First of all, I am going to make this as simple as possible for the layperson to understand because there is so much misinformation and misunderstanding that is floating around regarding this topic. I will explain a generalized version on stem cells but my focus is on stem cells as they relate to skincare.
There are two classifications of stem cells:
a) Embryonic stem cells which are derived from a 4-5 day old human embryo. These embryos are generally extras as a consequence of in-vitro fertilization wherein multiple eggs are fertilized in a test tube but only one implanted into a woman. This embryo, in the 4-5 day range is called a blastocyst. It has an outer and inner cell mass. The outer mass turns into the placenta and the inner cell mass turns into a group of cells that will differentiate to create all the structures and organs of an adult organism. Hence, this is the source of the cells needed to repair and regenerate someone’s tissue and organs. Embryonic stem cells lies within the purview of the medical field and are, at this point, not a concern of the aesthetics industry!! Obviously, there is a lot of controversy involved in using embryonic stem cells due to moral, religious and ethical reasons.
b) Adult stem cells have gone through the embryonic stages of development and, hence, we are now speaking of cells belonging to a live human being. They are scattered all over the body and have been found in tissues of the brain, bone marrow, blood vessels, liver, skeletal muscles and most importantly, for purposes of this article, the skin. They can remain dormant or non-dividing for years until activated by tissue injury or disease. They are able to sub-divide or self-renew indefinitely, which enables them to generate a range of cell types from the originating organ or even regenerate the entire original organ and not just the skin (remember the skin is an organ, albeit an external organ). However, for purposes of this dissertation, I am going to focus on Skin Stem Cells.
What are stem cells? These are primitive or immature cells (I call them bland cells with a potential) that have yet to find their purpose and function in the skin and are, thus, referred to as ‘undifferentiated’ cells. They are able to ‘differentiate’ eventually and turn into a cell that produces collagen and elastin or a cell that produces sebum (oil) or a cell that produces melanin (pigmenting material) or one that creates growth factors for tissue repair and regeneration etc.
They lie dormant in the basal layer of the skin (the deepest layer of the epidermis or superficial skin) and are generally activated to turn into whatever cell the skin needs at that point OR they may simply continue to live as stem cells. The stem cells that are ‘undifferentiated’ are generally referred to ‘mother’ cells. Under circumstances of trauma and disease which is a type of inflammation, the mother stem cell receives signals from the body to begin the repair mode. These signals are either from ‘cytokines’ which are small cell-signalling protein molecules. Cytokines are part of the immune system and can be classified as proteins, peptides or glycoprotein. They send chemical messages to other cells including stem cells that there has been trauma and injury to the skin. The other significant cell-signalling protein group are called ‘growth factors’. They are responsible for cellular repair and regeneration and are indispensable in creating new, youthful skin.
It is at this point of trauma that the mother stem cell splits itself or ‘differentiates’ and turns into two new cells. The new mother cell continues to sit in the basal area and the differentiated ‘daughter ‘ cell begins to make its journey, migrating upwards and functions as any cell that is necessary for the skin at that point. This means that the stem cell can receive the message to create proteins, carbohydrates and lipids (fats) to help repair fine lines and wrinkles and restore and maintain firmness and elasticity.
When we are young, our own stem cells work in a highly systematic and specialized cycle. As we age, stem cells diminish. The skin gets thinner due to biological ageing, lifestyle such as smoking, drugs, alcohol, excessive and chronic exposure to the sun and the result is wrinkling and sagging. Since we have diminished stem cells, new skin cells that can create the proteins and carbohydrates and lipids to plump up the skin and halt the ageing process, are no longer freely available. Enter topical skin products to stimulate the existing stem cells to differentiate. They have been formulated to send a fake or manipulated alarm to the stem cell and that there has been injury to the skin so that this differentiation takes place and stem cells rush to create a healing response, thereby giving the person, a more youthful appearance.
It is at this point that it may dawn on you that stem cells really need a stimuli to function appropriately and create new cells and tissue. They cannot do this on this own without stimulation. Hence, skincare products that actually work to give you youthful skin will have cytokines, growth factors, peptides and anti-oxidants to support the functioning of your own stem cells within your skin. Some manufacturers claim to have used live adult stem cells in their skin products (eg. foreskin of circumcised infants). I have a problem comprehending how a stem cell that has a hard time surviving in a lab, can actually live through the rigors involved in the manufacturing process AND continue to live in a cream or serum format AND enter the skin barrier topically to affectively help in the regeneration process. I personally feel, and I have done a lot of research on this topic, that the word ‘stem cells’ conveys a certain aura of medical authenticity and, hence, many companies have jumped onto the bandwagon of stem cell technology to lure consumers with wild promises that they cannot substantiate.
Many companies are using plant stem cells from sources such as nutmeg, argan, a specific type of Swiss apple called the Mallus Domestica Fruit, Edelweiss plant from Austria, Rose, Melon etc. in their formulations. It takes away the stigma attached to using human stem cells. However, there is a huge difference between plant stem cells and human stem cells. A plant stem cell cannot interact with stem cells in the human skin and create new stem cells. However, they can protect the already existing stem cells from degrading through environmental injuries including sun damage and thereby extend their life span. They are responsible for nourishing the human stem cells with superior anti-oxidants and creating a more youthful appearance. The skin is ageing 24 hours a day. That never stops. What you can do is to find quality skincare products that have a combination of plant or human stem cells in combination with peptides, growth factors and anti-oxidants. And, finally, do NOT forget to exfoliate with Vitamin A derivatives, Retinol or Retinoic Acid. What good would it be to use expensive products topically if there is a barrier that inhibits the penetration of the product?
Therapy World Medical Spa carries products that have human stem cells, bovine cytokines and growth factors as well as, plant based stem cells, cytokines and growth factors.