I remember the first time I ran across an ad for a stem cell face cream and it wasn’t pretty. This was about 10 years ago.
The stem cell cream in question made several claims that seemed highly doubtful. In a sense what the cream’s maker was selling was the idea of stem cell-based youth in a jar.
What’s in this article
Stem cell cosmetics | Stem cell face creams and the FDA | Fact-checking stem cell face cream | Meristem? | Stem cell face cream cost $100-$200 | Stem cell creams more generally | What is the best stem cell face cream? | References
Stem cell cosmetics
Somehow something related to stem cells inside that mixture would supposedly make your face look younger.
If only it was that simple.
To me as a stem cell biologist, it seemed like a bogus product, but how can the general public tell? It was hard back then and perhaps it’s hard now to evaluate stem cell cream claims. It’s also difficult to navigate the whole sphere of stem cell cosmetics.
Today’s post is meant to help you navigate this area and come out with a clearer understanding of these creams.
Stem cell face creams and the FDA
Ever since I saw that first cream ad, there has been a steady stream of other stem cell creams and beauty products popping on the market. Over the last decade or so I must have seen dozens of them.
Yes, I am getting a little older, but that’s not the reason these iffy products are on my radar screen. So why do I care?
The reason I am aware of these creams is that taken together they are a particularly frustrating example of consumers losing money related to stem cells. (For an even more extreme regenerative product that sometimes pops up in the general category of regenerative cosmetics, see this post on Kim Kardashian’s past vampire facelift. She now apparently regrets that.)
The face creams seem to come in two main categories: (1) containing human or animal materials or (2) plant extracts. The human or animal ones could be unapproved drugs and may have more risks. The plant ones have little chance of doing something meaningful that is stem cell-related.
As long as 7 years ago, the FDA warned a stem cell cream maker about its claims. It was an encouraging step by the agency. That particular Cell Vitals product seemed to contain actual possibly human stem cell-related materials like conditioned media (the liquid food that stem cells grow in and themselves release growth factors into), which raised safety issues. It also made that cream a potential unapproved drug product.
In 2016 the agency warned three more companies about these kinds of products.
See a full list of FDA warnings to cosmetic cream makers, including those selling stem cell-related products here.
Fact-checking stem cell face cream products
Many other creams these days may not even have human or mammalian stem cells or related materials in them. They are in that plant extract category.
That may be somewhat safer at least, but this reality leads to our first big fact check question: do “stem cell face creams” even have actual stem cells in them?
Most often, from my research going through the ingredients the answer appears to be “no”.
It’s frustrating then that these creams get away with calling themselves “stem cell” anything. Yet somehow the creams keep multiplying in number, just like real stem cells proliferate in a lab or in your body under certain conditions. One cream seems to become two and then four and then eight.
The most commonly sold creams now contain plant extracts: apples, berries, bananas, etc.
What’s the supposed stem cell connection?
Plants do have stem cells, but my impression is that the sellers of many of these products are not isolating pure, living plant stem cells in a research lab to put into their products. Instead, they may be isolating the stems (as in the part of the plant holding it up), making an extract of that and calling it “stem cells”.
If cells come from the stem of a plant, is it fair to call them “stem cells”? I don’t think so. Incidentally, this all goes back to the original naming of stem cells, where the word “stem” or in some languages “trunk” comes into play. Stem cells are called that kind of name because they can in a sense branch out and form other kinds of cells.
I made a stem cell symbol that was like a tree branching out. See above.
In some cases the cream makers apparently use a specific part of plants called the “meristem” that has at least some stem cells in it sometimes. I’ve mentioned meristem in a past post on these kinds of products. However, how many stem cells are in the meristem of say berry plants? How about in the meristems of other plants used in “stem cell creams”?
Could some meristems have no stem cells in certain plants and at certain points in their life cycle like when they are not growing?
Even if there were some stem cells in there, are plant stem cells at all relevant to the health of human skin? Looking to the scientific literature, the papers out there today mentioning meristems are generally botany research articles.
Even if a face cream had real living apple or strawberry or other fruit stem cells in it, what’s the end result: growing fruit off of your face? See my humorous cartoon above imagining such a ridiculous outcome. But it’s a reasonable question to ask what’s the point of these creams and their supposed stem cell-based power?
Stem cell face cream costs $100-$200 for a tiny vial
Today in 2021 I found 183 products on Amazon with a simple search for “stem cell face cream.” The prices were often over $100 and sometimes way more than $200. Not all the products had “stem cells” in their name, but many did. Most often these items mentioned having something to do with plant stem cells.
Again, are they going to the trouble of somehow isolating actual living stem cells from plants? I can’t imagine how. That would be too expensive to do I think. So many just contain extracts of parts of plants that may or may not have had stem cells in them?
The volumes in the tiny tubes of these creams are also so minute that sometimes the price per gallon is shocking. I easily found one case where the Amazon-available stem cell cream sold for more than $5,000 a gallon.
There are some pretty big claims being made by some of the products as well.
This cream market seems like a job for the FTC. Might consumers be better off throwing some strawberries, bananas, and apples (maybe with a few stems of the plants) in a blender, and then smearing the mixture on their faces? Who knows. I wouldn’t recommend it.
I only found 3 results when looking for “stem cells” on Nordstrom so that’s down from past years. Of course, you can buy some such creams on Goop. A ringing endorsement of them?
Stem cell creams more generally
These kinds of “stem cell” creams are marketed for cosmetic uses beyond use on the face too. They supposedly will make your skin younger just about anywhere on the body. It all reminds me of the fake magic attached to stem cells more generally in so much marketing.
Stem cells are legitimately exciting cells with many medical applications, but just slapping the word “stem cell” onto a product doesn’t make it do something useful.
It also does not mean it is safe.
What is the best stem cell face cream?
So in the end what is the best stem cell face cream?
I would say there is none.
These creams are likely not any different than other face creams in terms of having many of the same ingredients. They probably moisturize your face and remove some dead cells. That’s about it. The stem cell part seems to me to be a marketing gimmick. This all reminds of the stem cell supplement arena, which I also recently fact-checked.
Risks. On the other hand, cosmetic products that have actual human (or in some cases animal) cell materials in them pose more risks. Including human or animal cell conditioned media or exosomes in a skin product likely makes it a drug. Since these creams are not approved as drugs by the FDA, that is a big problem. It could also hurt your skin. Talk to your doctor first.
Note that this post is not meant as medical advice.