Stem Cells in Skin Care – What Are They and What Do They Do


This article first appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of NewBeauty. Click here to subscribe.

Doctors around the globe rely on the regenerative power of stem cells to heal burns and injuries, but what can they do in skin-care products? We find out.

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Augustinus Bader, founder of the eponymous skin-care line, is one of the many experts fascinated by the beauty benefits stem
cells have to offer. “Human stem cells [not to
be confused with plant stem cells; more on
that later] have the unique ability to divide,
renew and develop into specific types of cells
such as muscle, hair and skin, and they play
a critical role in the body’s ability to heal itself,” says professor Bader. “These extraordinary cells can be translated to skin care, as
they help to produce healthier, more youthful-looking skin.” 

A common assumption is that actual human stem cells are formulated in the creams
and serums we’re slathering on, when in
fact, “skin-care products often only contain
the liquid the stem cells are cultured in at
the lab, referred to as ‘human stem cell
conditioned media,’” says cosmetic chemist
Stephen Alain Ko. “Think of it like beer: You
could describe beer as yeast cell conditioned
media—the yeast grows in the water and
grain mixture, culturing and conditioning it,
but is then removed to make beer.” In this
magic stem cell liquid is a mixture of growth
factors, potent proteins called cytokines,
enzymes and other molecules that “produce
biological signals to carry out the mission of
the stem cell by amplifying the skin cells’
ability to talk to each other,” explains Knoxville, TN plastic surgeon David B. Reath, MD.

The most valuable proteins released by
human stem cells are growth factors, which
when applied to the skin, bind to its cells to
stimulate wound healing and tissue remodeling. “Growth factors work in a ‘lock and
key’ manner, with each individual growth
factor (key) having a specific receptor (lock)
that it attaches to on the cell surface,” says
Gail Naughton, PhD, a regenerative medicine researcher. “Since the ‘90s, clinical
studies have shown that topically applied growth factors can help reverse signs of
aging in the skin by significantly reducing
fine lines, wrinkles and sagging, as well as
supporting an evening of pigmentation, increasing elasticity, and improving skin tone
and texture.” 

A number of beauty brands have incorporated growth factors into their products over
the years, and continue to evolve their formulas as new scientific developments arise. For example, SkinMedica’s TNS (Tissue Nutrient Solution) Recovery Complex debuted
in 2001 and was the first commercial cosmetic product made with growth factors cultured
from human skin cells; its newest product
launching early next year, TNS Advanced+,
contains MRCx, a next-level growth factor
technology derived from human stem cells
that Dr. Naughton says has demonstrated
“unprecedented effects on aging skin.” 

In a
recent study, subjects applying TNS A+ twice
daily for 12 weeks reported looking six years
younger. “Visual results were consistent with
histological results of skin biopsies and lab
data that showed an increase in collagen,
elastin and other important skin proteins
associated with wrinkles,” says Dr. Naughton.

Some companies utilize the EGF (epidermal
growth factor) protein, which was discovered
inadvertently by doctors looking for nerve
growth factors, who realized it could be used
for tissue regeneration and wound healing.
“Once EGF was bioengineered in quantities
sufficient for research, it was eventually tested for other applications and proved to be a
powerful anti-aging active,” says plastic surgeon Dr. Gregory Bays Brown, who founded
RéVive based on his research on burn therapy
25 years ago and now incorporates a proprietary form of EGF in the brand’s products. 

“We have a patent that states: ‘EGF reverses
epidermal senescence.’ Translation: EGF reverses skin aging.”
Icelandic skin-care brand BIOEFFECT
harvests a replica of human EGF using barley, which founder Dr. Björn Örvar says has
the same amino acid sequence and 3-D structure as its counterpart, and therefore can recognize and bind to the same stem cell receptors in the skin. “Our barley-produced EGF
signals skin cells to maintain their youthfulness and renew themselves in the same way
EGF extracted from human tissue would.”

Stem cells are also no stranger to controversy,
which is largely due to how they are sourced.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) sets
and upholds standards to make sure stem
cells are ethically obtained in a controlled
process: Typically, researchers take a few
stem cells from human tissue that were donated to science, and then cultivate them in
a lab where they are developed into multiple
cell lines that can be licensed by brands to
procure growth factors for their products.
Nevertheless, it’s often misconceived that in
order for thousands of skin-care products to
be created, an endless source of the human
tissue is needed, when in fact, “the original
few cells can be replicated in a lab and used
continuously over time,” Dr. Naughton says. 

However, some brands still undergo scrutiny. One in particular, NeoCutis, formulates
its products using proteins cultured from
human embryonic stem cells, and has received backlash from pro-life watchdogs for
doing so. (Although, the terminated pregnancy was medically necessary and donated
to medical research with parental consent).
Experts also stress that not all types of
human stem cells are beneficial for aesthetic
rejuvenation. “The industry seems to have
the mindset that anything these cells produce will be great for the skin and anti-aging,
but that’s not the case,” Dr. Reath says.
“While they all produce biological signals,
each stem cell yields a very different pattern
and array of them—some proteins will be
anti-inflammatory and others pro-inflammatory. We know definitively that aging and
inflammation run hand in hand, so cosmetic
companies must make sure they’re sourcing
anti-inflammatory molecules.”

Growth factor serums to try: Root of Skin Revitalizing Face Renewal Serum ($78), RéVive Intensité Complete Anti-Aging Serum ($485), AnteAGE Serum ($150), DefenAge 8-in-1 BioSerum ($220), SkinMedica TNS Essential Serum ($281), FactorFive Regenerative Serum ($199), BioEffect EGF Serum ($160), and Le Mieux EGF-DNA Serum ($110). 

What do roses, lilacs, grapes and Swiss apples have in common? They’re some of the
most commonly used plants in skin-care
products for their stem cell cultures. “Entirely different from human stem cells, plant
stem cells are specialized cells found in
plants—fruits and flowers included—where
their growth takes place,” says Lisa Reinhardt, director of education at Epicuren Discovery, which utilizes orange stem cell extract in its products.
And while they do have a place in skin care,
the experts interviewed for this story agree
plant stem cell technology is widely misunderstood. “Although plants do contain their
own unique cell lineage, the stem cells found
in a plant’s meristem cannot be compared to
the stem cells found in a human,” says Dr.
Reath. “They cannot increase the communication potential in human skin cells because
plants and humans do not speak the same
biological language.”

What plant stem cells can offer the skin,
however, is a variety of antioxidant, antimicrobial and/or anti-inflammatory benefits
collected during the extraction process
(plant stem cells are often lysed, or broken
apart, to release the chemicals contained in
the cells, Ko says).
The thinking behind plant stem cells used
in skin care, Santa Monica, CA dermatologist Ava Shamban, MD says, is that “many
plants are able to survive or thrive in extreme
environmental conditions, using nutrition
or moisture to keep them alive, so these powerful abilities should be able to be reproduced within our skin.”
Experts also point to the fact that plants
have been used in Ayurveda and Chinese
medicine for centuries for the treatment and
healing of chronic ailments and inflammation, and we’re just scratching the surface of
their stem cells’ capabilities and physiologic
effects on the skin.

Valid scientific, peer-reviewed studies on
these effects are scant, but some experiments reveal promising results: Switzerland-based company Mibelle AG Biochemistry tested the effects of cultured Swiss apple
stem cells (Malus domestica) on human fibroblasts [cells within the dermis] induced
with cellular DNA damage typical of normal aging and reported “significant potential to
reduce wrinkles in the crow’s-feet area,”
which became shallower by 8 percent after
two weeks and 15 percent after four weeks.
Reinhardt says additional studies have
shown “plant stem cells can also provide a
brightening effect and an increase in fibroblast activity for a boost in collagen.

Plant stem cell serums we’re loving: Naturopathica Plant Stem Cell Booster Serum ($84), Éminence Organic Skin Care Lavender Age Corrective Night Concentrate ($68), DermaQuest Stem Cell 3D Complex ($248), Peter Thomas Roth Rose Stem Cell Bio-Repair Gel Mask ($52).
IOPE Plant Stem Cell Emulsion ($40), Juice Beauty Stem Cellular Vinifera Replenishing Oil ($72) and Epicuren Discovery InjecStem BioFirming Serum ($220).

Though not FDA-approved and
frequently disputed, these stem
cell–inspired in-office treatments
promise big benefits.

1. Injectables
Human stem cell proteins are
being utilized in injectables
overseas, and Dr. Shamban
expects they will make their way
to the U.S. in a year or so. “In
Europe, doctors are injecting
growth factor–laced fluid into the
upper level of the dermis—the
same way hyaluronic acid fillers
are used there as skin boosters—
to stimulate cell turnover and
collagen production as cytokines
are released,” she says. 

2. Lasers
“The biggest trend I’m seeing
with in-office stem cell treatments is the combination of
growth factor products with
other technologies like fractionated lasers,” says Chicago
dermatologist Lana Kashlan, MD.
“We apply the topicals post-laser,
which allows for faster healing
and enhanced outcomes.” 

3. Facials
The “vampire facial” (growth
factor–rich platelet-rich plasma,
or PRP, from the patient’s blood
is applied to microneedled skin)
was big in 2018, but new stem
cell facials are on the rise. Though
controversial and unproven,
some doctors’ offices now offer
facials using stem cells from
human and animal placentas,
which they claim is the best way
to get young cells into aging skin
for the ultimate youth boost.
“Some places are using human
placental extracts, but those
from sheep are more common
because of availability,” says Dr.
Kashlan. (La Jolla, CA plastic
surgeon Robert Singer, MD notes
the FDA has significant legal
issues with doctors doing these
experimental procedures without
proper protocols.) “The jury is still
out on whether PRP is effective,
and whether this new modality
is any better,” Dr. Singer says.

Medically reviewed by La Jolla, CA plastic surgeon Robert Singer, MD,  Eugene, OR plastic surgeon Mark Jewell, MD and Montclair, NJ dermatologist Jeanine B. Downie, MD

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