Just wanted to share with you this great article which was featured in Vogue March 2014
Nicola Moulton lifts the lid on the new skincare obsession
If there’s one thing we know about the skincare industry it’s that it loves to seize upon a brave new world. And they don’t come much braver or more controversial than stem cells. From breast lifts to baldness treatments, stem cells are currently being vaunted as the cure for just about anything – and especially anything that’s caused by ageing. The ones that have captured the world’s imagination are the human embryonic stem cells, those that are isolated from human embryos a few days old. Once a stem-cell line is extracted, it can essentially be grown in a lab for ever, meaning – as some storage laboratories already trade upon – it might one day be able to treat diseases, restore worn bones or simply make you look younger.
The floodgates to a new surge of stem-cell-based skincare products were opened two years ago when the Nobel prize was awarded jointly to two stem-cell experts, British scientist John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka from Japan, for demonstrating the ability to take normal adult cells and transform them into stem cells, essentially “turning back the clock” and making ageing cells young again. “That changed everything,” says Dr Phillip Levy, a Swiss-Canadian dermatologist who began working on his line of face creams “almost immediately” after reading Yamanaka’s paper. “I didn’t need to make face creams,” he says. “I already have a successful dermatology practice. But all of a sudden there was a possibility of a holy grail of cosmetic products – not injections, nothing dangerous. Stem cells will change everything in skincare. Scientifically speaking, worn-out stem cells are today considered one of the biggest causes of chronological ageing; you might not remember how your skin was 20 years ago, but your stem cells certainly do. So if I can invigorate those stem cells with the right ingredients in a face cream, that’s true anti-ageing.”
He’s not the only formulator convinced that the future is for stem-cell-based skincare. Edouard Mauvais-Jarvis, scientific communications director at Dior, is similarly emphatic. He says Dior was the first of the major beauty companies to start researching stem cells, in 2008. “We had worked on them for much longer, but we didn’t know they were stem cells back then.” He describes them as “the queen bee of the hive”, and says if he can protect them from slowing down or ceasing to regenerate, he’ll have hit the anti-ageing jackpot.
Mauvais-Jarvis understands that there is nervousness and confusion surrounding stem cells, but is eager to point out that face creams only contain ingredients that act on stem cells – they don’t contain them. “We are not putting human stem cells in a jar. We are putting ingredients that protect your stem cells,” he says.
But he’s right to emphasise the point. Dr Harold Lancer is a Beverly Hills dermatologist and one of many aesthetic practitioners throughout the world who has injected patients with both human-derived embryonic stem cells (“It was complex because it involved shipping them in from overseas, from Georgia”) and embryonic sheep cells from New Zealand (“We found it made no difference whether it was human or sheep. Patients enjoyed how they made skin look firmer and brighter”). But although he claims there was never any nervousness among his youth-worshipping and injection-embracing LA clientele, he has, in the past year or so, shifted his operation entirely to plant-derived stem cells. “They come from red or brown algae and we found it was cleaner and easier to formulate, and the results were the same if not better,” he says.
He has also formulated a line of stem-cell-rejuvenating skincare creams, and says the anti-ageing results are so good, “I find that if I see 10 new patients, I start them on the products first, and nine times out of 10 they never need the dermatologist treatment.” In light of this, he advocates never going for a cosmetic treatment until you are satisfied that you’ve exhausted the very best skincare options: “The majority of my colleagues worldwide will always do a treatment first. I say you should see what you can do by waking up your skin first.”
Some creams may be acting on your stem cells without explicitly spelling it out. Sarah Chapman, the London facialist and aesthetic practitioner with impressive skincare knowledge and a serious product line of her own, agrees that even mentioning stem cells can make some clients nervous. “It is a bit of a minefield,” she says. “You get asked a lot, ‘Is it derived from an animal?’, but in my Stem Cell Collagen Activator serum I’m just using plant extracts to wake up stem cells that have gone sleepy and need a bit of a jolt. I’ve got other serums in my range that are really loaded with peptides, but nothing matches the effect of this one. The effects are astounding because when you’re working on stem cells, you’re going right to the root of the problem.” Chapman and Levy agree that the best components for the job are what Levy calls “ingredients from plants that exist in harsh environments and have to resist and regenerate”. And, as Chapman points out, the extraction process for stem cells is so costly that, by and large, a good stem-cell-activating cream will be reassuringly expensive. “These ingredients are so laborious to cultivate that if you’re buying a product for £6 in the supermarket it probably won’t have the right ingredients in the right amounts. You get what you pay for: some plant stem cells are a thousand times more powerful than an ordinary plant extract.”
Edouard Mauvais-Jarvis, though, says to beware the stem-cell bandwagon, and agrees that some beauty companies include plant stem-cell extracts just so they can include the all-important term “stem cell”. “Plant stem cells don’t necessarily work best on skin stem cells,” he says. Clinical results of a product, increasingly published on skincare companies’ websites, are where the real proof can be found.
Meanwhile, for Phillip Levy the correct approach to the new stem-cell-activating face creams is to create a distinction between safe skincare and pseudo-science. “There is a huge stem-cell scam out there. People are correct to be wary. Everybody is being encouraged to freeze cord blood or placenta but the road from freezing it to using it in a safe way is very long. These creams are the leading edge of what science can do safely today.” It may not quite be the brave new world of skincare science, but it won’t create any Frankenstein’s monsters either – and that may just currently be the best hope in ajar we have.