They're the cutting edge of skincare science, they don't come cheap - and serums and creams containing ‘growth factors’ and ‘stem cells’ can get dragged into controversy. Why? I'll try to explain. Stem cells can come from animal, plant and human sources, and, yes, any product containing ingredients that are human-derived is what stirs up the problems.
Are growth factors and stem cells the same thing?
In the world of high-tech skincare, you hear the terms ‘growth factors’ and ‘stem cells’ being used almost interchangeably, but are they the same thing? Well, yes, and no. Stem cells generate many elements that are necessary for repair and regeneration in our bodies, not just for our skin. They can turn into any other kind of cell and repair damage. There are concentrations of stem cells in the bone marrow, in fat tissue, and in umbilical cords. Growth factors are just one element of that. So growth factors come from stem cells (although they can also come from other sources, such as platelets in the blood stream).
Why are growth factors and stem cells controversial?
One of the main areas of controversy is when growth factors and stem cells are harvested from human sources. In skincare terms, this has included fibroblasts taken from infant circumcision, which are then cloned in the lab so that the growth factors can be harvested. Is this ethical? And could substances which promote cell division and growth, which are helpful for ageing skin, be less helpful if skin is in a precancerous state. You don't want to start accelerating the division of pre-cancerous cells. It is important to add that growth factor skincare hasn’t been shown to cause problems here, but studies have yet to prove that this can’t happen either.
Why are growth factors used in skincare?
Growth factors occur naturally in the skin. Their main role lies is repairing whatever needs repairing and, as such, adding them to skincare products can give a serious regenerative kick.
What makes growth factors fascinating is that they can prompt repair in the skin, reduce inflammation, fade scars and generally make older skin cells behave like younger versions of themselves.
This is because growth factors are made by fibroblasts, the cells that make collagen. Our bodies produce them as part of the wound-healing response, to encourage the production of collagen and elastin. Naturally, as with other aspects of the skin’s ability to repair itself, the older we get, the fewer growth factors are present in our skin.
What kinds of growth factors are there?
The main types of growth factors that find their way into skincare products are Epidermal Growth Factors (EGF), which stimulate the growth of skin cells, and Transforming Growth Factor-Beta (TGF-ß), which speeds up healing by stimulating collagen production and improving skin hydration.
Like peptides, growth factors consist of chains of amino acids; but growth factors are complete proteins, whereas peptides are shorter chains that form the subcomponents of proteins. Growth factors work in a similar way to peptides, by slotting into receptor-sites on the skin cells and stimulating the cell into a particular behaviour – like making more collagen.
That’s the theory, but one issue with growth factors is that they are large molecules, far too large to slip through the skin, so they aren’t absorbed. Yet, many studies have shown that growth factor serums have created remarkable improvement in the skin. So why is this? The most accepted theory is that, even though growth factors aren’t getting through the skin barrier, they’re able to interact with the top layers of skin instead and set off a cascade of reactions that ultimately achieves results, such as collagen production in the dermis, the lower layer of the skin.
Serums with growth factors can be expensive, but you might want to consider them if your skin can’t tolerate retinol.
Do stem cells in skincare really work?
In skincare, stem cells are a ‘hot sounding’ ingredient, but, there are a few ‘buts’.
I say ‘hot sounding’ because, if you have heard of stem cells, it is usually in the context of cutting edge scientific research. In medicine, stem cells are the subject of intense research for the potential to, for example, replace or rejuvenate damaged tissue, or to understand diseases better. Transplants of stem cells are used – live – to tackle diseases such as leukaemia. In cosmetic medicine, stem cells extracted from fat tissue are re-injected – again fresh and alive – into the facial tissues to rejuvenate them.
You also find stem cells in plants and these are often what are used in skincare. However, beware, no matter how good a story a brand spins about why their apple stem cells are amazing for our skin, plant stem cells do not have a stimulating effect on human stem cells. They just don’t. There is no interspecies stem cell interplay going on. Many stem cell serums and creams show good results in testing, but this is generally agreed to be because the plant derived stem cells they contain work as antioxidants.
However – there’s always a however in skincare isn’t there? The Dr Levy brand, which makes very advanced and very expensive serums (which admittedly do get great results), says that it’s ArganCellActiv formula, which has been patented and which you’ll find in the Dr Levy Stem Cell Intense Booster Serum (£280) is proven to stimulate stem cells in skin, right down in the dermis.
Then there is a range called Calecim, which uses mammalian stem cells from the lining of the umbilical cord of New Zealand red deer. These stem cells are cloned in the lab, and then the animal elements are filtered out, leaving just epithelial stem cells, the sort that can stimulate skin cells. Making the cells into a culture produces growth factors and cytokines (tiny proteins that act as intercellular messengers). The brand’s clinical studies suggest that human skin responds to these. Yes, it sounds like science fiction and again the technology is patented and it’s very expensive. The Calecim range is becoming popular in cosmetic medical clinics in the UK, which use a professional strength version of the product to help with skin healing after aggressive procedures. And, of course, there is a homecare range too – Calecim Professional Multi-Action Cream (£175) for improving elasticity and firmness in mature skin, which I"m now stocking in the shop on the website.
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