: Weleda Birch Cellulite Oil, $37.

The Claim: It detoxes with organic birch leaf extract and nourishes with oils from apricot kernels, jojoba seeds and wheat germ. Weleda’s own research found 21 percent smoother skin after a month.


Photo by Ivan Engler

2. The Pre-Emptive Strike: Clarins Body Lift Cellulite Smoother, $65.

The Claim: The fresh-feeling gel-cream vows to hinder the formation of new fat cells with plant extracts such as aquatic mint, while caffeine helps smooth existing dimples.

helping hand

3. The Helping Hand: The Body Shop Spa Fit Firming & Toning Gel Cream Massager, $30.

The Claim: Caffeine plus citrus essential oils help firm, and the nubbed cap mimics a spa massage method (the “palpate and roll”) to encourage microcirculation.


4. The Anti-Ager: StriVection-TL Tightening Body Cream, $79.

The claim: Alongside caffeine, it borrows ingredients from the anti-wrinkle aisle, including peptides and algae extract, to boost the production of collagen over time.

double duty

5. The Double Duty: Shiseido Body Creater Aromatic Sculpting Gel, $58.

The Claim:  A patented mushroom and caffeine complex encourages the breakdown of fat, while beech extract promotes collagen.