I have always hated my stomach. I know that isn’t exactly a revolutionary statement (it’s definitely not), but for me, no matter how skinny or fat I get, I always have a stomach bulge.
In high school, during my very brief tenure as a hardcore athlete, I was probably in the best shape I’ve ever been in. I was working out like a fiend (and, you know, I was 16), and even then, I can clearly remember still hating the bulge on my lower stomach. I remember going to my crew coach in a tizzy, concerned that our two-a-day practices and innumerable sit-ups were not netting me the flattened, Britney Spears abs I so desperately craved. To her credit, she didn’t demean my concerns and instead informed me that I was in great shape, but sometimes there were genetic reasons why people carried fat in certain places, and as long as I felt good about myself and the fantastic work my body was able to do in a crew boat, I shouldn’t be upset.
In the years since my high school rowing career, I've gained weight, lost weight, and gained weight again, and along the way I’ve finally come to some sort of an uneasy truce with my stomach bulge. I’ve learned to dress in ways that flatter my body, and I've also just decided to care less about a part of my body that I can't change.
However, when in 2014 I first began to hear about fat-burning, body-sculpting treatments, I have to admit, I was immediately intrigued. What if noninvasive, nonsurgical, and relatively lazy-person-friendly treatments could target the stubborn stomach bulge I’d bemoaned for most of my adult life?
In the years since my first encounter with noninvasive fat-burning treatments, multitudes of options have hit the market: cold lasers, hot lasers, ultrasound, cryolipolysis — all with impressive marketing campaigns complete with persuasive before-and-after shots. But it's hard to take stock of how effective these treatments actually are. Especially given how expensive most of these treatments can be, I think it’s doubly important to find out if these treatments work and what the best method for you might be.
To get to the bottom of this, I did some investigation into some of the more popular noninvasive fat-burning treatments on the market right now: i-LipoXcell, Liposonix, Coolsculpting, and I had Dan share his experience with Sculpsure since he had done that.
Back in 2014, the first type of fat reduction I encountered was i-LipoXcell. I was offered a free treatment as a beauty editor, and with my curiosity piqued and nothing to lose, I went to The WellPath to try it out. I-LipoXcell is a red laser and infrared laser multi-platform body contour system, but although those words sound like they are hot lasers, the iLipo laser emitted is actually a cold light that effectively shrinks fat cells and causes them to release their contents. After the laser treatment, a vacuum massager with radio frequency is used on the area to promote the drainage of the contents of the fat cell into the lymphatic system and tighten the surrounding skin.
When I arrived, I basically just lay down on a table with two warm laser diodes strapped to my stomach for 30 minutes, and then enjoyed a fun vacuum massage afterward. I felt lighter and less bloated after the treatment, and the measurement indicated that I had lost a half an inch, but I still saw the telltale bulge on my stomach a few days later.
i-Lipo costs anywhere from $350 to $800 per treatment, and multiple treatments are recommended for optimal effects. Ultimately, although I enjoyed the sensation, I don’t know if I would get the treatment again. The long-term effects were minimal, which made me cautious about spending my own money on such a treatment.
Liposonix is a fat-burning treatment that uses Ultrasound technology instead of laser technology, but it essentially does the same thing — the Ultrasound waves break down fat cells and permanently eliminate them through the liver and lymphatic system. I’ve never gotten the chance to personally try Liposonix, but I spoke to Dr. Yannis Alexandrides of 111SKIN to get the inside scoop. According to Dr. Alexandrides, Liposonix is perfect for “stubborn fat that won’t go away through regular diet or fitness. It is the fat that is measured using skin-fold calipers to estimate one's total body fat. The ideal candidate for this treatment should be able to 'pinch an inch' in the area of concern.”
Dr. Alexandrides added that the biggest plus to Liposonix is that it can take only one session to show significant results, but "results can take up to six weeks to appear and then continue to improve for three months before seeing the final results."
Dr. Alexandrides also said that Liposonix is the most effective of the fat-burning treatments, because "Liposonix results in deeper fat removal in the mid-level layer of the abdomen, and fat reduction devices that use cold cannot target this layer nor tighten collagen. Additionally, with other technologies that use radio frequency energy, such as with a laser, there’s always a risk of burns."
CoolSculpting – a noninvasive fat removal treatment that freezes fat cells until they die — is arguably one of the more buzzy fat burning treatments right now, and because I am highly susceptible to any and all hype, I really, really wanted to try it. When I was offered an editor appointment to try the procedure by the New York Center for Facial Plastic and Laser Surgery, I immediately jumped at the chance to try the latest fat burning craze.
CoolSculpting is controlled freezing of fat cells to destroy them and results in spot reductions of fat pockets or bulges. I originally planned to get the procedure on my stomach, because, as I mentioned before, I really don’t like it. However, a few days before my procedure I found myself Googling side effects (as I am often neurotically compelled to do), and found numerous reports of how painful the lower stomach treatment can be, especially when one is trying CoolSculpting for the first time. With that in mind (and the fact that I had to get on a plane almost immediately after the treatment), when I arrived at the center, I informed the technician that I wanted to instead get the procedure done on a less uncomfortable area; my inner thighs.
First the technician placed a gel sheet on my inner thigh to protect my skin from frostbite, and then she attached the CoolSculpting vacuum applicator to the fat bulge on my inner thigh. The sucking sensation felt almost like a giant hickey, but was fairly innocuous. After I was securely attached to the machine, my technician started the cooling process that was set to last for an hour. Immediately I felt a painful cold burning like I had gotten snow into my ski pants. However, after only five minutes my inner thigh went completely numb and I was able to relax for the rest of the hour. One hour and numerous chapters of my book later, the technician returned to unhook me from the machine. Once she released the vacuum, I looked down in perverse fascination to see the frozen fat of my inner thigh sticking out like a misshapen stick of butter.
I had previously read that the next part of the procedure could be the most uncomfortable, and I regret to inform you that this was completely correct. As the technician massaged my frozen fat back into my leg, I experienced the completely foreign sensation of the fat in my thigh thawing. The pain was a dull and deep ache that immediately made me nauseated and sweaty. In fact, even after she had finished the massage, I was still pacing around the procedure room attempting to walk the pain off. I felt so uncomfortable that I was about to call off the second side, but mercifully after about 10 minutes of pacing, the pain began to slowly subside.
The other side was mostly more of the same, though I was moderately less uncomfortable only due to the fact that I knew what to expect. After another hour and another painful massage (seriously, this procedure almost ruined the word "massage" for me!), I was heading out with two red and strangely number inner thighs.
The results from CoolSculpting are meant to gradually appear over the course of a few weeks as the fat cells continue to die and be expelled. Luckily, though I spent a few days with tingly inner thighs, I didn’t experience any difficult side effects. It’s now been almost three weeks since my procedure, and I have to admit, I see a clear reduction in fat from both of my thighs. Though none of my clothes fit any differently, the irritating frictions usually caused by my thighs rubbing together when I wear dresses or loose pants has been minimized, which is a fringe benefit that I’m definitely not mad about.
Though I can state with certainty that this was the most effective of the treatments I tried (Dan tried SculpSure and had similar results), the procedure was far from pain-free, which makes me hesitant about trying it on any larger and more potentially painful areas.
Hi, Dan here. SculpSure is also noninvasive and promises to burn off your fat cells, but if you just read Kathleen's review on CoolSculpting above, you should note that it is a much quicker process that doesn't end in a painful massage.
SculpSure generally runs around $1,200 per treatment depending on where you live and like Kathleen, I wanted to focus on my stomach because I have a similar stubborn lower gut and some love handle action to match. I work out pretty regularly, I eat okay, and I am in no way ashamed of my body, but I do struggle with it from time-to-time like most people. I had heard from numerous friends in the beauty industry that this was a procedure that really "worked", so I figured I'd try it (twice) to see if I could get any improvement.
I went in for my procedure (which really isn't even a procedure TBH) with Dr. Akhavan at the Dermatology and Laser Group in New York City. I am, without a doubt, petrified to try this especially because I know it's going to hurt.
First, they put this belt on you which they call the "frames". They place the "frames" over areas of your stubborn fat either on your belly or flanks (aka love handles). You then lie down on the table and they spray you with a gel which Dr Akhavan tells me is there to "maintain contact between the laser hand piece and the skin serving as a conductive substance for the energy of the laser." Finally, they hook you up to these four square alien robot looking "plates", which look like a square version of an iron touching your belly skin. You essentially have a hot iron on your skin at this point, and then they ask you if you want a stress ball to hold onto. So yeah, you know something's comin'...
When they finally turn the machine on, you immediately get a cool burst. It's freezing cold like someone has put ice all over your belly and it feels that way for maybe a minute. Then, the real fun begins because those plates that were cold start to turn red hot. This cycle continues for the next 25 mins, hot and cold, hot and cold, SO FREAKING HOT YOU ARE GOING TO DIE and then cold. But you don't die, and the pain is actually pretty manageable. Just as you get to that point where you're like "crap, it feels like someone is stabbing me in the stomach," the soothing cool blast comes on and you are totally fine. I won't lie, it hurts as you are doing it. It's uncomfortable, but you somehow can power through it. So while I wouldn't call it pain-free, I wouldn't call it excruciatingly painful either. It simply hurts, and then it goes away.
You won't jump off the table and feel or look instantly slimmer. The results take 12 weeks to fully take effect, because your body naturally purges the now-dead fat cells (TMI, but I think they exit the same way most other things exit your body). Dr. Akhavan's team told me patients get the best results doing it twice. I agree with that because the first time I saw a little improvement, but the second time I saw much more improvement (I am willing to post before and after photos in the comments upon request, but warning: I am a dude with a hairy stomach). The first time around, after my 12-week waiting period was over, my love handle area had noticeably reduced. The stubborn belly fat was definitely reduced too, but still somewhat there. After my second treatment, I noticed a big difference in the belly fat and further reduction in the flank area; overall, everything felt tighter and more toned.
OK, back to me. In conclusion: Although all of these treatments may be effective in various ways, I’m still not sure I’m completely sold. Maybe it's because I’ve finally become more at peace with my body – stomach bulge and all — or maybe it’s because I know that quick-fix solutions never really sit right with me — but either way, I don’t think I’ll be spending money on these treatments anytime soon. As my friend Russell Bui, a San Francisco–based personal trainer, put it when I asked him his thoughts on these treatments, short-term fixes are usually too good to be true. Russell stated that when his clients are trying for the perfect wedding dress body or vacation body in the short term, he has to "remind them how fleeting these goals are in the concept of one’s entirety."