Stem Cells for the Cosmetic Chemist
I just read a story about a new skin care product that incorporates both plant and human “stem cells.” This type of marketing is a bit annoying because it’s completely misleading. There aren’t stem cells in the product no matter what this company claims about their skin cream.
How can I say that with such confidence? All you have to do is know a little about the science of stem cells and it becomes clear. So let’s talk about stem cells.
Stem cells are living cells that are undifferentiated. They’re a bit like the cells that start every embryo when the sperm and egg cells fuse. They contain all the DNA information to make an entire human being (or plant or other animal depending on the species). When embryos start to grow, most of their cells differentiated into things like skin cells, brain cells, heart cells, and all the other different organs in your body. While the cells in your skin have all the DNA material of the cells in your liver, the DNA code is expressed differently so you end up getting the different organs.
Stem cells do not differentiate in this way. They maintain their potential to become any type of organ. They also have an unlimited ability to divide and live. Most differentiated human cells can only divide about 50 generations before they die. They are subject to the Hayflick limit and have a built-in program that kills them off. Scientists theorize this prevents cancer.
Anti aging stem cells
But Stem cells, are not restricted as such. That’s why they are so promising for curing diseases or regrowing organs. Imagine if you could take some of your own skin stem cells and grow new patches of your own skin from them in a lab. You could use that skin to cover scars or other tissue damage. You could even get rid of wrinkles or signs of aging skin. It’s this potential that makes them a promising treatment for antiaging products.
It’s also a misunderstanding of this potential that has duped consumers and inspired marketers to desire stem cells to be put into their skin care formulations. If a stem cell could reverse aging, why wouldn’t you do it?
I’ll tell you why.
Because stem cells only work if they are living. And living stem cells are not being put into these skin creams. If they were, they would have to have a special growth medium and be kept at a specific temperature. They would need to be refreshed with food too. Stem cell containing creams are not created as such. At best you have a cream filled with dead stem cells that have no potential to do anything.
Plant stem cells
Plant stem cells in a skin cream is even more baffling to me. These are stem cells that come from plants and have the potential to grow stems, leaves, fruits, etc. Why would anyone think that a plant stem cell is going to be able to help improve the appearance or condition of your skin? It is nonsensical.
The reason companies put them in formulas however, is because they can claim the product has stem cells (which consumer like I guess) and the ingredients can be obtained inexpensively. Human stem cells must be pretty pricey, much more so than apple stem cells. So marketers figure if people like stem cells in their products, it doesn’t matter what type of stem cells they are.
In this, they are right. But only because the type of stem cell in your cosmetic doesn’t matter. No type of stem cell added to your skin lotion will do much of anything!
The future of anti-aging stem cells
Stem cells are a promising technology for the future. And they may even be a great anti-aging treatment when the science catches up with the application. You will know when it is a real anti-aging treatment when the following things are true.
- The stem cells are from humans (preferably yourself)
- The stem cells are alive
- The product is somehow delivered to your dermis (probably an injection)
- The product is applied by a doctor
If stem cells really worked the way they are promised, this treatment would be beyond a cosmetic one and well into the drug category. It just might happen in the next 20 years but any cream that is advertised to be anti-aging because it contains stem cells now is about as effective as all the skin creams without stem cells.