Stemming the Tide

“Telomeres,” “epigenetic signals,” “sirtuin modulating compounds”—the terms associated with plant stem cell technology can make you yearn for the days when “transepidermal water loss” was the most complex scientific concept most spa pros needed to absorb. Before you give up altogether and retreat, let us assure you that the science behind plant stem cell compounds isn’t all that indecipherable—if you stick to the facts.

Let’s begin our discussion with skin stem cells, which are located near hair follicles and sweat glands, and which lie dormant until chemicals (epigenetic signals) activate them. These cells will then divide and produce a new stem cell, a “daughter” cell that can become any specialized cell needed in the repair of the skin. The epigenetic signals also determine the kind of specialized cell this daughter becomes.

“Only 2% to 7% of skin cells are stem cells,” says Karen Asquith, national technical training manager, G.M. Collin. “As we age, these cells produce fewer skin cells and their action becomes less efficient.”

In 2009, three American scientists won the Nobel Prize in Physiology for discoveries they made, starting in the 1950s, regarding the function of telomeres (those protective “caps” covering the chromosomes of stem cells) and telomerase (the enzyme that forms them). These scientists found that when telomeres were shortened, the cells would age; however, if telomerase activity was high, the length of telomeres would remain unchanged and cell senescence (death) would thus be delayed.

What happens when stem cells die? Here’s one cause-and-effect example: When melanocyte stem cells in the hair follicle die, the hair turns gray.

“Stem cells are charged with replicating your DNA, preparing cells for division and regrowth,” explains Christine Heathman, CEO and president, GlyMed Plus Skin Care. “They decide what kind of cells the skin needs to repair itself, and then they provide them.” Heathman first became excited about scientific findings related to chromosomes and DNA back in 1999. “Ever since reading about the discovery of telomeres and telomerase,” she says, “I’ve kept an eye out for raw materials that might be useful in keeping stem cells active. You can’t have great skin if you don’t have great stem cells.”

DAYSPA turned to industry experts to make sense of all the fuss. Read on to find out what makes a great stem cell—and exactly how that can translate to great skin. —Linda W. Lewis