The cellulite fight: Are consumers taking a financial bath on new products?


LOS ANGELES -- The new goal in thigh perfection is not just thinness in 30 days, but smooth, taut and toned skin, too.

The latest wave of attacks hopes to eradicate the dreaded culprit cellulite.

Cellulite, that spongy, uneven "cottage cheeselike" appearance of the skin on the thighs, arms and rear end, continues to puzzle and frustrate its victims, nearly all of whom are women. Now, as cosmetic companies expand their cellulite "treatment" lines, sufferers have new hope that something besides starvation, exercise or surgery will restore their skin to its youthful firmness.

Even as beauty experts, doctors and researchers understand more about the condition, opinions about the cause, cure and care of cellulite remain split.

Cellulite isn't a type of stubborn fat that can be massaged away, as the beauty industry claims. Doctors say it is the result of a woman's tissue structure that allows the skin to dimple at fatty areas. Some cosmetic companies say it is both.

"Cellulite is pretty misunderstood," said Joseph Melnik, director of research and development at Elizabeth Arden Inc. "People think of it as being related to fat and obesity and being overweight. It's not a health defect. It's strictly a cosmetic kind of disfigurement."

Thin people can have cellulite and fat people can have none, according to Dr. George Sanders, an Encino plastic surgeon on staff at the Northridge Hospital Medical Center.

"If you could look through the skin at a cross section, you would see that (cellulite) is built like a mattress with buttons on it," he said. Little, hairlike fibers attach the skin to the underlying tissue, acting as the "buttons."

"Where the fibers are attached is where you get the dimpled effect, where the skin is pulled down," Sanders said. The presence of those fibers is determined largely by heredity and gender.

Men don't get cellulite, except sometimes on their stomach, because the fibers run at an angle to the skin, reducing the pulling effect, Sanders said. For women, aging can exacerbate the condition, as gravity stretches skin and stresses the fibers more, he said.

However, weight loss may help, according to most of the experts cellulite.

"If the 'mattress' isn't stuffed quite as full, the fibers aren't pulled as tightly," Sanders said. That can help to even the contours of the skin.

Exercise is often prescribed, even on the promotional literature from cosmetic companies. But it's not a sure thing, said Dr. Larry Koplin, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon.

"If you look at dancers and other exceptionally toned people, they may have wonderfully tight and sleek muscles. But skin and fat hang off a muscle like a picture hangs off the wall. They may have a nice tight wall, but the picture is irregular," he said.

"So you can exercise all day long and have the world's most wonderful muscles, but you can't tone the skin or the fat or the shortened (fiber) attachments by exercise, or by herbal wraps or creams that are supposed to penetrate through the skin," Koplin said.

The medical community may offer no promises, but cellulite treatments give consumers hope. The price of that hope puts $75 million a year into the coffers of skin-care companies, said Susan Babinsky, a cosmetics analyst with Klein and Co. in New Jersey. By comparison, facial skin-care products are a $1 billion-a-year business, showing that women aren't exactly gullible about cellulite, Babinsky said.

"I think people have become more accepting that there is only so much that diet and exercise and products can do. Women are just accepting that their fat content is higher than (that of) males," Babinsky said.

Until, that is, a slick magazine advertisement for a new cellulite product plants the thought: "What if I could turn my cottage cheese thighs into sleek, yogurt-type thighs?"

One might, in a fit of low self-esteem, or when faced with bathing-suit season, march to the cosmetic counter and plunk down $42.50 for Lancome's new Durable Minceur Cellulite "Relief" Gel, or $150 for the four products from the Clarins line, or camp on Georgette Mosbacher's doorstep until the La Prairie chairwoman releases her new trio of cellulite control products.

Most department store cosmetic treatments combine massage with a toning or firming gel that, in essence, tightens the skin. A special massage tool, with rubber tips or hard plastic blades, works with special soaps or massage creams, supposedly to break up the rebellious fat lumps.

While a second and sometimes third generation of products sweeps onto the market, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn't substantially changed its position on cosmetic treatments for the condition.

"We say again that there is no scientific evidence that these things can remove bumps and lumps," said Emil Corwin, a

spokesman for the FDA's center for food safety and applied nutrition.

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