Ask a Doctor: Do Stem Cell Face Creams Really Work?

A facial plastic surgeon tells us the truth behind the stem cell face cream marketing hype.

stem cell face creamFace cream illustration via Shutterstock

If you’ve been to the beauty counter lately or up late enough to see the infomercials, the latest in skin creams supposedly have “stem cell technology”. But do they really work? According to the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, there were more than nine million cosmetic procedures in the United States last year, at the cost of $10 billion. Yes, billion. It’s a big business, and everyone wants in.

Over the past few years, more and more facial creams have been introduced into the U.S. markets claiming to minimize the appearance of wrinkles and to slow down, even reverse, the course of aging. Under the guise of terms like “scientifically engineered”, these creams claim to harness the power of stem cells or stem cell extracts.

Stem cells are cells within the body capable of regenerating into new tissue. Stem cells can be found in various places within the body like the bone marrow or within the deeper layers of the skin. They can regenerate themselves and differentiate into any type of tissue (bone, cartilage, nerve, muscle, etc.) that is needed depending on their surrounding environment. Stem cells hold some promise in areas of wound healing, tissue engineering, and some neurological disorders.

Some products claim their active ingredient is a plant stem cell (apple seems to be the most popular), while others state there are no stem cells, but utilize stem cell extracts as their active ingredient. The overall stated goal of these products is to stimulate the amount of collagen formation and other peptides within the skin to improve its elasticity and texture, calling them “cosmeceuticals”. That term was coined by the industry as a way of giving the impression that the cosmetic has a drug-like benefit. It is just the marketing department’s way of giving you the impression that you are getting the most advanced treatment and biggest bang for your buck.

The term cosmeceuticals is not recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and thus not subject to its regulatory scope. What this means is that not one of these products are required to prove the validity of the science it preaches for it products. To date, none of these companies have published any significant data in the literature that proves their effectiveness. Furthermore, no stem cells could even survive long-term embedded in a cream, let alone be guaranteed to work on all individuals (your body would be more likely to reject foreign cells).

Stem cells are also being used for facial rejuvenation (not in a cream) by harvesting stem cells within your own body. Performed by a qualified surgeon, the cells are processed and re-injected into your face. The results of these treatments seem promising. But having an individual get benefits simply by applying a cocktail of ingredients and apple stem cells on their skin remains to be scientifically proven.

The bottom line is that there is no conclusive scientific data that absorbing stem cell extracts from a cream can really reverse the aging process. My advice is that a good cream is a good cream. But if the advertising seems to good to be true, it most likely is. Buyer beware.

—Dr. Waleed Ezzat

Waleed Ezzat, MD is a facial reconstructive surgeon at the Boston Medical Center. His expertise is in aesthetic facial plastic surgery, as well as advanced facial reconstructive surgery. He serves on national committees for the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and lectures on facial reconstructive surgery at the regional and national levels.