There’s yet another skin care buzzword vying for its position as the Next Big Thing, but it’s highly likely you’ve officially reached “it”-ingredient fatigue. In this case, though, the it-ingredient sounds like it has some serious potential for repairing skin: stem cells.
In our bodies, stem cells create new cells and replace damaged cells. They can function as any cell in the body, which is one reason they are so powerful. While research is ongoing, stem cell therapies have the potential to treat diabetes, cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and more. But they are also controversial: Today’s approved therapies extract stem cells from embryos. (Adipose- and bone marrow-derived stem cells, which come from live, human donors, are also available ― although applications of these are limited and not currently approved for therapies by the Food and Drug Administration.)
That brings us to stem cells in skin care. Despite the capability of stem cells, the claims made by stem cell skin care products aren’t much different than you’d find on a bottle of any other anti-aging product: diminished wrinkles and fine lines, firmer skin, smoother texture and more even tone. But stem cells, at least in theory, should do even more than that ― they excel at repairing skin and stimulating the growth of tissue, even where skin is damaged.
The products don’t come cheap. There’s the $135 Indie Lee stem cell serum. Or the more affordable Juice Beauty Stem Cellular anti-wrinkle overnight cream for $75. You could try the Lancer Skincare Lift Serum Intense for $275, which also has pure 24 karat gold in it.
If these products really do harness the power of stem cells, perhaps the cost would be worth it. But do they actually work? According to Beibei Du-Harpur, a dermatologist and skin researcher (and a dermatology registrar and Ph.D. candidate in the U.K.), “There is no evidence that stem cells in skin care could be helpful, at present.”
“Unfortunately, the term ‘stem cell’ is highly marketable, but the products do not have robust peer-reviewed science behind them.”
Jordan Wang, medical research director at the Laser and Skin Surgery Center of New York and a board-certified dermatologist who’s published several papers on stem cells in dermatology, explained, “Frequently, the marketing is over-exaggerated and solely meant to increase sales irregardless of the science.”
“Unfortunately, the term ‘stem cell’ is highly marketable, but the products do not have robust peer-reviewed science behind them. The studies I have seen are very small and appear to be aimed at convincing an audience that has no scientific background,” Du-Harpur said.
Flawed studies aside, one of the biggest problems is that the stem cells in your serums aren’t actually from humans. Instead, the stem cells are often derived from plants ― anything from apples to echinacea to various flowers.
“There is less convincing data on the benefits of plant-derived stem cells as it pertains to skin health, and there are many questions on if their use truly translates to worthwhile and noticeable results,” Wang said. One issue is that plant stem cells effectively speak another language than our own stem cells, and therefore they are unable to communicate with each other in the way our own stem cells can.
“There is no theoretical reason why this would have any benefit on human skin,” said Du-Harpur, referring to plant stem cells.
Other times, formulas contain byproducts of stem cells without containing any stem cells themselves. This might be on the label as “stem cell conditioned medium,” which is basically the waste product of stem cells. Growth factors are also a commonly used stand-in for stem cells, sometimes called EGF, or epidermal growth factor. Growth factors are a protein that can stimulate cell growth and speed up wound recovery. While stem cells replicate themselves to create new cells, EGF tells cells to replicate to stimulate new growth.
“Although such compounds from certain types of stem cells such as mesenchymal stem cells have ‘anti-inflammatory’ effects, the research behind these products and formulations have not been extensively peer-reviewed,” Du-Harpur said.
While so-called stem products typically don’t actually include stem cells at all (at least any that our cells could communicate with), there’s a big problem with the idea of including them in an over-the-counter product in the first place: how difficult it is to maintain live stem cells.
“Another issue is the stability of stem cells in topical formulations, where breakdown and viability are significant concerns,” Wang said. To survive, stem cells need extremely controlled environments, which is something they don’t get when bottled into the creams and serums for consumers today.
“If we could harness the theoretical regenerative power of stem cells into a skin care product, it would be utterly unethical of doctors to NOT use them in the myriad of life-changing dermatological diseases that would benefit from them.”
“The way they are maintained in labs is to keep them in a dish at 37 degrees [Fahrenheit], with a very specific soup of substrates, enzymes, etc., which are constantly being changed,” Du-Harper explained. “Even so, they have a limited life span in this environment. The likelihood of a cosmetic formula being able to replicate this is pretty small.” (Du-Harpur added that if a stable formula were created, there’s no evidence that even this would provide anti-aging benefits. “Skin is a barrier, and the stem cells would not penetrate the barrier,” she said.)
As a final note, when discussing stem cells there is an obvious moral issue. Not only because of the difficulty of obtaining stem cells, but also because of their potential capabilities. “If we could harness the theoretical regenerative power of stem cells into a skin care product, it would be utterly unethical of doctors to NOT use them in the myriad of life-changing dermatological diseases that would benefit from them,” Du-Harper said.
“The claims made by companies who have products that are ‘stem cell’-related often sound very impressive,” Du-Harper said. “If their product was truly able to deliver some sort of skin regeneration, there would surely be a social responsibility to make available their technology for people who have a serious need for it, e.g., those who have been disfigured by burns scarring, patients with genetic skin fragility and chronic wounds.” Currently, however, there is no treatment or usage guide from reputable dermatologists that actually use stem cell therapies, because this kind of remedy does not exist.
That could change in the future, given the current research. “Stem cells are being actively researched to develop treatments for debilitating skin conditions and treat currently untreatable conditions,” Du-Harpur said. But these treatments aren’t just a cream or lotion that you can buy off a shelf, and certainly won’t be used for smoothing wrinkles or firming skin. Treatment would likely be delivered via injection and would have to go through many levels of approval and testing first. “Although there is great promise, it is an area of medicine (regenerative medicine) that is in its infancy,” Du-Harpur explained.
If you’re looking for the sort of treatment you wish stem cell products delivered, the good news is there are ways to effectively coax your own stem cells into repairing your skin. And if you use retinoids or peels, or have gotten laser treatments, you already have. These procedures remove the top layer of keratinocytes, or skin cells. When this happens, stem cells in your skin create new skin cells. “The effect of this is commonly described as ‘increased cell turnover,’ which actually means your stem cells are speeding up its rate at which it forms a new keratinocyte,” Du-Harpur said.
Until research catches up — and issues of morality and packaging are sorted out — the most effective way to treat skin is probably the way you’ve already been doing it. When it comes to stem cell products, save your money.