The ethics of stem-cell use continues to be debated—but that hasn’t slowed the beauty biz from jumping in. Are these medical-miracle cells the secret to tricking aging skin into acting young again?
It’s now widely acknowledged that stem cells—those blank-slate, almost endlessly renewable cells that have the capacity to regenerate everything from organs to skin to nerves—might someday unlock medical cures for conditions ranging from paralysis to blindness. So is it any surprise that their potential is also being trumpeted in the world of skin care? Cosmetic science has often taken inspiration from hard-core medical breakthroughs (Botox, remember, was originally developed for the treatment of facial spasms), and stem cells appear to possess the ideal skill set—including self-duplication and the ability to enact all manner of reparative marvels—to throw the switch on a veritable fountain of youth.
“Stem cells are the hottest ticket in terms of street talk since Retin-A,” says Beverly Hills–based dermatologist Harold Lancer, MD, who applies a solution of stem-cell-rich sheep placenta to patients’ skin to hasten healing after microdermabrasion and other procedures. Unappetizing as that sounds, stem-cell claims are becoming ubiquitous, cropping up about everything from face creams to shampoos. There’s a company that will siphon fat from your abdomen, isolate the stem cells, and then mix the proteins those cells generate into a personalized skin-care regimen; another brand produces an anti-aging range based on the excretions of stem cells lifted from unfertilized human eggs. Not all stem-cell sources are human: Some products contain chemicals gleaned from the stem cells of plants, and some incorporate distillates of bovine embryonic fluid. It’s a broad, largely unregulated, and sometimes ick-inducing field. Is there anything to it—or are we just seeing a buzzword run amok?
The first thing to remember about any stem-cell cream you might spot at the department store, says dermatologist Fredric Brandt, MD, is that “there are no actual stem cells in any of these products.” What they do contain—even in the case of most of those that are based on botanical stem-cell sources—are the proteins and growth factors the stem cells produce. Human stem cells are sort of like blank CDs—all are undifferentiated, but each type has varying levels of potential. Those that are completely unprogrammed (such as the pluripotent stem cells found in human embryos, the type that has been the source of so much political furor) can divide to become anything from liver cells to brain cells, depending on what molecular instructions they receive, while adult stem cells typically only can work to repair the type of tissue they’re situated within. However, they also can be unpredictable, which is what makes the transference of whole human stem cells for the purpose of beautification a rather iffy proposition.
The news is much better when it comes to stem-cell extracts applied topically. All skin cells are spurred into activity—to divide, to produce collagen, etc.—by messages they receive via proteins and amino acids. These components are produced naturally within the skin but decline over time when these molecular transmissions slow down, and the signs of aging creep in. Stem-cell extracts, which contain a potpourri of growth factors, peptides, and other signaling chemicals, may be our best bet for keeping this messaging system up and running.
Plant stem cells—or the chemicals those cells produce when grown in a culture—have been making star appearances in skin care since 2008, when extracts taken from the wonderfully named Uttwiler Spätlauber apple, a Swiss varietal developed in the eighteenth century to have an especially long shelf life, were shown to provide a stimulating and protective effect on human skin cells (in a study published in the International Journal for Applied Science, the apple stem-cell concoction increased in vivo cell turnover and UV resistance). Since then, a stem-cell garden has sprouted up in serums and creams, including those derived from grape, coneflower, raspberry, edelweiss, lilac, and rose.
Horst Rechelbacher, who founded Aveda in 1978 and went on to launch organic-beauty company Intelligent Nutrients in 1995, says that because plant stem-cell actives often contain a 1,000 times greater concentration of antioxidants than other botanical extracts, their potency can “increase collagen synthesis and cell renewal, and reduce the signs of photo aging.” Ultimately he believes the greatest value to using plant stem cells is their sustainability: Because farming isn’t involved (a single plant can produce a vast number of stem cells), fewer natural resources need be expended for their cultivation. “Plant stem cells are happy little duplicators,” he says. “You put them in dishes with the right temperature, moisture, and light, and they just do their thing.”
Read more: Stem Cell Cream – Stem Cell Skin Care Products – ELLE
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