The Real Science Behind “Anti-Aging” Beauty Products
The beauty industry heavily hypes the nascent promise of stem cells for rejuvenation. (© canbedone/Adobe)
The beauty market abounds with high-end creams and serums that claim the use of stem cells to rejuvenate aging skin.
Selling on the internet and at department stores Nordstrom, these products promise “breakthrough” applications to plump, smooth, and “reverse visible signs of aging,” and at least one product offers to create a “regenerative firming serum, moisturizer, and eye cream” from customers’ own stem cells – for a whopping $1200.
The beauty industry is heavily hyping glimmers of the nascent field of stem cell therapy.
Steeped in clinical-sounding terms “proteins and peptides from pluripotent stem cells,” the marketing of these products evokes a dramatic restoration of youthfulness cutting-edge science.
But the beauty industry is heavily hyping glimmers of the nascent field of stem cell therapy.
So what is real and what’s not? And is there in fact a way to harness the potential of stem cells in the service of beauty?
Plant vs. Human Stem Cells
Stem cells do indeed have tremendous promise for treating a wide range of diseases and conditions. The cells come from early-stage embryos or, more commonly, from umbilical cord blood or our own bodies.
Embryonic stem cells are considered the body’s “master” cells because they can develop into any of our several hundred cell types. Adult stem cells, on the other hand, reside in mature tissues and organs the brain, bone marrow, and skin, and their versatility is more limited.
As an internal repair system for many tissue types, they replenish sick, injured, and worn-out cells.
Nowadays, with some sophisticated chemical coaxing, adult stem cells can be returned to an embryonic- blank state, with the ability to become any cell type that the body might need.
Beauty product manufacturers convey in their advertising that the rejuvenating power of these cells could hold the key to the fountain of youth. But there’s something the manufacturers don’t always tell you: their products do not typically use human stem cells.
“The whole concept of stem cells is intriguing to the public,” says Tamara Griffiths, a consultant dermatologist for the British Skin Foundation. “But what these products contain is plant stem cells and, more commonly, chemicals that have been derived from plant stem cells.”
The plant stem cells are cultured in the lab with special media to get them to produce signaling proteins and peptides, cytokines and chemokines. These have been shown to be good for reducing inflammation and promoting healthy cell functioning, even if derived from plants.
However, according to Griffiths, there are so many active ingredients in these products that it’s hard to say just what role each one of them plays.
We do know that their ability to replenish human stem cells is extremely limited, and the effects of plant stem cells on human cells are unproven.
“…any cosmetic that is advertised to be anti-aging due to plant stem cells at this time is about as effective as all the skin creams without stem cells.”
Whether products containing plant cell-derived ingredients work better than conventional skin products is unknown because these products are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and may rest on dubious, even more or less nonexistent, research.
Cosmetics companies have conducted most of the research and the exact formulas they devise are considered proprietary information.
They have no incentive to publish their research findings, and they don’t have to meet standards imposed by the FDA unless they start using human cells in their products.
“There are biological limits to what you can do with plant cells in the first place,” says Griffiths. “No plant stem cell is going to morph into a human skin cell no matter what magic medium you immerse it in. Nor is a plant cell ly to stimulate the production of human stem cells if applied to the skin.”
According to Sarah Baucus, a cell biologist, for any type of stem cell to be of any use whatsoever, the cells must be alive.
The processing needed to incorporate living cells into any type of cream or serum would inevitably kill them, rendering them useless.
The splashy marketing of these products suggests that results may be drastic, but none of these creams is ly to produce the kind of rejuvenating effect that would be on par with a facelift or several other surgical or dermatological procedures.
“Plant stem cell therapy needs to move in the right direction to implement its inherent potential in skin care,” researchers wrote in a 2017 paper in the journal Future Science OA. “This might happen in the next 20 years but any cosmetic that is advertised to be anti-aging due to plant stem cells at this time is about as effective as all the skin creams without stem cells.”
From Beauty Counter to Doctor’s Clinic
Where do you turn if you still want to harness the power of stem cells to reinvigorate the skin? Is there a legitimate treatment using human cells? The answer is possibly, but for that you have to switch from the Nordstrom cosmetics counter to a clinic with a lab, where plastic surgeons work with specialists who culture and manipulate living cells.
Plastic surgeons are experts in wound healing, a process in which stem cells play a prominent role. Doctors have long used the technique of taking fat from the body and injecting it into hollowed-out or depressed areas of the face to fill in injuries, correct wrinkles, and improve the face’s curvature.
Lipotransfer, or the harvesting of body fat and injecting it into the face, has been around for many years in traditional plastic surgery clinics. In recent years, some plastic surgeons have started to cull stem cells from fat. One procedure that does just that is called cell-assisted lipotransfer, or CAL.
In CAL, adipose tissue, or fat, is harvested by liposuction, usually from the lower abdomen. Fat contains stem cells that can differentiate into several cell types, including skin, muscle, cartilage, and bone. Fat tissue has an especially stem cell-rich layer.
These cells are then mixed with some regular fat, making in effect a very stem cell-rich fat solution, right in the doctor’s office.
The process of manipulating the fat cells takes about 90 to 110 minutes, and then the solution is ready to be injected into the skin, to fill in the lips, the cheeks, and the nasolabial folds, or the deep folds around the nose and mouth.
Un regular fat, which is often injected into the face, some experts claim that the cell-enriched fat has better, longer-lasting results. The tissue graft grows its own blood vessels, an advantage that may lead to a more long-lasting graft – though the research is mixed, with some studies showing they do and other studies showing the complete opposite.
For almost all stem cell products on the market today in the U.S., it is not yet known whether they are safe or effective, despite how they are marketed.
One of the pioneers in CAL, a plastic surgeon in Brazil named Dr. Aris Sterodimas, says that the stem cells secrete growth factors that rejuvenate the skin — the plant stem cells that are used in topical creams and serums. Except that these cells are human stem cells and hence have inherently more potential in the human body.
Note that CAL doesn’t actually result in large numbers of fresh, new replacement cells, as might be imagined. It’s simply fat tissue treated to make it richer in stem cells, to have more of the growth-inducing proteins and peptides delivered to the dermis layer of the skin.
Sterodimas works alongside a tissue engineer to provide CAL in his clinic. He uses it as a way to rebuild soft tissues in people disfigured by accidents or diseases, or who are suffering the after-effects of radiation treatments for cancer.
Plastic surgeons get plenty of these patients. But how widespread is CAL for beauty purposes? Sterodimas says that he regularly performs the procedure for Brazilians, and it’s widely available in Europe and Japan. In the U.S.
, the procedure hasn’t taken off because there is no FDA approval for the various methods used by different doctors and clinics. A few major academic centers in the U.S.
offer the treatment on a clinical trials basis and there are several trials ongoing.
But there is a downside to all lipotransfers: the transplanted fat will eventually be absorbed by the body. Even the cell-enriched fat has a limited lifespan before reabsorption.
That means if you the cosmetic results of CAL, you’ll have to repeat the treatment about every two years to maintain the plumping, firming, and smoothing effects on the skin.
The results of CAL are “superior to the results of laser treatments and other plastic surgery interventions, though the effect is not as dramatic as a facelift,” says Sterodimas.
For almost all stem cell products on the market today in the U.S., it is not yet known whether they are safe or effective, despite how they are marketed. There are around 700 clinics in the U.S.
offering stem cell treatments and up to 20,000 people have received these therapies. However, the only FDA-approved stem cell treatments use cells from bone marrow or cord blood to treat cancers of the blood and bone marrow.
Safety concerns have prompted the FDA to announce increased oversight of stem cell clinics.
As for CAL, most of the clinical trials so far have been focused on using it for breast reconstruction after mastectomy, and results are mixed. Experts warn that the procedure has yet to be proven safe as well as effective. It’s important to remember that this newborn science is in the early stages of research.
One question that has also not been definitively settled is whether the transplanted stem cells may give rise to tumors — a risk that is ever-present any time stem cells are used. More research is required to assess the long-term safety and effectiveness of these treatments.
Given the lack of uniform industry standards, one can easily end up at a clinic that overpromises what it can deliver.
In the journal Plastic Reconstruction Surgery in 2014, Adrian McArdle and a team of Stanford University plastic surgeons examined the common claims of CAL’s “stem cell facelifts” being offered by clinics across the world.
McArdle and his team write: “…the marketplace is characterized by direct-to-consumer corporate medicine strategies that are characterized by unsubstantiated, and sometimes fraudulent claims, that put our patients at risk.
” Given the lack of uniform industry standards, one can easily end up at a clinic that overpromises what it can deliver.
But according to McArdle, further research on CAL, including clinical trials, is proceeding apace. It’s possible that as more research on the potential of stem cells accrues, many of the technical hurdles will be crossed.
If you decide to try CAL in a research or clinical setting, be forewarned. You will be taking part in a young science, with many unknown questions. However, the next time someone offers to sell you stem cells in a jar, you’ll know what you’re paying for.
Scientists make significant anti-aging breakthrough
A breakthrough in understanding human skin cells offers a pathway for new anti-ageing treatments.
For the first time, scientists at Newcastle University, UK, have identified that the activity of a key metabolic enzyme found in the batteries of human skin cells declines with age.
A study, published online in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, has found that the activity of mitochondrial complex II significantly decreases in older skin.
This discovery brings experts a step closer to developing powerful anti-ageing treatments and cosmetic products which may be tailored to counteract the decline in the enzyme's activity levels.
Findings may also lead to a greater understanding of how other organs in the body age, which could pave the way for drug developments in a number of age-related diseases, including cancer.
Mark Birch-Machin, Professor of Molecular Dermatology at Newcastle University, led the pioneering study with Dr Amy Bowman from his research group.
Professor Birch-Machin said: “As our bodies age we see that the batteries in our cells run down, known as decreased bio-energy, and harmful free radicals increase.
“This process is easily seen in our skin as increased fine lines, wrinkles and sagging appears. You know the story, or at least your mirror does first thing in the morning!
“Our study shows, for the first time, in human skin that with increasing age there is a specific decrease in the activity of a key metabolic enzyme found in the batteries of the skin cells.
“This enzyme is the hinge between the two important ways of making energy in our cells and a decrease in its activity contributes to decreased bio-energy in ageing skin.
“Our research means that we now have a specific biomarker, or a target, for developing and screening anti-ageing treatments and cosmetic creams that may counter this decline in bio-energy.
“There is now a possibility of finding anti-ageing treatments which can be tailored to differently aged and differently pigmented skin, and with the additional possibility to address the ageing process elsewhere in our bodies.”
Complex II activity was measured in 27 donors, from aged six to 72 years. Samples were taken from a sun-protected area of skin to determine if there was a difference in activity with increasing age.
Techniques were used to measure the activities of the key enzymes within mitochondria that are involved in producing the skin cell's energy, a type of mitochondrial gym or skin physical. This was applied to cells derived from the upper (epidermis) and lower (dermis) levels of skin.
It was found that complex II activity significantly declined with age, per unit of mitochondria, in the cells derived from the lower rather than the upper levels, an observation not previously reported for human skin.
The scientists found that the reason for this is the amount of enzyme protein was decreased and furthermore this decrease was only observed in those cells that had stopped proliferating.
Further studies will now be required to fully understand the functional consequences in skin and other tissues, and to establish methods to assess anti-ageing strategies in human skin.
Dr Bowman, Research Associate at Newcastle University's Institute of Cellular Medicine, said: “Newcastle University is pioneering research into ageing as it has long been thought that mitochondria play an important role in the ageing process, however the exact role has remained unclear.
“Our work brings us one step closer to understanding how these vital cell structures may be contributing to human ageing, with the hope of eventually specifically targeting areas of the mitochondria in an attempt to counteract the signs of ageing.”
A recent study carried out in mice showed that complex II activity is lower in the skin of naturally aged older mice compared to younger mice.
Materials provided by Newcastle University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
May 1, 2008 — — This is a good time to have some wrinkles on your face. No, really. In the past few years there have been groundbreaking advances in plastic surgery, dermatology and the ever-expanding anti-aging cosmetic industry.
Back in the day, your mom probably used a wrinkle cream on her face that promised to “hydrate” her skin and reduce fine lines. These days the buzzwords are anti-oxidants, enzymes, gene therapy and nano molecules.
If you have some fine lines, a few wrinkles but you're not yet ready for the “f” word (facelift), an anti-aging cream might be right for you. But before settling on a product, you'd do well to brush up on your first-year chemistry.
“We are using nano liposome technology with a capsule so small that is gets absorbed through the hair follicles and releases the active ingredient into your skin,” said John Kressaty, head chemist at 3Lab, Inc.
“Nano liposome is a very small particle that is able to pass through the skin to deliver vital nutrients. Five years ago, technology was limited where the products only stayed on the surface of the skin and now, with new technology, the molecules are easily absorbed topically,” adds Stephanie Scott, public relations director for 3LAB, Inc.
Kressaty was describing the technology behind a recently released 3Lab product called “h” serum, a “bio engineered growth hormone anti-aging serum” that retails for $200. The product is a “replica of human growth hormone” and the company says clinical studies show a 50 percent reduction in the “depth of wrinkles after four weeks of use.”
“HGH is a hot news topic and our “h” Serum is totally efficacious. It is not dangerous injectible HGH; we're not using actual human growth hormone rather a synthetic, bio-engineered topical HGH that comes from plants. So, it's safe to use,” states Stephanie Scott, public relations directorfor 3LAB, Inc.
The new cosmetic product is so popular that it sold out at London's upscale department store Selfridge's, and there's now a waiting list.
New Life for Old Skin
Brand-name companies employ teams of chemists to scour medical research for breakthroughs that can be adapted to the cosmetics industry. The companies then conduct research and clinical studies.
Take Estee Lauder. The cosmetics giant is betting big on a new product called Re-Nutriv Ultimate Youth Crème ($250). According to Dr. Daniel Maes, senior vice president of research and development for Estee Lauder, Re-Nutriv is genetic research involving the longevity gene SIRT-1.
It turns out that a compound called resveratrol might — in high doses — activate the SIRT-1 gene to extend the life of skin cells.
But resveratrol is notoriously unstable as a molecule, so Estee Lauder came up with a way to create a cosmetic-friendly compound dubbed “resveratrate.
” Recently, resveratrol has been reported as a compound often found in red wine that contributes to slowing down the aging process.
Maes is also not shy about trumpeting the anti-aging effects of his product.
“This is the biggest breakthrough in anti-aging science, the fact that somebody has been able to isolate the gene which controls the way cells are aging and this is the first time a cosmetic product will be able to slow down the genetic aging process,” said Maes.
“We are economizing the cells instead of letting them divide rapidly. We are slowing down that process.” Estee Lauder will be rolling out an eye cream and other products later this year, the company says.
Critics dismiss these over-the-counter anti-aging creams as mere marketing in a jar.
But Dr. Jeffrey Dover, an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine, believes that's not necessarily fair.
“Price doesn't determine quality but science has really improved the quality of those products, although people shouldn't expect miracles,” said Dover.
Just as the anti-aging products at the cosmetic counter have evolved, so have the anti-aging treatments changed at the doctor's office.
Turn Up the Volume
For years, cosmetic dermatologists could prescribe nothing but Retin-A and advise a little common sense — wear sunscreen. But that all changed in 2002. “The Botox kick started everything. We went from having nothing to having something that works well and is safe and effective 99 percent of the time. And that was the beginning of a whole new generation of fillers,” said Dover.
Those derma fillers, such as Restylane and Radiesse, have revolutionized what plastic surgeons Dr. Vito Quatela, president of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons, can do.
“We are not using these as crack-fillers any more, we are using them to put volumization back in the face,” said Quatela.
And instead of lasting 3-6 months, now treatments can last 1-3 years.
“We are combining fillers now. Any given patient might have three different fillers — one for around the eyes, then the lips. I can get creative with fillers, it's something sculpture and I just never had that ability before,” said Quatela.
As for the next new thing, Quatela said watch out for something called neuroablation.
“You can knock out the nerve that causes the frowning. Preliminary results have showed it to be as effective as Botox.”
And liquid silicone may be due for a comeback, said Quatela. “It got a very bad rap when breast implants were taken off the market but I know that behind the scenes there are investigations and studies with liquid silicone once again and it could be a permanent filler for the treatment of certain acne scars or lip augmentation.”
Breakthroughs may grab the headlines, but dermatologists Jeffrey Dover still counsel the basics.
“For the most part I try to make it really simple. Wear a moisturizing sun-screen and use a prescription-strength retinoid. We know that reverses the signs of chronological aging,” said Dover.
And reversing those signs of chronological aging is a booming billion-dollar business with no signs of slowing down any time soon.
Magic in a Bottle
“I think going forward we are going to see stem cells play a future in this. There's a lot of work being done right now.
If people are provided with stem cell therapy, either topical or internal, then the rejuvenation of epidermal cells may be just a few years away.
We're not there yet but some exciting things are being done in Belgium and Thailand,” according to Dr. Sharon McQuillan, a board-certified physician who is affiliated with the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine.
“We are just starting to make inroads into the idea that we can encourage skin health. We learn in medical school that our skin is the largest organ in the body and yet we consider it an envelope, and we don't treat it as we should,” said Dr. Sharon McQuillan.
Maybe with a little help from science, that's about to change.
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