What’s all this about stem cells for my skin?

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The latest buzz-phrase in skincare seems to be “stem cells”. Here’s the nitty gritty on what they are and how they’re relevant to skin…

What are stem cells?

Your body is made up of lots of different cells with different functions – some types of cells include red blood cells, nerve cells and muscle cells. But as you might know, all of us humans started off as one cell, which split into two, then four and so on, and eventually those few identical cells turn into all the different cells in the body. These cells, which have the ability to turn into any other type of cell, are known as stem cells.

As well as in embryos, there are stem cells in adult bodies, ready to multiply and replace a range of different dead or damaged cells, but these are usually buried amongst lots of other regular cells.

How are they relevant to skincare?

As skin ages, it thins, which means the skin looks less plump, it starts sagging, and fine lines and wrinkles appear. Therefore, in theory, if you can make the stem cells in skin multiply faster, more skin cells will be produced, and skin will appear more youthful.

What about plant stem cells in moisturisers?

As far as I know, there isn’t any sort of good explanation for adding plant stem cells in creams. Plant cells are completely different from human cells, and therefore can’t create new skin cells.

Examples of products which supposedly work on stem cells in skin include:

O Cosmedics Stem Cell & EGF Booster

This contains 3 peptides which are touted to mimic chemicals that are naturally in the body to trigger stem cell proliferation, increase fibroblast activity (fibroblasts are cells which produce the major structural components of skin) and inhibit cell death. The active ingredients are contained in microcapsules which have been shown in in vitro fluorescent tagging studies to allow peptides to penetrate the skin. In vivo studies on humans are in progress.

Jeunesse’s Luminesce range

This range’s key ingredient is a different mix of actives extracted from cultured cells. Adult stem cells are collected and grown, then the mix of signalling molecules that they produce (including cytokines and growth factors – about 200 of them) is extracted and put into the products. This is supposed to encourage stem cells to activate by replicating the environment in which youthful stem cells naturally live. I’m not completely convinced by the explanation of how it works, but skin imaging studies on people who have used the products show dramatic improvements.

Overall, I think products targeting stem cells represent an exciting new era in anti-ageing skincare. However, despite the amazing results that stem cell-targeted treatments give, I’m not convinced that enough studies have been done on their safety. Using powerful treatments in general tend to come with more powerful side effects. For example, some cytokines which act on stem cells may also act on normal cells in unexpected ways, such as some which are thought to speed up the growth of cancerous cells – this is a particular concern when you’re using a largely unknown mixture of many chemicals (even if they’re naturally produced). That’s not to say that it’s necessarily worse than going under the knife though! Hopefully, by the time I’m in the anti-ageing target market, we’ll have a better idea of the risks involved.

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19 thoughts on “What’s all this about stem cells for my skin?”

  1. apart from the theory of how stem cells work… do you think applying stem cells on the epidermis would do the trick? I’m not really convinced.

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    • Totally agree. There’s no way a stem cell is going to get through all the dead cells in the epidermis. The only way, if you’re going to have a product with stem cells in it, would be to inject it, but in that case I’d want my own stem cells thank you very much. The more reputable products, like the two I’ve mentioned, don’t actually contain stem cells, but contain signalling chemicals which act on stem cells already in the skin.

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  2. I don’t think applying stem cells topically will do anything at all. There are so many factors that go into stimulating and maintaining stem cells, not to mention you want these stem cells to differentiate into skin cells only. I don’t buy it, just don’t buy it.

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    • Me neither – products that actually contain stem cells would have to be injected, and hopefully they’d be your own stem cells (i.e. you’d have to get your own cells (probably adipose/fatty tissue), get the stem cells separated, then have them cultured and injected back into you – very expensive but I guess some people have the money to throw at that sort of thing). The cheaper, topical products which I mentioned in the post don’t contain stem cells – they contain chemicals which act on the stem cells already in the skin. The creams containing plant stem cells… I have no idea what they’re trying to do, honestly, apart from get people to mash apples into their face…

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    • Yeah I get that a bit too, even lanolin grosses me out a bit (it’s sheep grease… SHEEP GREASE). But most of the time I think I just do the willing suspension of disbelief thing… although I doubt I will ever touch placenta.

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    • I’m sceptical about the ability of plant stem cells to “regenerate skin” in the way that the companies seem to claim they do (multiply and become human tissue, essentially), but I’m sure some of the products they’re in would let users see improvements in their skin, either because of other ingredients in the formulation (even a no-frills cream would dramatically improve dry skin that hadn’t been regularly moisturised, and since plant stem cell containing products tend to be exxy, the other ingredients are likely to be above average), or through the placebo effect.

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  3. I am rather more convinced by the approach of second range of products you presented – i.e. extracting signalling molecules from plant stem cells. In my opinion, this approach is more environmentally friendly than directly extracting those molecules from plants – after all, you can multiply stem cells in lab conditions instead of growing the plants, which means you will use less plants, land, water and other resources. But I am certainly not attracted by suspensions of plant stem cells in a jar – how can that be more active than, say, apple sauce?
    Overall, I do not think applying plant stem cells onto the skin is dangerous per se – think of multiplying plants the way you do in gardening and touching them without gloves. The danger depends on how poisonous the plants are, doesn’t it?

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    • Sorry for the misunderstanding – the two products actually contain signalling molecules that act on the human stem cells already in your skin. The chemicals in the first product are smaller synthetic versions of chemicals that occur naturally in human skin, and the second contains chemicals secreted by cultured human fat stem cells. I don’t think signalling molecules from plants would work on human stem cells (though I could be wrong) – plant cells and human cells are different, even in terms of basic structure (e.g. plant cells have cell walls made of cellulose).

      I agree with you that applying plant stem cells to your skin is pretty low risk – I also don’t think it’ll do much!

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    • Sorry – it seems I didn’t read product desctiptions very thoroughly ^^ Reading again Luminesce’s description, it sounds rather creepy – cultured human stem cells is not really something I would like to apply onto my skin. That story about plant stem cells producing signalling molecules is from a different product…
      Erm… IMHO, signalling molecules from plants should work on human cells as well as synthetic versions as long as we are talking about similar molecules, shouldn’t they?

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    • If they’re similar structures, yes… but a lot of the time, plants don’t really need the same things as humans (e.g. we need muscle cells and sex hormones, they largely need to stop being eaten by insects). So a lot of the time, plant chemicals which act on mammals originally had completely different purposes in plants – you might have heard of phytoestrogens from soy products, for example, which act similarly to estrogen in humans when we eat it, but in plants they’re used to stop them from being infected by fungi.

      It’s pretty unlikely that a mixture of plant stem cell signalling molecules will just so happen to have a chemical which tells human stem cells to turn into a skin cell, or even that a chemical which tells a plant cell to multiply faster will be recognised by a human cell. Of course, it’s possible – but unless a company conducted studies where they put the plant mixture on human cells (whether in a test tube or on actual skin), I’d be sceptical of the “it works this way in plants, therefore it’ll work the same way on humans” type of reasoning.

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  4. There is lots of speculation and conjecture here, but seeing we are a group here that tends to like our science, I decided to turn to that field to find some of these answers for myself.

    I found a few good studies that clearly shows the positive effects of human adipose-derived stem cells for skin –

    “Wound healing effect of adipose-derived stem cells: A critical role of secretory factors on human dermal fibroblasts” – http://www.jdsjournal.com/article/S0923-1811(07)00213-7/abstract

    and

    “The wound-healing and antioxidant effects of adipose-derived stem cells.” – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19522555?dopt=Abstract&holding=f1000%2Cf1000m%2Cisrctn

    So I am convinced of the merits of adipose-derived stem cell growth factors for human skin for repair, wound healing, and antioxidant ability.

    What I am not convinced about is the benefits of plant stem cells for human skin, as science and logic both tell me that these are not compatible – http://barefacedtruth.com/2011/12/08/botanical-stem-cells-in-skin-care/

    Thanks to science for taking the guess-work out of the equation for customers. Thanks LabMuffin for applying science to verify things for us that are much more important that simply aesthetics.

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    • Thanks for the useful links Chris! I’m still not completely convinced of the safety of using ADSC secretory factors (although it should obviously be safer than using the actual stem cells, but see e.g. http://cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/71/2/614.short), and afaik the efficacy of applying the factors topically to unbroken skin hasn’t been proven (the studies by WS Kim et al. are on open wounds or injections), but the Jeunesse testimonials seem promising.

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  5. It’s interesting to know that a person’s skin will look more youthful if their bodies would be able to produce more stem cells. This might be the idea behind regenerative medicine that I’ve been seeing on the internet these days. Maybe I should look more into this subject and see if I’ll be able to benefit from it once I’m older.

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