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Stem Cells in Skin Care 101: an Overview

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The aesthetics and cosmetics industries grow and change at a pace that rivals that of Western medicine. Every year, sometimes several times a year, new and cutting edge technologies in anti-aging ingredients, products, and equipment are debuted at trade shows internationally. For the last couple of years the most buzzed about technology (perhaps alongside peptides) has been stem cell and stem cell growth factor technology in skin care products. Whether the ingredients are sourced from plants or human beings, they are now being added to countless serums, treatment creams, and other skin care products on the medical spa/professional level, as well as to more accessible over-the-counter (OTC) brands. In fact, I just saw an entire end-cap display at Whole Foods Market of the plant stem cell-based skin care brand Andalou.

Why so much buzz?

In both high-end and OTC skin care products, stem cell technology is being marketed as “restores the repair process and stimulates new cells to build collagen and elastin, heal hyperpigmentation and reverse aging”, “assists in the production of ATP…protects DNA and mitochondrial DNA”, “provides antioxidant and cell preservation benefits”, “defends against key aging factors, including UV and oxidative stress, and repairs skin’s DNA to combat the visible signs of aging”, and “replenishes dying cells and regenerates damaged tissues”, just to name a few.

I don’t know about you but you had me at…well…all of that. These are some pretty hefty claims, some of which even border on being drug claims.

Is any of it true?

It seems that every antioxidant or peptide of the moment makes similar claims. Are stem cells and growth factors really any more effective at slowing down or even reversing the aging process, or is it just another gimmick to sell skin care products? What’s the deal with plant stem cells versus human stem cells…is one better than the other? Why is one product hundreds of dollars while another is $20? Aren’t there ethical and political issues surrounding this topic? Why are they focusing this stem cell research and technology on wrinkle creams…aren’t there diseases to cure?

To discuss and answer these questions and others, I decided to write an article on the different types of stem cell and growth factor technologies used in the aesthetics and cosmetics industries today. I started researching, found a lot of information, and decided it would be better to split it up into a short series of articles on the different topics and issues surrounding stem cell technology in skin care. You are now reading the first one.

Stem Cells in Skin Care Glossary

Typically a glossary is at the end of the article or book, but I decided to offer some definitions right off the bat. This way, as I mention the following terms in future articles, I can link back to this page so you know what I am referring to.

Stem Cells: Stem cells are the body’s cellular building blocks or raw materials. These cells are undifferentiated, meaning are not yet assigned a specific function, and “are the cells from which all other cells with specialized functions are generated.” The “mother” cell will divide into “daughter” cells which will then become differentiated (transformed) into new cells that carry out specific functions (examples: liver cells, bone marrow cells, or fibroblasts: the cells responsible for generating the “proteins of youth” collagen and elastin in the deepest layer of the skin). Stem cells are the only cells in the body that can perform this amazing job. When we are first born, we have an abundance of healthy stem cells in our bodies. As we age, due to many factors such as free radical damage, stress, inflammation, poor diet/lifestyle choices, our numbers of stem cells dramatically decrease which negatively affects the body’s ability to heal and protect itself.

Embryonic Stem Cells: are pluripotent, exogenous cells (meaning that they are harvested from outside sources, namely, fertilized human eggs) that once harvested are grown in cell cultures and are then manipulated to generate specific cell types. The majority of the controversy surrounding stem cell research refers to embryonic stem cells.

Adult stem cells: Multipotent, endogenous (are present and are sourced from inside the body) cells that serve to maintain and repair the tissues in which they are found. Human skin is the largest repository of adult stem cells in the body.

HTN (High Tech Nature) biotechnology: A cutting edge method used to obtain unlimited amounts of pure plant stem cell cultures from a single host plant. These cell cultures are contaminant-free, and are at the highest concentration available without preservatives. Rather than wiping out entire fields of plants as traditional cultivation and harvesting does, HTN only requires a single plant to obtain these cultures. This is a much more cost-effective and eco-friendly method which allows access to the therapeutic and beneficial properties of even the rarest and most remote species. For a full description of this technology, please refer to the article Plant Cell Culture Technology: A New Ingredient Source by Roberto Dal Toso and Francesca Melandri of the Istituto di Ricerche Biotechnologiche (IRB).

Multipotent stem cells: These stem cells are like others in that they are undifferentiated and can become cells of different functions in the body. Yet unlike other types of stem cells, research has suggested that multipotent cells are limited as to which cells they can become depending on from what part of the body the stem cell originates. For example, bone marrow contains multipotent stem cells that give rise to all the cells of the blood but not to other types of cells. However, “emerging evidence suggests that adult stem cells may be more versatile than previously thought and able to create unrelated types of cells after all. For instance, bone marrow stem cells may be able to create muscle cells.” Adult stem cells are multipotent.

Pluripotent stem cells: “Pluripotent stem cells are often termed ‘true’ stem cells because they have the potential to differentiate into almost any cell in the body.” The exclusions are extra-embryonic tissues such as the amnion, chorion, and other components of the placenta. These are typically embryonic stem cells (which explains why they are preferred over adult, hence the controversy), although there are laboratory methods that can take a multipotent adult stem cell and manipulate it to bring it back to the pluripotent state of an embryonic stem cell (induced pluripotent stem cells). Many challenges face research and development utilizing both embryonic and induced pluripotent cells.

Totipotent stem cells: These most versatile stem cells “have the ability to give rise to all the cell types of the body plus all of the cell types that make up the extra-embryonic tissues such as the placenta” and generate into a completely new part or even an entire organism. All plant stem cells are totipotent. One would think these would be the most sought after stem cells for skin care right? We’ll see…

Growth Factors: Intelligent media (proteins) cultured in a laboratory setting from stem cells that assign specific functions to stem cells in the body. There are multitudes of different growth factors that all assign different functions. For example, IFNg (Interferon Gamma) growth factors activate macrophages, white blood cells that scavenge and destroy invaders, while FGF (Fibroblast Growth Factor) directs cells to generate collagen and elastin.

Delivery systems (sometimes called liposomes): Many popular skin care ingredients cannot penetrate the outer layers of the skin (epidermis) to cause any therapeutic benefit due to factors such as their molecules are too large, they are the wrong solubility, they oxidize in the layers of the epidermis before they can reach the dermis, etc. Many professional and medical skin care product formulators have created unique delivery systems that help the ingredient pass through the skin’s lipid barrier into the deeper layers where. These systems are also said to help the ingredients be recognized, absorbed, and utilized by the cells.

Does your brain hurt yet?

It’s a lot of scientific terminology, I know. Part of the reason I wanted to write this series of articles was to decode the stem cell lingo to make it easier for people to understand why they are seeing it on skin care product labels. I feel that, if formulated correctly, stem cells do have a valid place in cosmetics and aesthetics; and I think we will be seeing them for a long time to come.

While I will discuss human stem cells and growth factors in one of the upcoming articles, I will primarily refer to those obtained from consenting adults rather than the divisive human embryos. I will highlight the benefits and drawbacks of both plant and human stem cell/growth factor technology in skin care, and then conclude with some final thoughts. Stay tuned for the next installment of the “Stem Cells in Skin Care” series which will focus on plant stem cells.

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About Rachael Pontillo

  • Anthony

    Wheres the article? This is just a bunch of definitions.

  • Dr. Baxter I agree with you! There is a lot of marketing hype out there. I refer to the use of stem cells and ingredients derived from and related to them in this series of articles because this is where the most buzz is currently in skincare products…and the other sources might certainly have a place in this realm as research continues. Thanks for your comment!

  • Dr Baxter

    Aren’t growth factors and cytokines available from cells other than stem cells? While there are studies underway on the use of stem cells, these are primarily in the area of tissue regeneration, because placing skin cells on intact skin doesn’t make sense. And if these substances are available from otehr sources, then calling them stem cell products is just marketing hype.

  • Chrissy Pham

    Oooh, great to know John, to put things in the fridge for longer shelf life. I didn’t know this trick. I just got an eye cream that is marine stem cell based. I apply it to my whole face, why should it just be limited to just around my eyes? 🙂

  • Hi Kathy, I know it is confusing. If you click on my writer’s profile you will see I wrote several other articles on this subject following this one. This is a fairly new area of skin care research and some studies have yet to be completed/published. There is more published research available in the plant stem cell arena which is why you see plant (particularly apple) stem cells in many different brands. In a nutshell, if you are looking to use a stem cell, growth factor, cytokine, or other similar ingredient; read your labels and make sure the featured ingredient is in the top 5 on the ingredient list. The top 5 ingredients make up 80% of the product. If you see it further down the list that means there is only enough of the ingredient in the product for the manufacturer to be able to legally say on the label/marketing that the product contains it. That most likely means that there is not enough of the ingredient in the product to be effective. I always encourage people to get past the marketing and choose products based on what’s in them, not how pretty the package is or what celebrity is endorsing it. Thanks so much for your comment.

  • kathy

    So confused…plant or human? What labs/skincare lines are using what works and has been based on clinical studies/research?

  • Thank you again for your comments. Much of what you said I have addressed in some of my other published works, and I appreciate your professional opinion and perspective.

  • John Sanderson, MD

    Hey Rachael,

    Just to keep you in the highest of accuracy zones, stem cells are not large molecules. As cells they contain millions if not billions of molecules of various sorts, and thus are many orders of magnitude larger than a “large molecule”. Besides, you wouldn’t want them penetrating your skin anyway, since they contain DNA and potentially some other undesirables you might not want to get past that wonderful (health preserving) barrier.

    Their value in skin care is that they can be farmed as factories (ex vivo) to yield cocktails of hundreds of different cytokines, including growth factors. And because some types of stem cells are specialized (in humans, but not in apple trees) to migrate to damaged tissues (incl. skin) and accomplish their work via the patterning of cytokine profiles, it is a tantalizing way to replicate nature’s own regenerative mechanism.

    On the subject of shelf life — ever consider that skin care actives are stable much longer in the refrigerator than in the cabinet? Protein degradation slows way down. And I am told that by some that it makes the sensory experience of products all that more “refreshing”.

    Keep up the great work.

  • Regarding liposomal delivery systems being stable or unstable, I think that also depends on the formulation, just as you said. Phosphatidylcholine and other lecithin-derived phospholipids do have their own naturally-occuring antioxidant properties which would offer some stability, but whatever proteins they bind with obviously would have problems with degradation so there would definitely have to be proper formulation to address this process.

    Companies also have the option of manufacturing these products in smaller batches so they don’t have to worry about shelf life as much. I realize it is more expensive to manufacture this way, but many educated consumers do not mind paying a little more for a higher quality product that was made weeks ago and instead of months or years ago (and then sat on a warehouse shelf for more months or years before even getting to a store). Products are intended to be used by a customer, not sit in a warehouse. Certain packaging methods can also help prevent contamination, oxidation, and degradation of these sensitive ingredients.

    I find it unfortunate that many companies fail to take these types of measures to address stability concerns in their products but label them in a way that implies that they have done so. I hope that if/when some of the new proposed cosmetic laws pass this issue will be addressed and companies won’t be able to make unsubstantiated claims like the ones you and Mark mentioned any longer.

    All that being said, I still feel that large molecules like stem cells, growth factors, peptides, antioxidants and the like need some type of delivery system to enhance penetration. In a spa, certain pieces of equipment and certain facial procedures can help ingredients penetrate, but for home use I think the product has to be able to stand on its own. Of course I understand that many ingredients cannot penetrate regardless of formulation…that’s one of the reasons for so much controversy in skin care marketing…but that’s a topic/debate for another time 🙂 Thanks for your comment.

  • John Sanderson MD


    Not to further muddy the waters, but liposomal delivery systems are notoriously unstable. In other words, they have a very short shelf life. Days. In the small world of internationally respected cosmeceutical scientists, I have heard this opinion stated more than once. There are ways to make these carriers stable, but very few bother to do so, using the term more as a marketing point rather than actually doing the science. If you are interested, I can give you references.

    To Mark I would comment that “at best, specious, and, at worst, outright marketing hyperbole and lies” pretty much summarizes the whole world of skin care, so why pick on the guys touting stem cells from trees (let’s see now, these trees have stems and cells, so these must be must be “stem cells”, yes).

  • Mark, thank you for your comment. I agree with you that there are a lot of gimmicks and lots of deceptive marketing out there in stem cell and growth factor skin care products. The rest of the articles I wrote in this series addressed some of your concerns, as did some of the comments from those articles.

    There are studies underway that will be published soon which will support the anecdotal evidence and some of the claims that have been made by some of the more reputable labs/companies. This technology in skin care is still young, and has shown promising results…but the studies take time and will be released upon their conclusion.

    As for what I said about the products “being formulated correctly” I meant that they need to be able to penetrate the epidermis, which is a challenge for ingredients like these that are large molecules. Many of these products do not have any evidence of a liposomal delivery system or other lipophilic capsule or delivery system on their ingredient lists. Without this, and if there are a lot of extraneous fillers and other ingredients in the formulation, this interferes with the product’s ability to penetrate as well.

  • Rachael,

    That’s a good, high-level summary of the field but you conclude with “I feel that, if formulated correctly, stem cells do have a valid place in cosmetics and aesthetics; and I think we will be seeing them for a long time to come.”

    Here’s the issue: What does “formulated correctly” mean? I would suggest that, to date, no one knows what formulated correctly means and, indeed, if stem cell derived products work as claimed.

    As far as I can determine there is only anecdotal evidence for the effectiveness of any of the topically applied stem cell derived products on the market today (anything that is not for topical application is regulated by the FDA and there are, as far as I am aware, no generally permitted therapeutic stem cell treatments available to date) .

    All of the available products I’ve read about make wild claims about how they work and what results they can achieve but lack any published scientific data.

    Some of the vendors claim to use stem cells derived from bovine amniotic fluid (a weird idea given that cows have a diploid number of 60 while the human diploid count is 64 … that’s like asking a Mac to run a Windows program) while other tout stem cell factors derived from plants (which seems even more implausible than using mammalian stem cells).

    If any of these formulations work it would seem the be less to do with the stem cells than the emollient effects of a nice soup of proteins and lipids.

    The big problem with stem cell derived products is that without proper clinical evidence (as in properly conducted double blind trials) any benefits are impossible to quantify making all claims by all stem cell product manufacturers at best, specious, and, at worst, outright marketing hyperbole and lies.

    Your comments?

    Mark Gibbs
    [Personal contact info deleted]