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Stem cell Technology: The New Buzzwords in Skincare
I need to say upfront that cosmetic products do not actually contain live stem cells despite the bold marketing on product labels. I see patients every day in my dermatology practice who want to believe these products are the new “fountain of youth”. I wish I could tell them what they want to hear, I really do. Unfortunately, the truth is these claims are nothing more than false advertising. Live cells cannot survive in skincare emulsions. They require a pH balanced growth medium at a certain temperature not found in these cosmetic products.
I’ve heard the hype, but what exactly are stem cells?
Stem cells are unique. While most cells have one specific purpose, stem cells do not. For example, human stem cells can become a muscle cell or a nerve cell, while a plant stem cell can become part of a root or leaf.
Stem cells have the ability to rapidly divide to give rise to more stem cells or become other types of cells with different specialized functions. These cells also have something called long-term cell renewal which means they are able to copy themselves for long periods of time. In the United States, cosmetic manufacturers use only plant, not human, stem cells to produce desired ingredients for products.
So why the interest in stem cell technology?
Researchers recently identified naturally occurring compounds derived from many different plants that may protect the very superficial layers of skin from the sun’s damaging rays. One example is a group of bioflavonoids called proanthocyanidins found in grape seeds. Of course, no clinical studies exist comparing the efficacy of these compounds to everyday sunscreen. And the consensus among skincare experts is to always use sunscreen even if applying plant derived stem cell extracts because, by themselves, they do not provide adequate sun protection.
Though little science is available proving the effectiveness of most topically applied plant extracts, many researchers,based on findings at the cellular level, agree they have potential. And a large sector of the population truly believes, despite any real evidence, that plant derived ‘natural” ingredients are better than synthetic ones. While it’s true that applying plant-derived ingredients is not likely to harm most people, doing so may cause allergic reactions and sun sensitivity in some people.
Is stem cell technology actually beneficial?
The answer is yes, but not to provide more youthful looking skin. The real benefit of this technology is the ability to produce pure and more consistent plant derived ingredients for products. By using plant stem cell cultures as the “factory” by which desired ingredients for skincare creams are produced, scientists can manufacture high quality, concentrated plant extracts independent of environmental factors like weather, soil conditions or seasonal variation. These extracts can be standardized, and are made in sterile conditions with little risk of contamination from organisms or pesticide exposure. The end result is a cleaner and more consistent product. Unfortunately, plant stem cell extract production is an expensive proposition.
I tell my patients not to spend their hard earned money on stem cell facial creams as they are usually more expensive per ounce than other facial moisturizers and no evidence exists to prove they are more beneficial in any way. In fact, they are often less effective as moisturizers compared to standard face creams manufactured by other well-known companies.
The bottom line
Expensive skincare treatments marketed as stem cell creams are plentiful in the cosmetic section of your local stores. And the economic benefits of marketing a face cream this way is astronomical, even if proof that stem cells provide anti-aging qualities does not exist. People want to believe the buzz.
Skincare company research & development departments are excited to jump on board now that “stem cell technology” is a part of the beauty industry’s pop-culture. But research is sorely lacking to substantiate the effectiveness or even safety of these therapies. Stem cell technology does have its benefits, but don’t believe everything you hear. Moisturizers must contain preservatives and therefore will never be an adequate environment for live cells, stem cells or otherwise.
Stem cell technology is still in its infancy and, as is the case for most dermatologists, I believe more studies are needed.
Fayne Frey, M.D., is a board-certified clinical and surgical dermatologist practicing in West Nyack, New York, where she specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer. She is a nationally recognized expert in the effectiveness and formulation of over-the-counter skincare products, and, as a speaker, has captivated audiences with her wry observations regarding the skincare industry. She has consulted for numerous media outlets, including NBC, USA Today, and, the Huffington Post, and has shared her expertise on both cable and major TV outlets. Dr. Frey is the Founder of FryFace.com, an educational skincare information and product selection service website that clarifies and simplifies the overwhelming choice of effective, safe and affordable products encountered in the skincare aisles. Dr. Frey is a fellow of both the American Academy of Dermatology and the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery.
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