If you’ve been following skin care innovations for the last year or so, chances are you’ve heard about stem cells or have seen the ingredient pop up in various skin creams and serums. Stem cells are said to be able to make skin look refreshed and young, but many of us still have questions. What are they, exactly? Where do they come from? How do they work? Why should we try them? We took a closer look at the products and ingredients behind them to give you the scoop.
Stem cells, which occur in living organisms (including the human body), are different from other cells for two reasons. One, they are capable of renewing themselves, and two, under certain conditions, they can be induced to become cells that serve specific functions for the organism. They’re important because of their regenerative properties—stem cells offer a new way to treat certain diseases, and are often used in labs for screening new drugs and other biological research.
The idea behind stem cells in skin care is that by applying them topically, we might stimulate the growth of more stem cells. And because they can regenerate, they’ll keep our skin looking youthful and healthy. Most stem cells used in beauty products are derived from plants. And while embryonic stem cells, taken from human embryos, are illegal, one brand we tried actually uses non-embryonic human cells that were extracted from consenting egg donors (yes, really. Read more below; for more general info on stem cells, read this guide from the National Institutes of Health).
Short answer: we don’t entirely know yet. Some research suggests that skin products containing stem cells can stimulate cell turnover and boost collagen, but there isn’t a lot of conclusive evidence on the subject. Of course, that doesn’t stop skin care companies from capitalizing on the buzzword. And we gotta say, the stem cell treatments we have tried certainly seem to be more effective and fast-acting than your average anti-agers.
Plant-derived stem cells typically are obtained from plants and fruits that can stay fresh for a long time or regenerate on their own, like Swiss apples, gotu kola, and grapes. Extracts of these stem cells are added to products to help neutralize free radicals and fight signs of aging and sun.
Apple: Indie Lee Swiss Apple Facial Serum
After scraping away bark from a particular tree species in Switzerland, scientists found that the tree was capable of regenerating itself. So to continue their research, they isolated the stem cells and tried them as a preservative on top of a tray full of apples and bananas. The team discovered that the stem cells actually prolonged the life of the fruits. Indie Lee’s Swiss Apple Facial Serum was created around the resilient power of these natural botanical-based stem cells. In addition to the extract from the rare Swiss apple stem cell, the serum contains hyaluronic acid and is highly concentrated—you need one drop for your entire face! Antioxidants and cell production-boosting benefits make this the perfect anti-aging product to add to your regimen.
Faspberry: Erno Laszlo Phormula 3-9 Repair Cream
The Phormula 3-9 is a classic collection for the Erno Laszlo brand, and the range's newest addition is the 3-9 Repair Cream. The product relies on a “Medicure Stem Cell Complex” derived from raspberry stem cells sourced from Switzerland. Along with Indonesian Nyamplung Oil, the stem cells are supposed to repair DNA damaged by the sun and environment, and prevent cell oxidation for healthier skin. Other ingredients include African Marula Oil, which gives the formula a rich, supple feel. After using it before bed, I woke up the next morning with my skin looking well slept and exceptionally hydrated.
Grape: ilike Grape Stem Cell Solutions Gel Mask
“Grape stem cells can have a regenerative effect on skin cells and contain a high amount of antioxidants,” says Szilvia Hickman, SVP of llike distributor Szep Elet. “These antioxidants protect the skin from free radicals resulting from environmental pollutants, smoking, tanning, and sun exposure." All of this, they say, leads to younger looking skin. The wtem cells in Ilike Grape Stem Cell Solutions Gel Mask are harvested from select unripe red grape berries, which have a higher "cell viability" and more antioxidant power than full-grown grapes. At first, the herbal-scented mask has a slight gummy texture, but it dries with a tight and moisturizing finish. Once you rinse it off, skin comes away supple and radiant.
Gotu Kola: Sunday Riley’s Stimulant II Perfecting Stem Cell Serum
Sunday Riley’s Stimulant II Perfecting Stem Cell serum draws on the healing properties of Gotu Kola (also called Centella Asiatica), which is a member of the parsley family. The plant is often used to help heal skin wounds and scars, varicose veins, chronic venous insufficiency, and even help treat anxiety. Stimulant II targets redness, rosacea, inflammation, sun damage, and acne, and it can reportedly thicken the dermis to helps make the skin look younger. Because the serum is made with plant-based ingredients, it may be a good alternative for those who don’t react well to peels or retinol—it's also customizable in that you can mix it with any moisturizer. The serum smells similar to white wine upon application, but the scent fades quickly, and leaves a cool and soothing sensation.
At the time of this writing, there’s only one brand on the market that uses human stem cells: Lifeline Skin Care. The stem cells in Lifeline’s products are actually unfertilized eggs extracted from consenting women who have undergone standard IVF ovarian stimulation. Lifeline is created under the umbrella of the International Stem Cell Corporation; the company explains it like this: “The unfertilized human eggs are made available because the donors are interested in advancing innovations in regenerative medicine. They understand that the non-embryonic (parthenogenetic) stem cells will be used to study, and possibly one day treat, regenerative diseases or injuries such as Parkinson’s Disease, congenital liver disease, diabetes, and skin aging.” (Learn more about the process here.)
I was interested to try a few of the products from the line—Recovery Night Moisture Serum, Defensive Day Moisture Serum SPF 15, and Eye Firming Complex with HSC-X, and surprisingly, they were my favorite of all of the stem cell products. The textures felt luxurious, absorbed easily into my skin, and seemed to be effective at making my skin look smooth, clear, and better overall.
Photo: CAP53 / Vetta