I Tried Butt-Lifting Creams, & This Is What Happened

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
There's no shortage of procedures, topical products, diets, massages, at-home machinery, or magical spells floating around to treat cellulite. Despite a sneaking suspicion that neither "vacuum therapy" nor overpriced creams can reduce cellulite's characteristic dimples, we keep buying them — and buying into the notion that cellulite is an abnormal disorder that needs to be corrected.  In fact, about 90% of post-adolescent women have it at some point. “It’s something we argue about in medicine. Is it a disease or even an abnormality if 90% of women have it?” says David Bank, MD, a Mt. Kisco, NY-based dermatologist. “It’s really just… normal.” I'm sad to say that I'm not a special snowflake in this regard. (Or, maybe I should be happy: I'm normal!) I have cellulite on my outer thighs and butt, and yes, I have entertained the idea of buying a skirted swimsuit. And, lately, I've turned my attention to the "magical" potion of butt-firming creams — at least it sounded better than zapping my ass with a laser.  When treating our lumps and bumps, most of us turn to topical creams, rather than in-office procedures. We all know intellectually that they probably don’t do much — yet beauty companies keep making them and we keep buying them. They don’t work, right? Then, why are there so many of them? Surely, they must do something! Would beauty companies really try to get our hopes up in such a mean way? — My internal dialogue  

There aren’t a lot of
objective studies that have analyzed whether cellulite creams actually do
anything. Generally, companies do their own clinical studies so they can make
claims like, “80% of women saw an improvement in the appearance of cellulite,”
being careful never to say “treatment” or “cure.” So, I decided to test some of them as scientifically as possible. Dr. Bank, who also works with the Federal Trade Commission on cases in which
cosmetics companies get into hot water for putting misleading labeling on
products, seemed like the ideal no-BS guy to help me with this project. He
agreed to photograph my cellulite before and after a two-month course of
treatment with two different topical creams, and then to analyze the results as
objectively as he can. Now, obviously this isn’t as rigorous as, say, a
double-blind study with 1,000 subjects, but it’s better than me taking belfies in
my bathroom mirror. 

I went into Dr. Bank’s
office, where I underwent a rather humiliating procedure. Imagine E!’s GlamCam 360, except in a medical
office and you have no pants on. I stood in the middle of a small octagon on
the floor, and was asked to spin around slowly — sans pants, may I remind you,
but also, thankfully, sans Ryan Seacrest — while the doctor's assistant took
closeup photos of my butt and thighs from every angle. 

I chose two products to test:
Mio Shrink to Fit Cellulite Smoother ($56) on my left side, and Talika Back Up 3D ($64) on my
right side. I applied them twice a day for eight weeks, missing only a few
applications. I used
the application technique recommended by Mio, which is to take about 20 seconds
to massage in the product vigorously. Sluggish lymphatic drainage is one of the
causes of cellulite, and massage can help move things along, so I wanted to
increase my chances of a good outcome. 

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.

Now’s a good time
to note that there are multiple causes for cellulite. As Dr. Bank explains, the
fibrous connective bands that hold our muscles and fat in place run
perpendicular to the skin. Fat cells become swollen, thanks to the
aforementioned sluggish lymphatic drainage and hormones, and then the cells
bulge between the fibrous bands, causing dimpling. Thinner female skin is also a contributor. It doesn’t necessarily matter how much you weigh —
it can occur on all body types. That’s
why it’s so difficult to pinpoint one ingredient or treatment that will
fix it. “I
don’t personally think there is a home-run treatment at the moment,” says Dr.
Bank. “Cellulite is so complicated that I think it’s going to be a while
[before we have one].”

Well, that didn't keep me from trying. Despite his pessimism, Dr.
Bank agreed to analyze the ingredient labels of each of the two products. Mio’s
main ingredients include caffeine, laminaria (which acts as a diuretic), green tea as
an antioxidant, shea butter for moisture, and menthol — which gave it a tingly
kick that gave, at least, the illusion that something was happening on my skin.
It has a thick, creamy consistency and a fresh, slightly spicy scent. The
Talika product is a less traditional cellulite cream. It contains several plant
extracts that the company claims affect fat storage, moisturizers, and lactic and
glycolic acids. It has a thinner consistency — sort of like a gooey serum. Aesthetically,
I preferred the Mio product. 

According to Dr. Bank, none
of these ingredients will “cure” cellulite — your best hope is of making it temporarily
look better on a superficial level. Moisturizing and improving the skin's surface are half the battle, and both of these products contain ingredients
that do that. The goal is to actually make skin plumper externally while
decreasing swelling in fat cells, in order to visually decrease the contrast
between the dimples and the non-dimpled skin. Caffeine works as a mild diuretic,
trying to get rid of some of that extra fluid that's retained because of the
sluggish lymph nodes. Ingredients like fruit acids will help
smooth skin; dimethicone and hyaluronate will trap moisture and
“plump.” “I think [these products] certainly could help the appearance of
the cellulite
without truly correcting, curing, or fixing the complex
underlying biophysiology of what’s going on,” he says.

After two months of twice-daily application, I returned to Dr. Bank’s office for follow-up pictures,
which he zoomed in on and analyzed for me. (Let’s hope his office never
experiences a Sony-level hack, because no one outside of the medical community
needs to see those.) The verdict? “On
very close inspection of the before and after pictures, there is an ever-so-slight,
very subtle smoothing of the skin,” he says. “Where there are some undulations
and topographical changes, the after pictures do look a bit smoother and more
even.” He saw this subtle improvement on both sides, so both products seem to
have done an equally good job.

I was pleasantly surprised, although the results were obviously
minor. “I don’t think that if we had done an ultrasound, or a CT scan, or
biopsies, that you would have seen any real change in the true cellulite
condition,” Dr. Bank says. “If anything, you’d see a bit better hydrated skin,
which would therefore be a little plumper.” Myself, I didn't notice a huge difference visually, although my thighs definitely felt smoother and more taut, sort of like my face feels when I’ve been using a
really good moisturizer regularly. (Plus, the massage I was giving myself twice a day may have helped me see some temporary results.) Honestly, though, applying one of these
products twice a day feels like a chore to me — I don't feel as invested in them
as I do in my facial products, possibly because very few people are ever privy to
the underside of my butt. Still, if cellulite is a
concern, I can recommend them with the caveat that you should
definitely not expect miracles.

The biggest lesson I learned from all of this: Maybe we should just
stop considering cellulite a problem. 

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