As the story goes, the Instagram-famous, Kardashian and Real Housewife-approved plastic surgery treatment cryolipolysis was invented almost accidentally. In 1970, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that when children sucked on frozen popsicles, the fat cells in their cheeks died. Doctors capitalized on this scientific discovery, and created a machine that could essentially freeze off fat. Thus, "cryolipolysis" was born. In 2010, CoolSculpting was approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and it's now used to treat fat in the chin area, thighs, abdomen, bra and back areas, underneath the butt, and upper arms.
Nowadays, in the world of detox teas and waist-trainers, it makes sense why there's a market for cryolipolysis. "What's appealing about this is you go sit in an office, don't have anesthesia or surgery, pull up an area of clothing, and apply a machine," says Alan Matarasso, MD, FACS, president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS). The procedure takes 35 to 60 minutes, and costs between $2,000 to $4,000. For people looking to quickly change an area of body fat, cryolipolysis might seem like a good choice. "But like anything else you get what you put into it," he says.
On a physiological level, cryolipolysis works by sucking up body tissue, exposing it to extremely cold temperatures, and freezing fat cells, Dr. Matarasso says. "Over two to three months, the fat cells in that area die," and the contents are picked up by the body's immune system or evacuated from the body, he says. In studies, cryolipolysis is shown to reduce anywhere from 18 to 25% of an area of fat, he adds.
One common misconception about cryolipolysis is that it's a surgical solution for weight loss. "There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that cryoliplysis is effective for weight loss or has any sort of positive health benefits," says Stephanie Manasse, PhD, assistant research professor and clinician at Drexel University's Center for Weight, Eating, and Lifestyle Science. There's very little research about the effects of cryolipolysis, or the long-term consequences of getting these repeated procedures. In fact, "if there is anything that science is consistent about, it’s that there is no magic bullet for weight loss," she adds. We also know that any successful long-term weight loss involves maintaining significant lifestyle changes, which plastic surgery can't do for you.
Although CoolSculpting is considered a "noninvasive" procedure, there are some side effects that are worth knowing about before you do it. For starters, many say that the treatment itself can be painful, and feels like pulling, tugging, pinching, or tingling. The area of skin where the pads are applied may become numb, red, swollen, or bruised afterwards, according to the CoolSculpting website. It's not for everyone, and you should definitely check with your doctor before pursuing it — because, after all, it's a medical treatment. People with certain conditions that are affected by the cold, or those who are pregnant, shouldn't have cryolipolysis, because it can be dangerous.
As with other forms of plastic surgery, it's entirely your decision what you do with your body, and that includes whether or not you seek out CoolSculpting. But as the procedure gets more mainstream, and more celebrities open up about having it, Dr. Manasse says it's important to really consider what's driving you to do it. "Unfortunately, our society perpetuates the notion that in order to have maximum worth as a human being, one must have the perfect body," Dr. Manasse says. Companies profit greatly from people buying into this message.
"Pushing the idea that an otherwise healthy person should have a cosmetic procedure to have a more perfect-appearing body is terribly harmful," Dr. Manasse says. Research has shown that basing your self-worth on your body appearance is associated with psychological distress and disordered eating. We're all born with a number of fat cells in our body, and they can expand and contract due to diet and hormones. So, just because you can freeze them off, doesn't necessarily mean that you should.