Building Blocks of Beauty
From caviar and diamonds to gold and snake venom, spa-goers today are willing to go to extremes in search of the fountain of youth. Now, stem cells have become all the rage because of their super age-defying powers. “The growth factors found in stem cells provide the messaging molecules necessary to trigger collagen and elastin production, therefore providing the basis for healthier and younger looking skin,” says Crystal McElroy, national educator and sales and account executive for Dermatude North America. “They also have antioxidant properties that protect the human skin from damage and deterioration.”
Multicellular organisms—like animals, humans, and plants—contain stem cells, but plant stem cells are most commonly used in skincare. These are undifferentiated cells located in the meristems of plants, where growth takes place. They serve as the origin of plant vitality because they never undergo an aging process, and they supply cells to different tissues and organs in the plants. According to Szilvia Hickman, senior vice president at Szép Élet, exclusive distributor of Ilike Organic Skin Care, they also replenish dying cells and fix damaged tissue while continuously renewing themselves. Plants rely on their stem cells to withstand harsh external influences and preserve life. When used in skincare, plant stem cells promote healing, fight against free-radical damage, delay biological aging of essential cells, and promote the skin’s ability to regenerate collagen.
Swiss-apple stem cells are widely known as one of the first and most effective plant stem cells to be used in skincare, thanks to their ability to heal themselves quickly and thoroughly. However, many others have also proven to be beneficial in both products and treatments. Such plant stem cells include butterfly bush, which helps to preserve collagen; echinacea, which balances and firms the skin; edelweiss, which helps rejuvenate damaged cells and visibly reduce fine lines and wrinkles; gardenia, which helps increase collagen production and prevents collagen degradation; gotu kola, which helps hydrate skin and improves elasticity; grape, which offers regenerative and wound-healing properties; lilac, for its anti-inflammatory and oil-controlling benefits; and pennywort, which helps even skintone. Kristina Valiani, west coast sales and education manager at B. Kamins Skincare, also recommends heart-leaf globe-daisy plant stem cells because they help induce low levels of stimulation into the skin, to improve its defenses against external free radicals and sun damage. The Spa at One Steamboat Place (Steamboat Springs, CO) offers the Nia-Stem Anti-Aging Facial ($160, 50 minutes; $225, 80 minutes), utilizing B. Kamins Nia-Stem products, which rely on heart-leaf globe-daisy plant stem cells to minimize signs of aging.
But Barbara Close, founder and CEO of Naturopathica, warns that not all stem cells are created equal, and therefore, not all skincare products with plant stem cells are equally effective. “The efficacy of the plant stem cells are determined by the type of plant stem cell, the concentration of the extract used, and the formulation that the stem cell extract is found in,” she says. Other ingredients, such as peptides, vitamins, and hyaluronic acid, can also increase a product’s effectiveness.
In addition to offering anti-aging benefits for the skin, plant stem cells also provide a useful way of obtaining sustainable extracts, says Andrea Weber, head of research and development at the Babor Research and Innovation Centre (Aachen, Germany). “Once a plant cell culture is established in the lab, there is no need to harvest more plant material,” she says. “Thus, we can get extracts from very rare or even highly protected plants without destroying our natural resources.” And because all surrounding factors, nutrients, light, and agitation are controlled, the quality of the extracts is consistent. What’s more, green biotechnology has advanced and companies can now extract stem cells in an eco-friendly way while ensuring the purity and potency of the plant extract. “The highest, most active molecules can be isolated in a larger quantity with fewer plants to deliver more efficacious, highly potent ingredients—up to a thousand times higher in potency than in plants in nature,” says Nicole Rechelbacher, president of Intelligent Nutrients. “Plant stem cells are 100 percent free from herbicides and pesticides. Also, farming is not required, so no significant contribution to greenhouse gases is produced from this process, and there is a drastic reduction of water and solvent use because preservatives are not used in the extraction process.”
The topic of stem cells cannot be discussed without mentioning the controversy surrounding the moral and ethical use of human stem cells derived from embryos. “Human-derived stem cells are heavily regulated and are not available in skincare preparations,” says Marc A. Ronert, M.D., Ph.D., president and medical director of Image Skincare. “Overall, human-derived tissue contains the slight risk of allergic reactions and infections. Even if the risk is minimal, nobody to date can guarantee that this won’t happen. On the other hand, there is no danger with plant-derived stem cells.” Plus, says Liz Beresford, CEO of Vitelle Labs, plant-derived stem cells perform as well or better than human and animal stem cells. “If consuming plants like vegetables, fruits, herbs, and spices, produce better health in people, why wouldn’t a plant-derived ingredient or product also produce benefits to the skin?” she says.
According to Ben Johnson, M.D., CEO of Osmosis Pür Medical Skincare, because actual human stem cells are not commonly used in skincare products and only used to grow growth factors and cytokines that can be used in skincare products, there is no controversy. “They are adult-derived in most cases, and we are not actually using human tissue in the bottles,” says Johnson. “I believe that growth factors are safe for the skin when derived from fibroblast and stem cells because we are only replacing what has been lost.”
Still, many companies have chosen to use only plant stem cells because they are effective but not controversial. If you’re interested in offering stem cell treatments and products in your spa, you should do your product research and examine the results of any objective clinical studies on these products so that your choice is based on scientific, not subjective, data, says Karen Asquith, national technical training manager at G.M. Collin. Close recommends that you check the amount of plant stem cells in each product, because the concentration matters, and inquire as to the source of the stem cell and sustainability practices of the manufacturing company.
It is important for spas to educate clients on the benefits of stem cell treatments and come up with a skincare treatment plan and the accompanying homecare products best suited for their skin type. While plant stem cell treatments can be beneficial to most skin types and conditions, they are primarily targeted toward aging skin. “Because stem cell treatments minimize the appearance of wrinkles and maintain the function of the skin’s stem cells to delay the signs of aging, and anti-aging treatments are the most in-demand services in spas for baby boomers, these are the clients that should be targeted,” says Asquith.
If stem cell spa treatments prove to be a hard sell, Rita Moon, lead esthetician at the Spa at Four Seasons Resort Lana’i at Manele Bay (HI), suggests offering them at an introductory price. Her spa offers the HydroPeptide Stem Cell Facial ($190, 50 minutes; $250, 80 minutes), which is a resurfacing procedure that features six botanical stem cells that protect the skin from external stressors. After the treatment, the spa recommends three homecare products to the client, along with an explanation of each of the formulas’ features and benefits. “It is a good idea to incorporate the stem cell product in the treatment room and discuss the benefits of the stem cells included in the product,” says April Zangl, CEO and co-formulator at HydroPeptide. “It is also important to recommend a homecare product that allows clients to see their results continue to improve at home. Plant stem cells can be thought of as super-antioxidants and must be applied every day to maintain the skin’s youthful qualities and ability to protect itself from the daily threat of oxidative damage.”
While there is still a lot of research that needs to be conducted on the side effects of using animal and human stem cells in skincare treatments and products, there is no doubt that plant stem cells have a positive impact on aging skin, which is music to the ears of the many spa-goers who want to prevent and treat fine lines and wrinkles. “As we know, preventive measures are always better than corrective measures, and sometimes due to lifestyles and time management, caring for our skin gets put on a back burner,” says Moon. “Before we realize, skin begins to age, collagen is lost, and pores get larger. Stem cells keep skin young and healthy.”