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Do stem cells work in cosmetics?

We’ve previously touched on the topic of stem cells in our podcast about exfoliation but I still find it annoying when companies talk about plant and human “stem cells” in cosmetics.  That’s completely misleading because there aren’t stem cells in the product no matter what this company claims about their skin cream.   cosmetic stem cells

How can I say that with such confidence?  All you have to do is know a little about the science of stem cells and it becomes clear.  So let’s talk about stem cells.

Stem Cells

Stem cells are living cells that are undifferentiated.  They’re a bit like the cells that start every embryo when the sperm and egg cells fuse.  They contain all the DNA information to make an entire human being (or plant or other animal depending on the species).  When embryos start to grow, most of their cells differentiated into things like skin cells, brain cells, heart cells, and all the other different organs in your body.  While the cells in your skin have all the DNA material of the cells in your liver, the DNA code is expressed differently so you end up getting the different organs.

Stem cells do not differentiate in this way.  They maintain their potential to become any type of organ.  They also have an unlimited ability to divide and live.  Most differentiated human cells can only divide about 50 generations before they die.  They are subject to the Hayflick limit and have a built-in program that kills them off.  Scientists theorize this prevents cancer.

Anti aging stem cells

But Stem cells, are not restricted as such.  That’s why they are so promising for curing diseases or regrowing organs.  Imagine if you could take some of your own skin stem cells and grow new patches of your own skin from them in a lab.  You could use that skin to cover scars or other tissue damage.  You could even get rid of wrinkles or signs of aging skin.  It’s this potential that makes them a promising treatment for antiaging products.

It’s also a misunderstanding of this potential that has duped consumers and inspired marketers to desire stem cells to be put into their skin care formulations.  If a stem cell could reverse aging, why wouldn’t you do it?

I’ll tell you why.

Because stem cells only work if they are living.  And living stem cells are not being put into these skin creams.  If they were, they would have to have a special growth medium and be kept at a specific temperature.  They would need to be refreshed with food too.  Stem cell containing creams are not created as such.  At best you have a cream filled with dead stem cells that have no potential to do anything.

Plant stem cells

Plant stem cells in a skin cream is even more baffling to me.  These are stem cells that come from plants and have the potential to grow stems, leaves, fruits, etc.  Why would anyone think that a plant stem cell is going to be able to help improve the appearance or condition of your skin?  It is nonsensical.

The reason companies put them in formulas however, is because they can claim the product has stem cells (which consumer like I guess) and the ingredients can be obtained inexpensively.  Human stem cells must be pretty pricey, much more so than apple stem cells.  So marketers figure if people like stem cells in their products, it doesn’t matter what type of stem cells they are.

In this, they are right.  But only because the type of stem cell in your cosmetic doesn’t matter.  No type of stem cell added to your skin lotion will do much of anything!

The future of anti-aging stem cells

Stem cells are a promising technology for the future.  And they may even be a great anti-aging treatment when the science catches up with the application.  You will know when it is a real anti-aging treatment when the following things are true.

  1. The stem cells are from humans (preferably yourself)
  2. The stem cells are alive
  3. The product is somehow delivered to your dermis (probably an injection)
  4. The product is applied by a doctor

If stem cells really worked the way they are promised, this treatment would be beyond a cosmetic one and well into the drug category.  It just might happen in the next 20 years but any cream that is advertised to be anti-aging because it contains stem cells now is about as effective as all the skin creams without stem cells.

{ 6 comments… add one }

  • Mica Oba July 21, 2014, 10:34 am

    Good Monday morning read. Never understood the logic with placing plant stem cells in cosmetics… That has also baffled me.

  • Eileen July 21, 2014, 10:54 am

    Even though I’m not a scientist, I have long been baffled as to why anyone would think that dead plant stem cells would work to regenerate human tissue. Apple stem cells, raspberry stem cells, stem cells from some rare fuchsia algae that grows only one day a year at the bottom of the Marianna Trench ;-) and the like are wrapped in pseudo-science, tied up with wishful thinking, and then marketed to those of us who wish to stave off aging. And, based on the number of products available that contain plant stem cells, it’s a miracle-in-a-jar ploy that seems to have worked. Baffling!

    I have long been interested in the latest developments in skin care and enjoy trying new things, but not when I must resort to the “willing suspension of disbelief” so beloved by fiction writers. Slathering ourselves with dead plant stem cells in the hopes that they will magically rebuild our skin is, as you succinctly stated, nonsensical. And, even if the anti-aging claims made for these plant stem cells were true and there was a way to keep them alive in a consumer product, then any serum, cream, or lotion containing them would be a powerful drug, indeed, and would be regulated as such.

    Related thought: If plant stem cells were actually effective at generating human tissue, medical researchers could use them instead and completely avoid all the heated controversy that swirls around the use of embryo stem cells.

  • Mark J July 21, 2014, 2:02 pm

    Good article.

    I’ve always been very sceptical about stem cells, especially plant stem cells.

    I think some of the people promoting these products now realise this and hint that the ingredients don’t actually work as stem cells but have other magical benefits.

    For example a plant that lives at high altitude can protect us against UV radiation.

    I was stopped outside a very expensive cosmetic shop by someone trying to tell me that the products I use, containing vitamin c, retinol and tretinoin only have a temporary effect however the products he was selling contain stem cells so have a permanent effect. Needless to say I did not buy any.

  • Priyanka July 21, 2014, 4:49 pm

    It was interesting to know in depth about plant stem cells and how brands fool innocent users. Hats off to you for your research and throwing light on such topic which we are generally unaware. :-)

  • Judith July 22, 2014, 3:21 pm

    The rationale for adding stem cell extracts may be as follows:

    For stem cells to grow, divide and remain stem cells they produce a range of factors (for example the transcription factors Oct3/4 and Sox2) that are necessary to keep the stem cells from differentiating and allow them to self-renew (divide and grow). There is a lot of evidence that adding a combination of these transcription factors can drive de-differentiation of cells (to a precursor cell type closer to embryonic cells) and give them the ability to self-renew.

    Therefore, I assume the idea is that by adding stem cell extracts to skin products, the stem cell factors will rejuvenate by de-differentiation of skin cells and increasing their division. However, even if effective topical application is remotely feasible, the products will have way, way too low a concentration of the factors to have any effect. This is also assuming that the factors retain their activity in the products. The research on induction of pluripotent stem cells (check this term out on PubMed if interested) shows that careful and specific molecular biological methods are required.

    • Randy Schueller July 22, 2014, 5:19 pm

      Thanks for the assessment, Judith. As we’ve said in the past we look for three pieces of data to establish the efficacy of anti-aging ingredients such as this: 1. Is there a mechanism to explain how it could possibly work (which is sort of what you just explained); 2. Does it penetrate the skin to get to where it needs to work (I haven’t seen any data on this for stem cells); 3. Are there any peer-reviewed, double blind, placebo controlled studies showing it works on real people. (I’m still waiting for that one.) At best it looks like stem cells have 1 out of the 3.

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