Skin Deep

Stem cells don’t work in topical anti-aging creams and treatments

I recently wrote a story about anti-aging ingredients that are a waste of money, and stem cells were at the top of the list. Although stem cell science is exciting — and could potentially change the face of medicine by giving doctors the ability to treat life-threatening illnesses and create new organs for those who need them— this area of research still has a long way to go as far as skin rejuvenation is concerned.

A little background on why stem cells don’t work in topical skincare.

At this point in time, the stem cells found in skincare products are plant-based (not human based), so unless you’re a plant trying to synthesize chlorophyll, they aren’t going to do you or your skin much good. And even if they were derived from humans (which would be controversial), these stem cells would not be able to penetrate deep enough into to the skin’s dermis to take action. (Remember, the skin is designed to keep things out—especially large things like cells.)

And, if, per chance, stem cells were human-based and able to penetrate to the bottom of the dermis, it’s unlikely the cells would be effective by the time they made it from the lab and the packaging facility to your skin. They simply cannot survive in a cream that sits on a shelf for weeks or years.

In addition to their presence in many skincare formulations, stem cells are being touted as an age-reversing ingredient in office-based treatments. Just a few days after I filed my article about ineffective anti-aging ingredients, I received an email saying that the FDA had issued warning letters to three doctor-run stem cell treatment centers in California, Florida and New York. The letter claimed that these centers were taking patients’ own fat (removed via liposuction-like procedures), isolating the stem cells and reinjecting them back into the patient. The doctors received warning letters from the FDA to stop performing these unapproved procedures immediately. Stem cell therapy for anti-aging has not been approved or been deemed safe or effective by the FDA. Furthermore, its use outside of a clinical research trial (which would be listed at is prohibited.

The message: The FDA is taking a stand when it comes to using stem cells for skin rejuvenation. As of now, there is little to no scientific evidence that these treatments offer any benefit, and they are still considered experimental. There are many therapeutic uses for stem cells in the cardiovascular system and joints, but for anti-aging purposes, I recommend staying away from them until we know more.

I am hopeful that stem cells will become part of our fight against skin aging one day, but until then, let’s keep the human-based stem cells in the lab and the stem cell skincare products off the shelves. The University of Miami is a leader in this field, so we will continue to monitor the research conducted there and let you know when stem cells can be used to promote skin health and beauty.

Dr. Leslie Baumann is a board-certified dermatologist and CEO of Baumann Cosmetic & Research Institute in Miami.