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Stem cell 101 from humans and plants

a close up of cells
November 8, 2018 Reviewed by Marta 20 Comments

Controversial in the fields of medicine and ethics, stems cells in cosmetics are equally complex. Anti-wrinkle serums based on stem cells may be derived from plants or humans. Some creams touting stem cells are simply being misleading. This Truth In Aging stem cell 101 tries to shed some light and stem (ahem) some of the misinformation.

Stem cells in cosmetics come from humans or plants, or synthesized growth factors.

Human fibroblast conditioned media

A cell that has the ability to repeatedly divide and differentiate into all types of cells found within the body or the plant is called totipotential. In animals, totipotential cells only exist for about four days, before they differentiate into pluripotential cells, the cells that become all of cell types that make up the body.

Human fibroblast conditioned media, or human adipose stem cells, or epidermal growth proteins appear in serums such as ReLuma’s, Keracell's or AQ's. So what are they and what is the process that got them into a cream.

The progenitor cells of the human fibroblast are typically taken from newborn baby foreskins (I can’t help thinking that there is a nice little sideline for rabbis here) or human fat – adipose - cells. In any case, they are called adult stem cells to differentiate them from embryonic stem cells, which are not used in cosmetics. From the progenitor cell, many thousands of new cells have been grown in the lab. Understanding this may help dispel myths (and fears) that new human cells are extracted for each batch of cosmetics and that they may be diseased or cancerous. The progenitor cell is supposedly pristine and then is cloned in a laboratory.

Conditioned media is, in fact, the solution (sugars, amino acids and such) that is put in the petri dish in which the cells are grown. Conditioned media might typically be thrown away by a lab that is using the cells for something else and this has led some people to worry (or to stir up rumors) that this ingredient is in fact waste. However, cosmetic companies such as SkinMedica or Reluma are not gathering up byproducts that are about to be thrown away. The conditioned media contains proteins that have been secreted by the cells and these proteins are what makes it into our serums. There are many different proteins and, although they all send signals to cells, their roles differ.

ReLuma's formula uses adipose stem cells and conditioned media (as well as some other proprietary process). E’shee, for example, dotes on FGF-1 a family of growth factors involved in angiogenesis and wound healing. ReLuma is big on the TGF-b family (transforming growth factor-beta), saying it is considered the most important growth factor group because the majority of skin cells recognize their signals. TGF-b stimulates collagen production, promotes the synthesis of extracellular matrix proteins, and inhibits matrix degradation (thinning of your skin). ReLuma uses other growth factors including PDGF (Platelet-derived growth factor) and GM-CSF. KERACELL blends growth factors from both adipose and fibroblast.

Mostly, these proteins are repairers and much of the research on them has been on wounds.

Plant stem cells

What makes plant derived stem cells so enticing is that they live forever. Totipontential cells remain that way throughout the lifetime of the plant existing in specialized tissue called meristems. 

According to Wikipedia, “plant stem cells never undergo aging process but immortally give rise to new specialized and unspecialized cells, and they have the potential to grow into any organ, tissue, or cell in the body”. British scientists found that plant stem cells were much more sensitive to DNA damage than other cells. And once they sense damage, they trigger death of these cells. Even so, harvesting their potent power is tricky; plant stem cells have to be taken from the meristem and some researchers concede that they aren’t that easy to locate.

As described for human stem cells above, the stems are never actually in your serums, only the secondary metabolites that have been cultured in a lab.

The key question for me is how plant and human cells could possibly interact. From the reading I have done, they seem to have more in common than one might think. For example, one gene that is conserved between plants and animals has a central role in deciding whether a cell continues to divide or differentiates (source). In animals, growth factor receptor kinases play key roles in cell differentiation and development, either by stimulating or inhibiting cell growth (source). EGF taken from animals has been shown to stimulate plant growth. I also read that the mechanisms that control whether a cell continues to function as a stem cell or starts to differentiate also show some similarities in plants and animals (source).

Faux stem cell serums

Jumping on the stem cell bandwagon are a number of potions and lotions that have never seen a whiff of the ingredients discussed in this post. One of these would be Stem Cell Therapy,  and another called  Amatokin claims it has a peptide that stimulates stem cells.

So if you see a potion touting stem cells, take a good look at the ingredients; there may not even be so much as a rose stem, let alone stem cells.

  • June 8, 2018

    by Khurshida

    For those of you asking about stems cells being from aborted babies, I just want you to know that stem cells can be found in just about any healthy person. Stem cells mean the seed cell or starter cell, you probably have stem cells at the base of your hair folicle. Stem cells are harvested from discarded placenta and umbelical cords to treat infants that have congenital heart failure. And those placentas and cords are from healthy living babies. Please understand that harvesting stem cells is not some evil procedure, it can be done in a safe way and the uses for stem cells can help treat serious diseases like insulin dependent diabetes.

  • February 10, 2018

    by Marta

    Hi Linda, I don't have such a reference. I was told my one of the manufacturers of the first products to come out that stem cells discarded foreskins from babies were used for the progenitor cells. However, more recently, I am aware that adipose fat from adults is used (from around the knee area).

  • February 7, 2018

    by Linda

    Hi Marta,

    I am a professor of human sexuality and would really appreciate having a peer-reviewed reference that confirms that harvested foreskins are indeed used in certain high-end skin products. Could you please provide me with such a reference?

    Thanks very much,

    Dr. Linda De Villers
    Adjunct Professor, Pepperdine University, Graduate School of Education and Psychology.

  • September 12, 2017

    by penelope

    what about human fibroblast conditioned media found in skinmedica products

  • April 3, 2017

    by Marta

    To Isabelle and Lina, as the article says "The progenitor cells of the human fibroblast are typically taken from newborn baby foreskins or human fat – adipose - cells.

  • April 2, 2017

    by Isabelle

    I have the same question as Lina. Are the human fibroblast harvested from aborted babies?

  • April 8, 2016

    by Marta

    Hi Mary, we have plenty of experience of human conditioned media working very well in facial serums such as that by AQ. I just took a look at NuGene and the roster of ingredients looks very good. We'll try to get a tester. Thanks for the tip!

  • April 7, 2016

    by mary

    What do you think about the new Kathy Ireland product Nugene claiming the use of Human Adipose Derived Stem Cell Conditioned Media...which I think is the stem cell process of using human fat?

    It is pricey....I am skeptical although I have read up a bit on the process, but there is not much out there with regard to it being used in facial products.

    Thank you.

  • February 18, 2016

    by Lina

    I have a question about human fibroblast taken from newborn babies... Is it those aborted babies right? I mean you cannot take any cells from alive and loved by parents baby... So is it? Thank you.

  • November 3, 2015

    by patti

    I have used the SkinMedica's TNS Recovery Complex for 15 years. I just turned 70 and I have fewer wrinkles than my daughters. Yes it is costly but if you shop for it online you can get a better deal. EBay is great for that.

    Nice to drink water, exercise, get sleep, etc as told by a 34 year old, but when you are on Social Security and you look 20 years younger, you will be glad you used it. It works. As my mother used to say, "you got to die of something" so screw critical thinking and grow old looking good.

    How I ran into it was I saw a former client at a business event and she looked amazing. I asked what she had been doing and she told me about TNS. I am no stranger to skin care products and was a regular user of the gycolics, retinoids, and vit. C products. My skin looked good. But, the results from TNS had people asking me if I had had a facelift, lol.

  • September 11, 2015

    by Sharl

    Hi Marta. Hi Denise It is on eBay. I didn't realize that and for a much cheaper price. I don't know why it's at a better price.

  • May 20, 2015

    by Marta

    Hi Denise, I have seen it around but haven't tried it. It always seems to be on sale on ebay. Not sure if this is a good sign

  • May 19, 2015

    by Denise

    I recently started using Luminesce rejuvenation serum by Jeunesse. Has anyone on your team looked into this product line? Thanks, Denise

  • May 18, 2015

    by Donna

    This article is interesting, plant stem cells have worked for me. I sound like that one kid "hooked on phonics worked for me!" ha! I really have noticed a difference in my skin after using Lumavera for a few weeks. It glows and my eye wrinkles are starting to fade. I didn't know that other companies have a plant stem cell anti aging cream. I've stuck with Lumavera because if it aint broke don't fix it, know what I mean?

  • June 15, 2014

    by Danica Albert


    I would never put growth factors that have not been clinically tested on any part of my body. FYI cosmetics are not regulated by FDA, you can put in whatever you want (except some unaccepted chemicals).

    Growth factor dis-regulation is involved in cancer and many diseases, never would I risk putting such a product on my face!

    Just quit smoking, eat well and exercise. Plenty of water, sunscreen. Cannot turn back time ladies..if you treated your bodies badly in your youth, no amount of 'serum or cream' can repair the damage that aging will bring.

    Good luck, I hope you one day women accept aging as being a natural and beautiful process, seen of all life forms on earth. Learn to love yourself.

    PS-I am a scientist, 34 F (ya I know no wrinkles, but still..would not put this product anywhere near my skin), critical thinking goes a long way. I would not recommend this product or any other that contains growth factors.

  • October 2, 2013

    by Shana Han

    Hello everyone. I believe that using fibroblast conditioned media in cosmetics is revolutionary. Now a few other companies offer serum with conditioned media. If it's well quality controlled and formulated, this is indeed a magical serum to rejuvenate. However, I believe that we need to have more studies on how it impact for long term use. If you have any questions about conditioned media, please contact me. thank you,

  • April 14, 2011

    by talia

    I've been using Revitacel for two years and love it. It has 69% of human fibroblast conditioned media. It is basically the same as TNS skin medica but cheaper. I get 1.7 oz for the same price as Osmosis. It goes on really thick and smells a bit, but it seems to be working well.

  • April 14, 2011

    by LIna Jacobson

    Hi, I've been using the Osmosis StemFactor since last November and retailing it to my clients, I'm an esthetician. I personally love the product, skin is smoother, appears firmer, in short more youthful. All of my clients that have purchased have re-ordered. Repeat purchase is noteworthy in this industry as there are many options.

  • April 13, 2011

    by Susan

    This is very helpful, Marta.

    Question re: "plant stem cells have to be taken from the meristem and some researchers concede that they aren’t that easy to locate"

    Wouldn't this drive up the cost of any product containing true plant stem cells? Similarly, would this mean, most likely, inexpensive formulas are inferior or fake?

  • April 13, 2011

    by Emily

    Marta, I just have to say that I'm grateful to you for putting all this together in a concise and comprehensible way. I sort of glaze over when I run into some of these terms and really had no idea what they meant. This is so helpful--as usual.
    Now, of course, the issue is merely sorting out what they actually do when used in these products....Thanks so much.

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