What Causes Cellulite?

Learn what causes cellulite and why women get it.

Ben Greenfield
3-minute read
Episode #51

What Causes Cellulite?

If you’re concerned about the unsightly cellulite that seems especially prevalent on the butt, thighs, and calves, then this article is for you. In part 1 of this “How to Get Rid of Cellulite” series, you’ll learn what causes cellulite why women get cellulite, and in part 2 you’ll learn the best ways to get rid of cellulite, and whether lasers, surgery, or creams actually work at getting rid of cellulite.

What Is Cellulite?

According to Wikipedia, cellulite is a topographical skin change that occurs primarily in postpubertal females. But unless you’re the House Call Doctor, you probably have no clue what that means. So here’s an easier explanation.

To understand what cellulite is, you need to understand what collagen is. Collagen is a type of protein found in your body that helps make the connective tissue in your tendons, ligaments, and skin. In the case of your skin, if that connective tissue somehow becomes damaged, too thin, or full of holes, then the fat underneath your skin can poke through in a lumpy fashion that we call cellulite.

Imagine it this way: collagen is like a paper bag and the fat is like the groceries inside the bag. If the bag gets damaged, wet, or is just too thin, all the groceries can spill out -- including, of course, the cottage cheese.

What Causes Cellulite?

So what on earth could cause that poor grocery paper bag of collagen to become so weak that it just can’t seem to hold in a little bit of fat here and there?

Collagen needs oxygen and nutrients, and it gets those from blood flow. But as a woman ages and her estrogen levels begin to decrease, some of the receptors in the blood vessels (especially the blood vessels in the lower body) begin to lose function. So circulation can decrease, and then the collagen loses its blood flow and degrades.

This tends to be a bigger problem in the upper calves, the thighs, and the butt, where women naturally have three layers of fat, and so that paper bag has a much harder job holding in all those extra groceries!

So what else can cause a loss of blood circulation and weak collagen?

If you’re a woman and you ever get panty lines from pantyhose, tight underwear, or tight clothing, that’s a sign that the clothing is cutting off blood circulation and increasing your risk for collagen weakness and cellulite.

Finally, though a drop in estrogen can cause weak collagen and cellulite formation in older women, just the opposite appears to be the case in younger women. Cellulite in younger women is not necessarily because the grocery bag is too weak, but rather because there are simply too many groceries. And that is often caused by too much estrogen, also known as estrogen dominance, which can result from eating a high amount of processed foods, soy, and packaged foods, or from physical inactivity or stress. These are all, of course, also a problem for older women, who are an even more increased risk of developing cellulite.

Why Do Women Get Cellulite?

There are a few distinct differences between men and women that make women far more prone to get cellulite.

First, the collagen in women is structured differently and is weaker and less able to hold in the fat.

Secondly, both men and women have things called alpha and beta receptors. Beta receptors are responsible for breaking down fat, and alpha receptors are responsible for producing more fat. And women have about a ten times higher ratio of alpha receptors to beta receptors compared to men!

Not only that, but increased estrogen levels increase propensity to build fat, and women have more estrogen than men--who are packed with fat-burning testosterone.

So if you’re a woman, and you’re reading this article, you might be getting just a bit depressed about what seems to be unavoidable. But the fact is, lots of women don’t get cellulite. And in the next episode, I’m going to teach you how to decrease your risk of getting cellulite and how to get rid of cellulite if you’ve already got it.

Grocery Bag image from Shutterstock

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.