Causes and Risk Factors for Cellulite

Cellulite occurs when fat deposits accumulate under the skin. As these fat deposits and bodily fluids (e.g., blood plasma, cellular fluids, fluids within tissues and organs) push up against the skin, tissue that supports and attaches the skin to muscles, bones, and other internal structures (called connective tissue) pulls down, causing the characteristic dimpled appearance of cellulite. Due to differences in the way tissues are distributed in women's bodies, cellulite is more common in women than in men.

The exact reason that some people develop cellulite and others do not is unknown; however, heredity (genetics) is thought to play an important role. Poor circulation, increased sensitivity to hormone (e.g., estrogen) fluctuations, and weaknesses in body tissues (e.g., blood vessels, connective tissue, lymphatic tissue) may be hereditary and these factors may be associated with the appearance of cellulite.

Aging is another risk factor for cellulite. As we age, the skin loses some of its elasticity (i.e., ability to return to its original size and shape after stretching or being compressed), which can worsen the appearance of cellulite.

Estrogen levels may play a role in the development of cellulite. Many women develop cellulite during fluctuations in estrogen levels, for example, during puberty, pregnancy, and menopause. Women who use hormonal contraceptives (birth control pills) also may be at increased risk.

Estrogen is a hormone responsible for primary and secondary female sex characteristics (e.g., breast development; changes associated with menstruation; lack of facial hair; higher distribution of fat in the hips, thighs, and buttocks). Estrogen imbalances can weaken connective tissue, contributing to cellulite.

Weight gain may worsen cellulite and often makes the condition more noticeable. A sedentary (inactive) lifestyle also may contribute to the condition. However, cellulite also can occur in people who exercise regularly and are thin or normal weight.

There are a number of other theories about factors that may contribute to cellulite, but these theories are unproven. These factors include inadequate fluid intake, high stress levels, poor diet, smoking, and medications.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 13 Nov 2008

Last Modified: 03 Sep 2015