The Science Behind Stem Cells in Skin Care
How does stem cell technology work?
Gül Zone, founder and CEO, DermAware: Stem cells are ‘unprogrammed’ cells that can differentiate into specific cells with unique functions. The basal layer of the epidermis contains stem cells, but they become fewer in number and less active as people age. Stem cells used in skincare products have been shown to: stimulate the proliferation of epidermal and dermal stem cells; increase the longevity of basal skin stem cells; and reverse senescence signs in fibroblast cells (senescence is the natural progression by which fibroblast cells lose their ability to undergo cellular division).
Laurie Nicoll, founder, Stemulation: The simplest way to understand how stem cell technology works is to appreciate how stem cells function in the body. Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) act as the body’s ‘emergency medical team.’ MSCs are multipotent and have the ability to become skin, bone, tissue and blood. When our bodies experience a trauma, even something as insignificant as a paper cut, MSCs are dispensed to the site. Through a cell proliferation process they produce growth factors, cytokines (peptides) and proteins that ‘tell’ the surrounding cells how to perform. It’s important to note that topical skincare products do not contain stem cells themselves—they hold these nutrients (growth factors, cytokines and proteins) that are captured in conditioned media, which is the active ingredient used in effective stemcell-based products.
Describe some of the different types stem of cells and how they affect the skin.
Karen Asquith, national education director, G.M. Collin: The majority of stem cells used in skincare products are sourced from plants. Grape and lilac stem cells are said to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and wound healing capabilities. A study by a Swiss apple ingredient manufacturer showed that the apple’s stem cells stimulated the proliferation of human stem cells, thereby reducing wrinkle depth.
Christian Jurist, M.D., medical director of global education, Pevonia: There are certain, specific types of plant-derived stem cells that contain epigenetic factors similar to those of an adult human stem cell. Epigenetic factors are proteins that contain the necessary information to stimulate skin stem cells without altering DNA. These factors also preserve the stem cells’ multipotency (multiple differentiation) and ability to self renew. The stem cells utilized in Pevonia products, for example, are derived from the Moroccan argan tree and Swiss comfrey root. Argan stem cells (not to be confused with argan oil) stimulate activity at the dermal level, increasing fibroblast production and improving connective tissue fiber support. Comfrey root stem cells work at the base of the epidermis to stimulate cellular activity and restructure the epidermis.
Nicoll: It’s important to understand the difference between single-source cells and pluripotent cells. The advantage to pluripotent cells is that they can address more than one issue. Single-source cells can only influence the same cell types, therefore they’re less effective in addressing various skin issues.
Zone: There are two types of stem cells used in skin care. The first are harvested from plants—typically from rare, ancient or unique species able to survive harsh habitats—that are then cultured. Examples include: apple, rose, argan or Dwarf soapwort, which protect stem cells in the skin and lessen the appearance of wrinkles; grape and soy stem cells, which deliver antioxidant benefits; and marine plant stem cells that can heal and lighten skin. The second kind is human stem cells, of which there are different types. The most controversial are embryonic stem cells, which are able to differentiate into all types of tissue in the human body.
What are some key considerations when formulating with stem cells?
Zone: Concentration is everything—the higher, the better. Stability and delivery are also concerns, which is why at DermAware we add bio-actives to stabilize and increase the longevity of our stem cells, and we also focus on microencapsulation to improve both delivery and stability.
Dr. Jurist: In general, the most effective stem cell products rely on the extraction of epigenetic factors. Nevertheless, the challenge has been to maintain compatibility and sustained benefits. Obviously, human stem cells’ epigenetic factor proteins are intrinsically more compatible in the skin, but non-human sources can also be beneficial if selected and applied appropriately. As long as the ingredients have the molecular makeup necessary for interaction, then a response will be executed in the skin. Pevonia uses dualaction epigenetic factors from a combination of specific vegetal stem cells that are isolated, stabilized, encapsulated in liposomes and then delivered deep into target skin cells. Our formula also includes enzymes, peptides, growth factors and other components to maximize results.
Asquith: Depending on the desired action of the product, various compensatory ingredients could be used. For example, if it’s designed to be anti-inflammatory, the stem cells can be combined with other soothing and protective ingredients. Most of today’s stem cell products are formulated to address signs of aging, therefore hyaluronic acid, growth factors, peptides and other beneficial ingredients are often added. The Swiss apple stem cell used in G.M. Collin’s products is a liposomal preparation to ensure stability and ease of penetration, which we combine with other antiaging ingredients.
What are common misconceptions or controversies surrounding stem cells?
Nicoll: There have been numerous misconstrued messages about stem cells, their sources and their efficacy. One of the most prevalent is that all stem cells are related to, or derived from, a fetus or embryo. This is completely false. Embryonic or fibroblast stem cells are in fact associated with the first 72 hours of conception, and during this time the cell itself has not taken full shape or form. Once the cells have passed the 72-hour mark, they have been assigned their role in the human anatomy and are no longer embryonic. It’s important to us at Stemulation—and other conscientious manufacturers—that the stem cells sourced for cell proliferation in our products are ethically derived. That means we do not endanger human life, or utilize cells that could become human life. It should also be noted that scientific research has validated that adult stem cells—derived from the bone marrow of donors—have the greatest impact when it comes to healing. All of these processes are acutely monitored for health and safety.
Dr. Jurist: A big misconception is that these products contain live stem cells. It’s simply impossible to formulate a topical product with living cells. Rather, all stem cell products— regardless of the source of those cells— contain derivatives of stem cells that can be maintained in a formula. In addition, many product lines claim the inclusion of stem cells, but unless they employ specific sources, select technologies and deep research to prove ingredients’ benefits, the formulations may simply not work. That’s why mainstream skepticism has been founded— and keeps growing.
What’s on the horizon for the field of stem cells?
Dr. Jurist: The implications in the skincare industry—dermatology especially—regarding epigenetics as it relates to skin cancer applications look very promising. Of course, skin care that utilizes epigenetics will continue to focus on antiaging formulations, but it will also lead to products that address other common skin conditions and diseases.
Nicoll: One exciting opportunity is burn healing with stem cell cultured media. It’s very close to my heart; I am passionate about supporting research in this area. We need to help first responders protect and heal burn patients, and bring relief to those with topical wounds that cause physical as well as emotional damage.
Asquith: Presently some plant stem cells are being studied for use in cancer treatments to regenerate the skin—in time, who knows, these studies may even lead to the fountain of youth!
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