Cellulite is characterized by lumpy, dimpled skin on hips, thighs and buttocks. It doesn't matter whether a woman is overweight, or very thin: "The American Society of Plastic Surgery estimates that 85 percent of postpubertal females have some cellulite on thighs and buttocks," says MedPage Today, a news and continuing education website for physicians. Perhaps that explains the numerous firming and anti-cellulite creams on the market today. Manufacturers and beauty magazines are constantly touting the latest skin firming ingredients, like caffeine and seaweed. But do they work? Not likely, experts say.
"Looking at the research ... most articles suggest there's little hope that anything rubbed on the skin can change fat deposits or radically improve the appearance of cellulite," says Paula Begoun, author of the book "Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me" and the website Beautypedia.com. The only topical treatment she recommends that could possibly have any effect is retinol (a derivative of vitamin A that helps to boost collagen production and thickens skin).
However, for some women, even temporary improvement may be worth a splurge. Despite all the scientific evidence, numerous products claim to visibly improve the appearance of cellulite, and user reviews often support these claims. This may be merely a placebo effect, or may be due to the increased blood circulation caused by vigorous application. One product that receives some positive reviews is Elizabeth Arden Prevage Body Total Transforming Anti-Aging Moisturizer (Est. $40 for 6.8 oz.). However, Begoun is skeptical. She notes that while skin tone may improve as it would with any other moisturizer, it will not help with cellulite and the claims made about its skin-lightening ingredient are only suggestive, not conclusive. At least the selling price at many retailers is a lot lower than the staggering $135 list price.
Begoun reviews a couple of drugstore "firming" lotions and finds little to recommend them. Concealing cellulite may work better: "For a quick fix before slipping on shorts, rub on a self-tanner, "WebMD.com advises. "Cellulite is less noticeable on darker skin."
Like cellulite, over-the-counter stretch mark treatments come with a lot of hype -- but don't offer very much help. Stretch marks affect an estimated 90 percent of women who are or have been pregnant, 70 percent of adolescent females and 40 percent of adolescent males, according to Begoun. They form when the skin is stretched for an extended period of time, such as with a pregnancy, rapid weight gain or growth spurt.
Begoun says there is no evidence that over-the-counter creams (usually touting cocoa butter, vitamin E, oils, collagen or elastin as their miracle ingredient) can have any impact on stretch marks. She recommends the ingredient tretinoin instead, found in Retin-A and Renova creams (or their generic counterparts), which are prescription products. "There is some research showing tretinoin ... can have a positive effect on stretch marks!" she says. "Typical improvement is 20%, which may not be as dramatic as you're hoping, but may still be worth the effort and expense, depending on the severity of your stretch marks."
Tretinoin is not without some risks, however. It should be avoided if you're pregnant or breastfeeding, Begoun advises. Topical tretinoin is a Pregnancy Category C drug (animal studies have shown possible risk to the fetus, but there have been no controlled studies in pregnant women), and it is unknown whether it's excreted in breast milk, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says.
"If you aren't pregnant, are not trying to become pregnant, or are not breastfeeding, then tretinoin is a promising option for treating stretch marks," Begoun says. "Over-the-counter products that contain 1% retinol may also help, but given their relationship to prescription retinoids, they also should be avoided during pregnancy."