Stem Cells In Topical Skincare: Hope Or Hoax?

Stem cell treatments promise a youthful resurgence leaving skin looking and feeling healthier. In the midst of extreme solutions for anti-aging, stem cells have become all the rage because of their super age-defying powers. 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. To learn more about the latest skincare uses, we checked out what stem cell guru Christopher Calapai, DO, an osteopathic physician board-certified in family medicine and anti-aging medicine, had to say.

If a stem cell could reverse aging, why wouldn’t you do it?

“Despite the fact that stem cell research is in its infancy, many cosmetics companies claim they are successfully using plant-based or human-derived stem cells in their anti-aging products,” says Calapai. “These claims run the gamut, from reducing wrinkles to repairing elastin to regenerating cells, so the temptation for consumers to try these products is intense.”


Do stem cells in topical skincare work?

“The truth is that stem cells in skincare products do not work as claimed; they simply cannot deliver the promised results,” says Calapai. “In fact, they likely have no effect at all because stem cells must be alive to function as stem cells, and by the time these delicate cells are added to skincare products, they are long since dead and, therefore, useless.”


Do cosmetics brands ever use actual human stem cells?

“While there are a number of brands on the market touting the use of human stem cells, read the fine print,” says Calapai. “No cosmetic brand is currently using whole human stem cells. Instead, they are using human stem cell extracts. That one additional word is key, indicating that the formulations are based on growth factors.”


Why isn’t human skin like a plant?

There are also claims that because a plant’s stem cells allow a plant to repair itself or to survive in harsh climates, these benefits can be passed on to human skin. “How a plant functions in nature is completely unrelated to how human skin functions, and these claims are completely without substantiation,” says Calapai. “It doesn’t matter how well the plant survives in the desert, no matter how you slather such products on your skin, you still won’t survive long without ample water, shade, clothing, and other skin-protective elements.”


What about the buzz word “peptides?”

Another twist on the stem cell issue is that cosmetics companies are claiming they have taken components (such as peptides) out of the plant stem cells and made them stable so they will work as stem cells would or that they will influence the adult stem cells naturally present in skin. “This theory doesn’t make any sense because stem cells must be complete and intact to function normally,” says Calapai.  “Using peptides or other ingredients to influence adult stem cells in skin is something that’s being explored, but to date scientists are still trying to determine how that would work and how it could be done safely. For now, companies claiming they’ve isolated substances or extracts from stem cells and made them stable are most likely not telling the whole story. Currently, there’s no published, peer-reviewed research showing these stem cell extracts can affect stem cells in human skin.”


What does the future hold for 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