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Mar 19, 2021
7 min read

Considering a weight loss patch? What to know before you try it

There is evidence that topical weight loss products can decrease the appearance of cellulite, but weight loss patches aren’t likely to help you lose weight.

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Your skin is pretty good at doing its job—keeping the good stuff in and the bad stuff out.

But it’s also a pretty good way to absorb some things you need. From pain killers to birth control there are plenty of medications that come in patch form. Is there something similar for weight loss treatments? 

The idea is tempting: you want to lose weight, so you stick on a patch and watch the pounds melt off. Like many ideas that sound too good to be true, the touted body-transforming effects of weight loss patches are likely more hype than reality. 

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What are weight loss patches?

Just like a sticker or Band-Aid, these patches stick to the body using some form of adhesive. The active ingredient will vary depending on the brand or type of patch.

Some common ingredients include green tea, Japanese mint, guarana, and coffee bean extract (HHS, 2020). The makers often claim that these products can help burn fat, prevent weight gain, and slim specific areas of the body.

Weight loss patches have a long, although unsuccessful, history. In the early 90s, a patch for appetite suppression was put through an initial trial (Devane, 1991). However, the active ingredient, ephedrine, was banned as a weight loss supplement and the patch never made it to market. 

Are weight loss patches safe now?

Weight loss patches are considered dietary supplements and therefore aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (FDA, 2015

Right now, there is no FDA-approved weight loss patch. And some of these products can do more harm than good. The FDA has found hundreds of dietary supplements that contain unlisted ingredients, including prescription drugs, banned substances, and ingredients without sufficient study in humans (FDA, 2015).

Since it’s often unclear exactly what ingredients dietary supplements contain, using these products can be risky. Dietary supplements may contain ingredients that interact or interfere with medications you’ve been prescribed (NIH, 2020).

Do weight loss patches work?

Although some weight loss patches may claim to be clinically tested, dietary supplements like these aren’t required to undergo the same level of rigorous testing as medications and medical devices (FDA, 2017).

Weight loss patches often contain ingredients that have been studied as oral supplements for weight loss. But, that doesn’t mean the ingredient will have the same weight loss effects when used in patch form (Pastore, 2015). At least one clinical trial has evaluated the topical application of natural ingredients for their slimming effect and the results weren’t particularly promising (Berardesca, 2011). 

Whereas there is little (if any) evidence supporting topical products for weight loss, there is research looking into the effects on reducing cellulite (Zerini, 2015).

Cellulite, the puckered fat deposits sometimes described as looking like cottage cheese, forms when structures under the skin cause fat to bulge unevenly. Cellulite most often forms on the legs, butt, and midsection. Certain formulations containing herbs and chemicals similar to caffeine have been shown to produce a measurable reduction in cellulite (Roure, 2011). Reduction in the appearance of cellulite should not be confused with weight loss, though.

How can you tell if a weight loss product works?

Losing weight is difficult, and it can be even harder with the many weight loss products out there making bold, unsubstantiated promises about shedding weight at the snap of a finger. 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has brought cases against hundreds of products making false weight loss claims. Here are seven tips from the FTC that should help you spot false weight loss claims in advertisements (FTC, 2014): 

  1. Without big changes to diet and exercise, losing two or more pounds per week for more than a month is considered unlikely.
  2. Since weight loss requires using more calories than you consume, it’s an unrealistic claim to say that you can eat anything you want and still lose a substantial amount of weight.
  3. Without lifestyle changes, even proven weight loss products can’t prevent weight gain after you stop using them, so a dietary supplement that claims it works even when you stop using it is likely making a false statement.
  4. Over-the-counter products that say they can prevent the absorption of fat or calories likely are making false claims.
  5. Be suspicious of products promising to help you lose more than three pounds per week for more than a month.
  6. Be wary of products touting significant weight loss results for everyone who uses the product.
  7. Products that you wear or rub on your skin are unlikely to cause significant weight loss. 

While these tips are a good way to spot false claims, they aren’t foolproof. If you have any doubt about the safety or effectiveness of a weight loss product, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider before using the product.

Alternatives to weight loss patches

Although they don’t offer the allure of instant gratification, eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly are the best alternatives to weight loss patches. Sustained weight loss ultimately comes down to consuming fewer calories than you use.

There are a few products that science shows may have small effects on appetite or weight loss, including fiber supplements, green tea, and caffeine (National Academy of Science, 2018).

However, if lifestyle changes aren’t producing the desired results, there are FDA-approved treatments that can help with weight loss, and bariatric surgery is an option for some people who are struggling with obesity. 

It’s recommended that adults get at least 2.5 to five hours of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity each week. There are tons of different activities that fall into this category including walking, biking, swimming, and some forms of yoga.

You can also set weekly activity goals to promote weight loss––reaching your targets will also improve things like sleep and overall wellness while reducing the risk for chronic diseases, as well as anxiety and depression (HHS, 2018).

Although exercise is an important component of healthy weight loss, you can’t outrun a bad diet. Counting calories and keeping portion sizes in line with guidelines are good places to start when monitoring your diet.

A miracle diet plan that works for everyone doesn’t exist, but people can still be successful with different diets, many of which can be customized depending on each person’s needs and goals. Intermittent fasting and the Mediterranean diet are two diet methods that are popular and supported by scientific evidence.

Regardless of the plan you choose, any diet should include vegetables of all types, whole fruits, whole grains, and proteins including lean meats, legumes, and eggs. Foods with added sugars should be less than 10% of your daily calorie intake (USDA, 2020). 

Keep in mind, losing one to two pounds per week is a healthy goal for sustained weight loss. Other tips to help start and maintain weight loss are eating breakfast, weighing yourself regularly, keeping your eating pattern consistent, and catching small increases in weight before they turn into large regains (Hall, 2018).

While not a substitute for diet and exercise, some people may want to consider one of the six FDA-approved weight loss pills to help them reach their weight loss goals. Speak to a healthcare provider before using these products as weight loss pills are not appropriate for everyone. Some of the most commonly prescribed weight loss pills are (Gadde, 2020):

  • Phentermine: This drug accounts for about 80% of all weight loss pill prescriptions in the United States. Although only approved for short-term use, it is often prescribed for longer periods. One study showed that people who took phentermine lost an average of 6.1% of their weight. The most common side effects are insomnia, dry mouth, and constipation. When combined with a drug called topiramate, the combination has been shown to result in an average weight loss of 8.9%.
  • Liraglutide: Use of this drug resulted in an average weight loss of 5.2% in a clinical trial. It has also been shown to reduce blood pressure. The most common side effects are nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
  • Naltrexone/bupropion: The combination of these drugs led to a 4.2% average reduction in weight during a clinical trial. Alone, naltrexone is used to treat alcohol use disorder and bupropion is used to treat depression and to help people quit smoking. This combination can increase blood pressure in some patients, and nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and headache are the most common side effects.

The idea of a weight loss patch might be tempting, but remember that these products often don’t live up to the claims you see on the package. If you want to lose weight, talk to a healthcare professional about what options are available to you. With the right tools and support, sustained weight loss and weight management are possible. 

References

  1. Berardesca, E., Abril, E., Rona, C., Vesnaver, R., Cenni, A., & Oliva, M. (2012). An effective night slimming topical treatment. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 34(3), 263–272. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2494.2012.00712.x. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1468-2494.2012.00712.x
  2. Devane, J., Mulligan, S., Foynes, M., & Martin, M. (1991). In-vivo pharmacokinetic characteristics of a transdermal phenylpropanolamine (PPA) preparation. European Journal of Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics, Spec No 3, 297–299. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1820895/
  3. Federal Trade Commission. (2014, January). Gut Check: A Reference Guide for Media on Spotting False Weight Loss Claims. Retrieved March 1, 2021 from https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/business-center/guidance/gut-check-reference-guide-media-spotting-false-weight-loss#claims
  4. Gadde, K. M., & Atkins, K. D. (2020). The Limits and Challenges of Antiobesity Pharmacotherapy. Expert Opinion on Pharmacotherapy, 1–10. doi:10.1080/14656566.2020.1748599. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32292094/
  5. Hall, K. D., & Kahan, S. (2018). Maintenance of Lost Weight and Long-Term Management of Obesity. The Medical Clinics of North America, 102(1), 183–197. doi: 10.1016/j.mcna.2017.08.012. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mcna.2017.08.012
  6. National Academies of Sciences, Medicine, and Engineering. (2018, December 21). Based on Science: Most Vitamins and Supplements Do Not Help with Weight Loss. Retrieved March 24, 2021 from https://www.nationalacademies.org/based-on-science/most-vitamins-and-supplements-do-not-help-with-weight-loss
  7. Pastore, M. N., Kalia, Y. N., Horstmann, M., & Roberts, M. S. (2015). Transdermal patches: history, development and pharmacology. British Journal of Pharmacology, 172(9), 2179–2209. doi: 10.1111/bph.13059. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4403087/
  8. Roure, R., Oddos, T., Rossi, A., Vial, F., & Bertin, C. (2011). Evaluation of the efficacy of a topical cosmetic slimming product combining tetrahydroxypropyl ethylenediamine, caffeine, carnitine, forskolin and retinol, In vitro, ex vivo and in vivo studies. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 33(6), 519–526. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2494.2011.00665.x. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21564138/
  9. U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2020, December). Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. Retrieved March 2, 2021 from https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf#page=31
  10. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020, April 6). Dietary Supplements for Weight Loss: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Retrieved March 24, 2021 from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/WeightLoss-HealthProfessional/
  11. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2018). Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved March 2, 2021 from https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf#page=56
  12. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2015, January 5). Beware of Products Promising Miracle Weight Loss. Retrieved March 2, 2021 from https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/beware-products-promising-miracle-weight-loss
  13. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2017, December 13). Questions and Answers on Health Claims in Food Labeling. Retrieved March 2, 2021 from https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/questions-and-answers-health-claims-food-labeling
  14. Zerini, I., Sisti, A., Cuomo, R., Ciappi, S., Russo, F., Brandi, C., D’Aniello, C., & Nisi, G. (2015). Cellulite treatment: a comprehensive literature review. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 14(3), 224–240. doi: 10.1111/jocd.12154. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26147372/