Peeling back the truth in stem cell beauty products

*header photo by Isabell Winter

By guest writer Lisa Willemse. Lisa is a communications professional with 18 years’ experience working in the technology, child development and health research fields, and is currently a Senior Communications Advisor with the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine. With a background in fine art, communications and journalism, Lisa continues to moonlight as a writer, photographer and editor, contributing to a range of Canadian and US-based publications. 

Sheep’s placenta, bird poop and sperm are among the more unusual things you can apply to your face in an effort to maintain or reclaim healthy young skin. Or how about the vampire facial, which involves collecting your own blood and then injecting back into the skin?

Compared to these macabre offerings, stem cells are rather mundane. As the body’s immature cells responsible for growth, healing and maintenance, stem cells at least have strong connections to modern medicine and health.

But don’t reach for that stem cell face cream just yet. Despite having a wealth of scientific study behind it (stem cell research accounts for millions of dollars in research each year in Canada alone), there is nothing to suggest that putting it into a beauty product will do any more for your skin than that bird poop on the sidewalk.

Timothy Caulfield ought to know. Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, has spent a good deal of his career looking at science and pseudoscience, separating the good, the bad from the ugly when it comes to the most promising – and profitable — areas of health care. In writing Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong about Everything?, a book that looks at how celebrity culture influences life choices and health decisions, he spent a year following a Hollywood-style skin rejuvenation regime. (He also went on Gwyneth’s detox and tried out for American Idol, but passed on cosmetic surgery.)

“If you think about it,” says Caulfield, “the stem cell is the perfect marketing tool, especially for anything in the anti-aging category because stem cells are known to have a regenerative effect. It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry and anything you can claim will ‘rejuvenate’ or ‘repair’ the skin is pure gold.”

Stem cells do have incredible potential for regeneration. In medicine, they’ve been used as a therapy for certain blood disorders, such as leukemia, for nearly 50 years. And research is very close to finding new ways to treat type 1 diabetes, heart failure and some forms of vision loss using the healing properties of stem cells. In Ontario alone, twelve different stem cell therapies are being safety tested in humans. (But for many illnesses, therapies are a long way off — read more about disease-based stem cell research on the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s website.)

The excitement in this area of medical research is bound to have spillover, notes Caulfield. “Stem cells are sexy and they have a strong history of research and scientific credibility, which are positive associations that you would want with a health or beauty care product.”

A bit of Googling will reveal that there are stem cell creams and moisturizers, serums, masks, peels, cleansers, facials, rejuvenation injections and even diets all in the beauty and health categories.

“The strangest thing I’ve seen is a stem cell bra,” says Caulfield with a laugh. “The cells are supposed to absorb into your skin to stimulate growth. But we know, scientifically, that this can’t possibly work.”

Why not?

There are three big reasons. The first is that stem cells are part of living tissue in a plant or animal. They need nutrients to survive. Even cells grown in a lab need to be fed on a regular basis and will otherwise die. The kinds of ingredients found in most over-the-counter beauty products don’t include the nutrients stem cells need. And assuming they could survive for a short time, says Caulfield, “it’s extremely – let me emphasize the word extremely — unlikely any of them would survive for weeks or months in a jar on the shelf.”

Second, applying anything to the surface of the skin is pretty much pointless. Your skin’s surface is made up of dead cells, which form part of the barrier that protects you from pathogens and other harmful things in the environment. It also effectively blocks out stem cells. So, any softening effect you might feel won’t be due to the stem cells, but rather the other ingredients that are moisturizing or removing those dead skin cells.

The final reason has to do with the type of stem cells used in most of the beauty products: stem cells from apple seeds, pomegranate and other plants, or stem cells from animals. “Assuming there are actual stem cells in any of the products – which is questionable – there is absolutely no evidence to date that suggests they have any benefit on humans at all,” says Caulfield.

It’s the lack of data that’s critical. “There have been so few real studies on any of these products – remember that testimonials are not proof — and nothing so far would convince me, or should convince you, that they work.”

Is there any harm?

“Unless you’re injecting something into the skin, in which case infection is possible, there is little harm,” says Caulfield.

“But based on what they charge for these products, there is definite harm to your pocketbook.”

Follow Lisa on Twitter and Medium @WillemseLA

Nadia Elkharadly

Nadia Elkharadly

Nadia Elkharadly is the Co-Founder and Managing Editor of Addicted Magazine. Her myriad of addictions include music, fashion, travel, technology, boxing and trying to make the world a better place. Nadia is also a feminist, an animal lover, and a neverending dreamer. Keep up with her on social media through @thenadiae.
Nadia Elkharadly