Stem Cells in Skin Care 101: an Overview

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.

Article first published as Stem Cells in Skin Care 101: an Overview on Blogcritics.

*Multipotent and pluripotent stem cell images from California Proposition 71/Brown.  Stem Cell Cultivation image from Dr. Oz.

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