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Are human stem cells the future of skincare?

The idea that human stem cells can be harvested to fully reverse the effects of ageing sounds pretty futuristic. And yet this is where science, and skincare, is reportedly heading. So, what are stem cells and how will they be used in the future? We asked the experts to help separate fact from science fiction.

What are stem cells?

According to Dr Dev Patel, specialist in aesthetics and regenerative medicine, and medical director of Perfect Skin Solutions, stem cells are undifferentiated cells within the body that have the potential to develop characteristics specific to cells in a given organ or tissue. Which means that if there is a certain area of damage within the body, stem cells can turn into the cell types that are needed to replace the affected cells. For example, you may have heard of stem cells being collected from umbilical cords after babies are born to be put on hold should that baby require healthy stem cells in later life to replace damaged cells via transplant.

What is their role in beauty?

“Although stem cell therapy is nothing new (it has been used in medicine to regenerate tissue for decades), it is a relatively new concept in beauty treatments and skincare products,” says skin expert Nilam Holmes. There has been a lot of interest in stem cells and their role in beauty as of late, with the idea being that stem cells contain proteins and amino acids which send signals to other cells to regenerate, which would essentially result in younger-looking skin.

However, there is currently no way for live human stem cells to survive in beauty products. “Stem cells can only function in their natural environment or in special lab-controlled conditions,” says Dr Patel. “They would not survive in a product and be too large to penetrate the skin surface anyway. Thus, they are not able to affect the incredible regenerative function they fulfil in their source.” While they have potential in fat injections and facelifts, any product advertising human stem cells may as well be labelled snake oil.

You may well have read about creams containing infant foreskin, collected during routine circumcisions, which have made headlines in the US in the last few years. But in this case, it isn’t the stem cell that is used within the product. Instead, harvested fibroblasts are placed in a tissue culture and left to grow, resulting in the production of growth factors and antioxidants that have been thought to optimise skin health. More on this later.

Foreskin aside, what we are seeing, however, is the rise of products advertising plant stem cells. But again, these are extracts as opposed to live plant stem cells, which simply could not survive.

Do stem cell beauty products actually work?

“Stem cell technology can have a huge impact on beauty in a medical and technological world but human stem cells cannot be used in cosmetic products,” says Dr Barbara Sturm. “Stem cells used within the beauty industry are derived from plants – such as apples and raspberries.”

But again, this is misleading. While plant-derived stem cell extracts can certainly have an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effect, according to Dr Patel, “there is no evidence proving a clinical benefit in the way these products lead the consumer to believe – remember, plant stem cells cannot do in our body what they manage to in plants.”

“We are mammals and not plants,” agrees Holmes. “Those stem cells won’t be able to create the same level of regeneration and repair in our bodies.” Which is why most products that contain plant stem cell extracts also contain other actives or peptides.

What’s the best stem cell serum for the face?

At present, human stem cells cannot survive outside lab conditions or their natural habitat, and plant stem cell extracts cannot deliver the kind of benefits stem cell technology promises. So where is this stem cell skincare craze coming from? Enter growth factors.

“Growth factors are signalling proteins produced by stem cells found, for example, in the skin and used as a communication tool between the cells,” says Dr Sigrún Dögg Guðjónsdóttir, chief of research and development at Bioeffect. “They are recognised by our body and have a specific role to play in different organs. They can activate different processes in the skin – for example, the repairing and healing processes – and are important for the regulation of other processes, as well.”

At Bioeffect, Dr Dögg Guðjónsdóttir and her team use growth factors produced in barley due to their similarities to human growth factors, which “play a vital role in the production of collagen, elastin, and hyaluronic acid to maintain skin’s healthy and dense appearance”. Using this supercharged Barley EGF (Epidermal Growth Factor), their new EGF Power Serum binds to and activates the skin’s top layer of cells, which then start to produce EGFs that activate neighbouring cells. “The EGF signal trickles down to the dermis, where it activates the fibroblasts,” says Dr Dögg Guðjónsdóttir. “Fibroblasts start to produce more collagen and elastin.” Which translates as firmer, more youthful-looking skin.

While barley-produced growth factors are human-like, and can therefore be very useful in skincare products, generally speaking plant growth factors cannot communicate with our cells in the same way as human-derived growth factors. “Human stem-cell derived protein messengers have been shown to help aid repair and regeneration,” says Patel. “These proteins are not cells but trigger biochemical pathways leading to repair.” Here’s where the aforementioned foreskin comes in. Equally, the use of animal stem cell-derived media has been shown to give excellent outcomes on wound recovery and, according to Patel, would thus likely improve the signs of skin ageing. “However, many consumers do not like the idea of a placenta or umbilical cord being involved in the process. “

Another certainly more palatable option are synthetic alternatives, which is something Dr Sturm has been exploring in her Exoso-Metic Collection. “I created the collection with lab synthesised exosome – small vesicles released by cells which contain a variety of growth factors including proteins, peptides, lipids, RNA and DNA which help encourage skin regeneration,” she says. “They are 1/800th of the size of a cell, so can travel easily and directly from one to another, and they play pivotal roles in reducing inflammation during ageing for a healthy, youthful-looking complexion.”

CellDerma is another brand using biosynthetic growth factors. “I use these products post needling and laser treatments to speed up repair and enhance results,” says Holmes. “I have seen a great difference when a client uses this as opposed to regular aftercare. I have also seen great results on my clients with rosacea after using the CellDerma GF5 serum.”

So, what does the future hold?

The buzz surrounding growth factors and exosomes will continue to grow, as will interest in human stem cells. While the technology does not yet exist to incorporate human stem cells in beauty products, the future is ripe with possibility. “We are only at the beginning stages of research and development where human stem cells are concerned,” says Dr Sturm. “I’m looking forward to seeing how this will, in time, translate into skincare.”

This article was originally published on Vogue UK.

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