Plant Stem Cells in Skincare

© 2019 Arthur W. Perry, MD, FACS

One of the newest trends in skincare is the use…or alleged use…of plant stem cells. There are many dozens of moisturizers, serums, perfumes, “firming” creams, masks, and other products that claim to use plant stem cells to improve appearance.

Plants produce a myriad of chemicals that allow exposure to ultraviolet light blasting sunshine for many hours without developing DNA damage.  Many of the chemicals are pigmented antioxidants – chemicals like: 

  • green sulforaphane, isocyanate, indoles, and chlorophyll in broccoli 
  • red lycopenes in raspberries
  • purple and blue anthocyanins in berries, 
  • orange and yellow beta cryptothanxin in carrots
  • brown flavonoids in mushrooms
  • white allicin in onions and garlic
  • orange carotenoids in tomatoes
  • and red phenolics in citrus, blue beta-cyan and red betalain in beets, and yellow beta-xanthin in Swiss chard.   

A healthy diet should include a wide variety of colored fruits and vegetables, giving us a wide variety of protective antioxidants.  The chemicals are made by cells in roots, stems and leaves and can be made in larger quantities by special stem cells, under the right conditions.  These cells allow plants adapt to stresses by producing extra protective chemicals.

There are many studies proving skin can look younger and more attractive after applying a variety of plant based antioxidants and substances like Vitamins A and C, niacinamide, and fruit acids.  But the million dollar question is whether plant stem cells be helpful to humans?  To function, they would first have to be alive. Think about how lettuce turns brown after just a few days.  So how could stem cells survive the process of being isolated from a plant and being squirt into bottles that sit on store shelves for months in the heat of summer? In fact, no product actually contains live plant stem cells.  Those that imply that on the label are exaggerating at best.  You might call this fraud, but I’ll try to keep the high road. Giving companies the benefit of the doubt, let’s say that they use “stem cell extract” - a mixture of all sorts of chemicals that plant stem cells might produce.  Like all of those pigmented antioxidants listed above and good things like vitamins A, C, and E.  

Products with genuine stem cell extracts use a wide variety of substances created by plants.  These chemicals might be useful and they might be useless – it depends on what they are, their concentration, a bunch of complicated chemical factors, and the time of the day that they are applied.  One thing is an absolute certainty:  they cannot be better than the individual chemical ingredients they contain.  And another thing is also certain: “stem cell extracts” have no known benefits that have been studied under rigorous scientific conditions.

So the bottom line? Stick to products with proven science or you will simply be throwing out your money.