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To Good To Be True?

Can Caffeine Really Get Rid of Cellulite?


Minnette Boesel

Prof. Schlundt

Health Psychology

September 20, 2006



Across America women are clearing a new wave of body lotions off of drug store shelves and department store counters in the hope that it will solve one of their constant body complaints: the presence of cellulite. Society’s obsession with having a thin and flawless figure has grown in the last decade, and with it, so has the number of consumer products and treatments risen claiming to provide a fast and easy way of achieving that goal.  The increasingly present cellulite creams that claim to improve the appearance of cellulite, all by rubbing a special cream on the body, are among the latest and most popular on the market.  By definition, cellulite is caused by the accumulation of fat cells deposited in pockets just below the surface of weakened skin that outwardly give the skin a dimpled appearance, particularly around the hips, thighs, and buttocks.  The fat in cellulite is no different from the fat found in the rest of the body, except that it is located in the skin.  Found primarily in women, it affects all ages, shapes, and sizes, and can be one of the most stubborn flaws to get rid of for even the thinnest of women ( 



Covered in Cream: Making Claims


            Given the rising obsession with body image and the desire to do away with flaws in a fast-paced world, it makes sense that cosmetic companies have latched onto the growing market for a superficial, quick fix cream to combat cellulite.  The vast majority claim to be able to minimize the appearance of cellulite after a just a few weeks of daily application.  How do they supposedly achieve this goal?  For most of these creams, the “miracle ingredient” is actually quite simple: caffeine, or its related forms aminophylline and theophylline.  According to Linda Wells, editor-in-chief of Allure Magazine, “caffeine is in almost every cellulite-reducing product that shows any benefit, because it helps blood flow to the skin and works like a diuretic” flushing moisture out of the skin and firming it, even if only temporarily (   Claims for creams such as Celluthin, Cellulean, Neutrogena’s Anti-Cellulite Treatment, and Avon’s CelluSculpt Anti-Cellulite Slimming Treatment (just a few among many), all carry caffeine or its derivative forms as an active ingredient and claim that they can reduce the appearance of cellulite within a matter of weeks.  Dermatologists behind the product Celluthin even claim that their cream can have a dramatic effect on stored body fat, even when cellulite isn’t an issue. “Put Celluthin in a culture dish with fat cells and you can literally watch them deflate – similar to sticking a pin into a balloon” (  A dramatic effect indeed, it is no wonder that women are sweeping these up for an easy remedy to a lifelong problem. 



Beneath the Surface:  Mechanisms (that could be) at Work

In theory, creams whose key ingredient is caffeine (or the closely related forms aminophylline and theophylline) “work great to pull fluids out of the spaces between cells and induce lipolysis – fat burning in the layer just below the skin’s surface” – causing fat cells to release fat particles and thus shrink in size (  The belief is that by applying these creams with these compounds, they with penetrate the skin, dehydrating fat cells and increasing lypolytic or fat-burning activity. 

A few select studies have been conducted that indicate caffeine may have a positive effect on fat cells and their ability carry out lypolysis (Bertin and Nutrica).  According to the in vitro Nutrica study, storage of fat in fat cells is accomplished by the protein lipoprotein lipase, located on the fat cell membrane. This lipoprotein lipase is an enzyme “produced by the fat cell to convert lipoprotein-bound triglycerides circulating in the bloodstream into free triglycerides that can be stored in the fat” (Nutrica).  In the presence of caffeine or its related compounds, activity of the lipoprotein lipase is inhibited and in turn, so is the storage of fat in fat cells, causing cells to eventually burn the fat already stored.  When applied to the skin, the idea is that the compound penetrates the skin to inhibit fat deposition and increase fat burning as in the in vitro samples, while pulling moisture away from cells and firming skin.  [graph image source: Nutrica]


Support: Says Who?


            While the explanations to these studies may seem logical, there are important issues that bring into question the effectiveness of caffeine on cellulite and validity of the studies in this debate.  Paula Begoun, a well-known cosmetics critic, points to the fact that there is no consistency among product formulas and that the support that these products actually work is unclear and minimal at best (   The scientific findings that show caffeine and its related compounds do have a positive effect on fat deposition, such as the Nutrica study, were done on in vitro samples that measure cellular activity, but unfortunately was not conducted in a fashion that reflected its effect in application to the body.  Although there was increased fat-burning activity in the in vitro sample, the study went further to address allergic sensitivity to the compounds but not than the effect of the compound on human flesh (Nutrica).  Multiple studies have been conducted that actually address the lack of scientific evidence supporting these claims and also assert that treatment of cellulite by these creams is ineffective (Collis). 

Additionally, the criteria many of the studies use to judge the appearance of cellulite and whether it has improved lack specificity in setting scientific standards, are faulty in their methodology, and are largely subjective in interpretation (  This problem is augmented by the fact that among the few studies supporting the effects of caffeine, aminophylline and theophylline as cellulite and fat reducers, many are conducted by companies that sell cellulite creams among their products, such as those done by Johnson & Johnson owner of Neutrogena, bringing in the question of objectivity in design and interpretation of the results (Bertin and  



The Review: Too Good to Be True?


Despite the rising claims from cosmetic companies and the multiple women’s magazines that tout these creams as miracle products, the scientific support is inconsistent and minimal.  Much of the research done is based on small private studies where bias, rather than scientific standard, may influence how results are judged.  While preliminary data is promising, research that does support the effectiveness of these ingredients in cellulite creams is limited and incomplete (Dickinson).  It appears that some of these lotions and potions with caffeine may have some effect on the appearance of cellulite as a result of dehydration, but the results are temporary and do nothing to banish the presence cellulite.  Applying caffeine to the skin will not suppress enzyme activity and induce your skin’s fat-burning capabilities.  Your best bet?  Spend that money you save on all those bottles of cream and join the gym – it will be more entertaining than rubbing in all those lotions and give you better results than any one of them can promise. 



Study References


A double-blind evaluation of the activity of an anti-cellulite product containing retinol, caffeine, and ruscogenine by a combination of several non-invasive methods.
Bertin C, Zunino H, Pittet JC, Beau P, Pineau P, Massonneau M, Robert C, Hopkins J.  Johnson & Johnson Consumer. 
Journal of Cosmetic Science. 2001 Jul-Aug;52(4):199-210.




Cellulite treatment: a myth or reality: a prospective randomized, controlled trial of two therapies, endermologie and aminophylline creams.

Plast Reconstr Surg. 1999 Sep;104(4):1110-4; discussion 1115-7.









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