If you’ve been frustrated by cottage cheese thighs, you’re not alone. About 85 percent of women have cellulite, according to the Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy. No matter how many squats you do or desserts you skip, it’s nearly impossible to smooth out those bulges completely.
You might think cellulite means fat, but that’s only part of the picture. A web of connective tissue holds your skin and fat together. Because the tissue isn’t a solid sheet, fat can poke through the empty spaces between walls, says Misbah Khan, MD, FAAD, FACMS, founder of M Khan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery, and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College. Even if you’re not overweight, some fat is bound to show up as cellulite, she says. (Don’t miss these 50 tricks to lose weight without a lick of exercise.)
In fact, cellulite is so common in women that it’s “almost considered a secondary sex characteristic,” says Anthony Rossi, MD, FAAD, dermatologic surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and assistant professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College.
Thank body structure and hormones for giving you more cellulite than men. While almost every woman gets cellulite, only 10 percent of men need to deal with it. While men have a tight mesh of tissue, women have fewer bands, says Dr. Khan. “If a woman has three bands of connections, a man would have ten,” she says.
Plus, women’s tissues run basically vertical, while men’s bands are tighter because they crisscross at a 45-degree angle, says Dr. Khan. Women already hold more fat in their pelvic areas to make pregnancies easier, and that looser net of tissue means more spaces where fat can bulge out.
Hormones play a role, too. Though the biology isn’t totally clear, fat cells respond differently to estrogen and testosterone, leaving women more prone to cellulite. “We don’t know if the male hormone prevents it or if the female hormone causes it,” says Dr. Khan.
Weight loss can reduce the appearance of cellulite, but it probably won’t get rid of every dent. Sure you’ll have less fat, but the connective tissues will still be there, says Dr. Rossi. “Weight loss alone won’t get rid of cellulite necessarily,” he says. “If you don’t address those tetherings, you won’t break up what’s bounding the skin and creating the depressions.”
Don’t waste your time with those cellulite-bashing creams you see in drugstores either. Their claims to draw out moisture aren’t as effective as they seem, says Dr. Rossi. And other topical treatments might moisturize dry, wrinkly skin so it looks better, but they aren’t actually combating cellulite, says Dr. Khan.
If you’re dead set on getting rid of that cottage cheese look, you’ll probably need to visit a dermatologist. A skin doc can use a laser or needle to snip away the tissue, leaving the area smoother, says Dr. Rossi.
But at the end of the day, as long as you’re at a healthy weight, cellulite nothing to worry about. Just about every other woman is probably just as self-conscious as you, and it’s totally harmless. “It can happen across the board, no matter how skinny you are,” says Dr. Khan.
MORE: 9 Things Dermatologists Wish Women Knew About Cellulite