Stem Cells in Skin Care

I must admit something to you, my friend, nothing drives me crazier than a company boasting about their plant stem cells in the magical serum that will fix everything. 

This is the ultimate tactic to grab the attention of the consumer with buzz words. I am going to break down the difference between plant stem cells and animal stem cells, and what they are capable of.

Plant stem cells are going to be the ingredient you will most often see advertised. When I was early in my career as an Esthetician, I worked at a spa that carried a serum with apple stem cells. All the Estheticians loved it, singing its praises to the clients and each other. 

When I attended the training for this specific line, I was so excited to finally be able to ask the trainer, “How do plant stem cells work and communicate to our human (animal) cells?” I kid you not, this was her EXACT answer:

“Because plant stem cells are an organic ingredient, your body knows how to accept and work with this ingredient. Our bodies recognize things that are natural and organic and instinctively know how to process them.”

I am sorry, but WHAT?! That is the biggest “Let me just spew some BS because I have no idea, and no one has asked me this question before” answer I had ever heard. I decided I would not accept that. So, I went on a hunt to find out more information about stem cells, and specifically, plant stem cells in skincare.

(This is probably the most science-heavy chapter in this book, but it needs to be. Stem cells are seriously deep biology, with many different aspects to them. I am going to do my best to break this down into smaller chunks.)

First, I am going to rewind us back to high school biology class. There are two types of cells, plant cells and animal cells. These cells have a different biological makeup since plants and animals are in different kingdoms. 

Plant cells contain a cell wall, giving the cell a rigid structure, as well as chloroplast, which allows these organisms to make their own food from sunlight. 

Animal cells do not have a cell wall and require ingestion of an outside source to obtain nutrients. Cells are the basic structures of life, and when stripped down to their basic structures, animal cells and plant cells are like comparing a piece of steak to an apple.

So next we need to know what stem cells are exactly. In an article titled “Role of Cultured Skin Fibroblasts in Aesthetic and Plastic Surgery” by Davood Mehrabani and Navid Manafi (2013), it is explained:

“Stem cells are unspecialized cells capable of renewing themselves through cell division without limit as long as the person is still alive. Each new cell has the potential either to remain a stem cell or become another type of cell”

Alright, now we are getting somewhere. Stem cells are blank-slate cells, with unlimited renewing potential to become a different type of cell.

But how does this relate to skincare?

At the 2018 International Congress of Esthetics and Spa, I attended a lecture by Daniel Cary, an Esthetician and honorary member of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists. I highly recommend attending any of his lectures as he is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to cosmetic chemistry. 

Daniel Cary explained stem cells’ importance in terms of their role in skincare. Our cells are constantly communicating with each other, giving and receiving signals on what to do. These signals are messenger proteins referred to as growth factors and we obtain these messenger proteins from stem cells.

Now we are getting somewhere! We now know what stem cells are and why we would want stem cells in skincare: stem cells allow us to obtain the protein signals (growth factors) to ensure our skin cells are obtaining the messages to instruct them to work at their fullest potential.

All done, right?

No, I am sorry… We need a little more science first. See, not all stem cells are created equal. Depending on the stem cell used, you will obtain different growth factors, some more appropriate for skin health than others.

In reference to stem cells in skincare, we are most often referencing two types of animal adult stem cells:

  1. Adipose (Fat) Stem Cells: Derived from the byproduct of liposuction, this type of stem cell is associated with the creation of inflammatory proteins and has no role in the healing of the skin. These cells simply create more fat, and that equals inflammation.
  2. Bone Marrow Stem Cells: Obtained from an adult donor, these are the gold standard of stem cells. These stem cells can stimulate wound healing and promote collagen creation. 

(Information obtained from Daniel Cary’s chapter in The Esthetician’s Guide to Outstanding Esthetics Vol II (2018))

(Note- not included are embryonic stem cells. These cells are what receive a lot of buzz in the medical community and mainstream media for their ability to provide potential solutions to disease. However, for skincare purposes, these cells would not produce the growth factors needed to have an anti-inflammatory and wound healing effect.)

Have your eyes glazed over from this Cellular Biology lecture yet? I know, I am sorry I had to get very technical there, but it is important to understand what animal stem cells do in order to understand what plant stem cells cannot do.

Now for the most important sentence in this entire chapter, are you ready?

Plant stem cells do not produce the same protein growth factors as animal cells and therefore are not able to communicate with animal cells.

It is physically impossible to obtain the same results from plant stem cells in skincare that you would when using animal stem cells. Now, before we go trashing all the plant stem cell serums and moisturizers we have, plant stem cells do have some value in terms of skincare. Plant stem cells applied topically have been shown to act as antioxidants

Typically, we will see plant stem cells listed as a “cell culture” of either the swiss apple, argan fruit, grapes, or raspberry.

To summarize everything we just learned, there are benefits to animal stem cells in skincare, but not all stem cells are created equal, and plant stem cells should be viewed only as a fancy named antioxidant. (Take that skincare line trainer who could not answer my question!)

Want even more science? (Because who doesn’t want more science?!)

I recommend reading the chapter on stem cells written by Daniel Clary in The Estheticians Guide to Outstanding Esthetics Volume II, published 2018.

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