A number of misconceptions have arisen around the concept of stem cell technologies as currently applied to skin care.  It’s understandable – this is a complex and deep science. Even scientists may miss key concepts, or make assumptions that need to be challenged.  Here the experts take some of the misconceptions we have come across, and offer what we hope is some clarity.

I keep hearing about  ”stem cells in a bottle”. Does this mean stem cells being applied to the skin? 

No. This is a common misconception. In creating topical therapies (as opposed to cell therapies, a different matter) stem cells are grown in the laboratory under special conditions, including strict sterility, while controlling a number of key variables (they are fussy).  As they are growing (multiplying) in culture, the cells talk to one another using cytokine biosignals. The liquid media in which they grow becomes enriched with these, and these are then harvested, refined, filtered, and purified to use as actives in a topical formulation.

Why stem cells – why not any kind of cell?

It turns out that certain types of stem cells are extremely prolific, and extremely clever, when it comes to cytokines & growth factors. This makes sense when you learn about the role of stem cells in development (e.g. growth as an embryo, fetus, baby, child) and then repair & regeneration (replacing old cells/tissues with new ones as adults).   While other cells communicate with the same molecules, they are more listeners than speakers. These stem cells are more like the orchestra leaders – or command and control. And they are very smart in determining what cytokines to produce in a given situation.

Aren’t all stem cells the same?

No, there are different types, and they live naturally in different “niches” within your body. While still stem cells (not differentiated) they behave differently depending on things like the tissue of origin. A good example is fat (adipose) stem cells, While they share stemness with their cousins elsewhere in the body, they are already thinking like fat cells (which is their most likely fate in terms of differentiation).  In addition to cytokines, they product matrikines,  hormones made in fat cells. Other stem cells do not do this. So, the tissue of origin can determine what is in the final mix (a cytokine cocktail) when grown in the lab.

Isn’t this stuff dangerous?

Frankly, no. Products based on growing human cells in culture, extracting the chemical rich medium, purifying and using as a topical, has been around for many years. For example, SkinMedica has been selling large amounts of TNS containing products for a decade.  Products based on human stem cells have been around for nearly 5 years.  Based on a recent safety literature and database review, in all this time there has not been a single reported incidence of an adverse reaction, problem with contamination, or other serious matter.  This is not true for many other substances used commonly, including e.g., vitamin A based products. This amounts to  evidence for safety as demonstrated by marketplace experience & surveillance.

Aren’t plant stem cells just as good?

No. Plants evolved in a manner quite differently from animals. They are actually better at tissue regeneration (lop off a limb, a new one grows back), but then they lead less complicated lives and are not all that mobile or thoughtful. They do have cells that are like stem cells, but not quite.  And they are notoriously difficult to isolate and grow (hence products purporting to contain them are really just ground up plants with a few stem like cells).  Bu there is the real problem – they use different chemicals to communicate cell to cell than animals, mammals, humans. As we have pointed out, the real value of stem cells is what they make (e,g, growth factors). Plants make growth hormones, but those chemicals are foreign to human cells. They cannot understand the language, and the message is lost.  Just as well, since it would probably be add a leaf here or a flower there.  Plants do contain a number of chemicals beneficial to skin (e.g. polyphenols, isoflavones, etc. antioxidants) but these have nothing to do with so-called stem cells.

So, why do I see so many products out there advertising  stem cells (from apples, roses, etc)

Somebody wants to put their hand in your pocketbook. It’s a marketing ploy.  The one thing this tells you is whether their other products are based on science or pure fluff. Take it as a warning sign. We only review them here as a contrast and an educational exercise. We really can’t rate the science –  it is not stem cell science – maybe fantasy botany?

 Wouldn’t it be wiser to wait until this whole stem cell medicine thing gets worked out? 

But then you would miss all the fun.  This is one of the very rare spaces in the world of cosmetic dermatology, surgery and skin care where real innovation is taking place, and with some quite interesting results.