Stem cells have made headlines in the scientific and medical realms for over a decade, and with good reason. Some can grow into any type of cell in the body. The therapeutic potential is staggering, and researchers are working towards using stem cells to treat everything from diabetes to spinal cord injuries.
More recently, “stem cell” has emerged as a cosmetics industry buzzword, cropping up in product names, claims and ingredient lists. Stem cells seem ideal for anti-aging skincare, and “stem cell” products allude to stimulating the skin to grow new, younger cells and reverse wrinkling.
Despite products with names such as Stem Cell Therapy and StemCellin, or ingredients that include “stem cell extract” and “stem cell conditioned media,” none of the beauty creams actually contain stem cells. And, none are proven to affect your own stem cells.
So, what’s going on here? What’s in these products, if not stem cells? YouBeauty explains what’s inside, why it could be dangerous and how stem cell beauty companies are skimping on science.
Meet the Stem Cells
Before we delve into the beauty creams, a brief biology lesson. Stem cells come in several varieties: embryonic (ESC), adult (ASC), induced pluripotent (iPSC) and human parthenogenetic (hpSC). All can develop into other cell types, or differentiate, but not all are created equal. And, just two relate to stem cell beauty products.
In research, ESCs come from embryos that are made from an egg fertilized outside the body, in vitro. Embryos develop from just a small cluster of cells into an entire body, thus ESCs have the potential to differentiate into nearly all cell types, from brain to heart to liver. This quality, called pluriopotency, means they could potentially be used to treat any type of diseased or injured organ or tissue.
ESCs, besides being difficult to grow, face an ethical quandary: using them destroys embryos, which is why they’ve ignited in political debate. In the past few years, researchers introduced two methods that attempt to mimic ESC’s pluripotency sans embryo, which could eventually avoid these thorny issues. One uses a cocktail of genes to reprogram differentiated cells back into an ESC-like state (iPSC). The other uses human parthenogenetic (translation: virgin birth) embryos, which come from non-fertilized eggs, but retain some characteristics of a normal embryo (hpSC). But, ongoing research must confirm the characteristics and safety of both cell types before they can replace ESC in research. There’s a long way to go.
The last type, the adult stem cells (ASCs), reside throughout the body in fat, bone marrow and skin, among others. ASCs are responsible for regenerating diseased or injured tissues. They are not pluripotent but multipotent, meaning they differentiate into limited cell types. Bone marrow cells, for example, can develop into bone, cartilage and tendons, while skin stem cells form hair follicles and the topmost layers of skin. Skincare companies mainly utilize ASCs.
Packaged Stem Cells
Some stem cell beauty products contain materials associated with human ASCs and HPSCs, while others use stem cell extracts from plants. And, some don’t use stem cell materials at all.
But, why not just stuff a jar with stem cells, rather than using peripheral materials? For starters, stem cells are difficult to grow in even the most sophisticated lab. Like any living thing, they need very, very specific nutrients to survive. In the lab, a nutrient-rich material called stem cell media provides the basic cellular food groups: tailored amino acids, minerals and sugars. Also included are proteins that boost cellular growth and aid in cell-to-cell communication, called growth factors. And, all this is incubated at 98.6 degrees F (body temperature). So, stem cells’ chances of surviving in a jar or tube of cream sitting on a store shelf is about the same as your chance of winning three lotteries on the same day without even buying the tickets.
Even if they could survive, such a cosmetic would be illegal. The Food and Drug Administration heavily regulates biologics—including cells. To date, the agency hasn’t approved any cell therapy for skin.
Biology and legalities aside, slathering stem cells on your face might not turn back the clock (or even be advisable): your skin evolved as a protective layer to keep out foreign cells and particles that don’t belong.
“Stem cells need specific nutrition via a blood supply in the tissue to survive and function—if they were layered onto intact skin the stem cells would just die,” explains Jörg Gerlach, M.D., Ph.D., professor of surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, “This could be different if stem cells are applied to a fresh open skin wound, for example after a burn injury—then the cells are in contact with the blood supply in the open tissue and could survive and potentially regenerate the skin wound.”
Hope in a Jar
Again, no stem cell beauty products contain actual stem cells. Some do contain stem cell media, the nutrient soup that the cells grow in at the lab, or extracts, which are pulled out of the stem cells. Both media and extracts contain growth factors, which help the cells grow, along with enzymes and other nutrients. Other creams don’t contain any stem cell-related stuff at all.
The latter group most commonly uses extracts from plant stem cells, which are analogous to ASCs. One example is StemCellin, one of several products that use plant stem cell extracts (including apple and grape) from Swiss company Mibelle Biochemistry. The technology, says a representative from the company, helps “vitalize stem cells in the skin to make them more resistant against extrinsic and intrinsic aging.”
Plant stem cell extracts likely don’t interact with human stem cells at all. And, according to Ram Yadav, Ph.D., a plant developmental biologist at South Asian University, the cell type in Mibelle’s formulation “is not equivalent to stem cells in any form.” Furthermore, the only live human study the company has conducted used just 20 test subjects. While the subjects appeared to have fewer wrinkles after a few weeks, the only control was no treatment at all. In other words, the company compared skin moisturized with their stem cell extract—which was mixed with oil and water—with skin that wasn’t moisturized, which likely skewed the results. The company says they have no plans for additional tests on human subjects.
Other plant-based products, such as BioLogic Solutions’ Stem Cell Therapy, don’t even attempt to put any stem cell materials inside. Instead, this product’s active ingredients include three scientific-sounding compounds (mitostime, phyko AI-PF and Derm SRC, which they call Seractin) that are stand-ins for more basic materials: brown algae extract, bamboo extract, pea extract, water and a form of glucosamine, which occurs naturally in the body and helps build cartilage.
The company’s website claims Stem Cell Therapy “turns on the switch that tells your own stem cells to start producing again.” But, BioLogic Solutions could not show YouBeauty peer-reviewed evidence that the extracts boost ASC production, and none are cited in the peer-reviewed scientific literature in connection with stem cells. In other words, Stem Cell Therapy is an example of a company that blatantly uses the term “stem cells” without having any science-based link to the cells.
The other category of creams, which include the growth factors that help cells grow in their active ingredients, theoretically could boost production of ASC and other skin cells, says Elaine Fuchs, Ph.D., biology professor at The Rockefeller University, investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and skin stem cell expert:
“What we know from the biology is that there are a number of different growth factors that are important in stimulating growth of the stem cells, and that cocktails that involve these growth factors can be used successfully to stimulate the regenerative capacity of the skin.”
But, she adds, there’s a catch: “That said, many of the cosmetic applications that are out there rely less on science and more on the hype.”
Another catch: growth factors can stimulate not just stem cells, but all types of cells. Uncontrolled or introduced to a cancerous cell, and growth factors could trigger cancer. “Anything that stimulates the growth of cells, if overdosed, can contribute to a hyperproliferative condition,” Fuchs says.
Medical Co. Creams
Companies that use growth factors typically spring from biotech parent companies that are developing medical stem cell therapies. One example is Beaucell, a subsidiary of Pharmicell, a Korean ASC therapy company that recently had a stem cell heart treatment approved by the Korean Food and Drug Administration. Beaucell uses human adipose (fat)-derived stem cell culturing media that they say rejuvenates the skin.
Another medical company in preclinical therapy trials, International Stem Cell Corp, has a beauty company called LifeLine. Their tactic is to use stem cell extracts—growth factors and enzymes pulled from inside hpSC, or “virgin birth” stem cells. LifeLine claims that the extracts boost the growth and health of skin cells associated with collagen production, called fibroblasts.
In order for the companies’ claims to be convincing, however, validated studies must prove a few things about the growth factors, says June Wu, M.D., Assistant Professor of Surgery at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, board-certified plastic surgeon and stem cell researcher. First, that they are still active in the cream at room temperature (the materials easily degrade). Second, that they are absorbed by the skin—which is adept at keeping materials out—in meaningful quantities. Third, that once they are in the body, they make actual, biological changes in the skin. And last, that these biological changes are safe and controllable.
“I am avoidant of skin creams that contain overt growth factors within them due to the link of activating mutations in these growth factor genes in tumors,” adds
Macrene Alexiades-Armenakas, M.D., Ph.D., dermatologist and assistant clinical professor at Yale University School of Medicine, “I do not recommend these to my patients because a large percentage of them are skin cancer patients.”
Real Science or Pseudoscience?
Despite these concerns, stem cell beauty products that contain growth factors are already for sale. LifeLine’s serums are available through mail order. Beaucell’s line, which costs $2,000 for a roughly six-week supply, is available through individual sellers, and there are customers who claim they are getting “unbelievable results” from Beaucell. But, at this point this is anecdotal, and Beaucell could not provide YouBeauty with peer-reviewed evidence supporting their claims, although they state they have done internal studies.
LifeLine also could not provide peer-reviewed studies proving their product’s efficacy in human subjects, although Simon Craw, LifeLine Vice President and COO, says they are working to publish such studies.
Regardless that there is a kernel of real biology in the products, without proof of the efficacy in making your skin look younger, or proof of safety showing they do not increase your risk of basal cell cancer or melanoma, they toe the line of pseudoscience. At the very least, they are premature to market. “There is a bit of a gap between taking an idea from the basic science and running with it to the application,” explains Dr. Fuchs, “And, there is a bit of a gap right now in terms of scientific grounding.”
Legally, though, the companies are in the clear. According to an FDA spokesperson, as long as the “intended use” of the product is not therapeutic, it’s beyond the agency’s authority to require a cosmetic company to prove that its ingredients—other than color additives—are safe and effective. This might change if the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011 passes.
Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy and Research Director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta, says the cosmetic world is a perfect environment for stem cell pseudoscience to grow: “What I think really is happening is that these companies are trading on the excitement around stem cells.”
“For skin creams, it’s perfect, because it has this whole rejuvenation vibe to it, this whole idea that it somehow can make your skin look young again,” he adds, “Using the words ‘stem cells,’ I think, really allows these companies to have a veil of legitimacy.”
It may be that one of these companies will stumble upon a formula that works, adds Dr. Fuchs. But, until the stem cell beauty companies prove that their products are safe and effective, buyer beware.