We’re entering a new age of haircare, driven by fresh-from-the-lab, game-changing tech. One particularly buzzed about ingredient from the future of beauty is stem cells. Stem cells have been slowly cropping up across our Sephora love list, in a range of products from skin to hair. For instance, NatureLab Tokyo has botanical stem cells in every single product. So, what are stem cells, how do they work, and what are the benefits? After noticing some of our favorite brands turning to stem cells as a way to promote scalp health, we connected with three scientific experts to find out how stem cells work in our products and what that means for you (and your scalp).
Stem Cells 101
Okay, so first off, what are stem cells? Stem cells are known as “pluripotent cells,” which celebrity dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman describes as being “like a skeleton key that can open any lock.” Stem cells are tremendously exciting because they have the potential to literally “become any type of cell in the body,” she says. This amazing and unique capability has generated conversation about the potential of stem cells in health, and now beauty. “Stem cells take cues from surrounding tissue to become those types of cells, so if you put them on the skin, they help generate new skin cells—hence, younger acting cells.”
Dominic Burg, PhD, chief scientist for Evolis Professional, expands on what exactly these cells are. “Simply, stem cells are cells that haven’t decided what they want to be yet.” This means “a stem cell could potentially become anything: build a new nerve, help heal a large wound, or help repair joint cartilage.” Again, this discovery originated in medicine before cosmetics. “In medicine, the stem cells have to be harvested from the individual to be treated, e.g. from fat or bone marrow, grown and monitored in a lab, and then re-injected,” he explains. Dr. Burg notes that there is still a way to go before this understanding can be applied. “This is a sophisticated and difficult procedure that has not been perfected or proven in many conditions. For cosmetic purposes, there is a growing body of research around stem cell therapy for hair loss, but much of this is still in its infancy.”
Stem Cell Cosmeceuticals
The stem cells found in cosmetics are derived from botanicals, not from animal or human cells. “Stem cells are typically divided into two types: human and plant,” plastic surgeon Dr. Anil Shah explains. Skin and haircare products rely on plant stem cells, which use a variety of growth factors and other cellular signals to help stimulate plants to grow. The usage of stem cells in scalp care isn’t an “exact science” so there is definitely room for improved accuracy as the tech is so new.
“While some of these signals cross over to humans, there is not necessarily a 1:1 effectiveness rate,” he continues. “Human stem cells have the most impact on changes to skin and scalp products. However, there currently is not a product on the market that I know of that is commercially available and that has human stem cells,” he clarifies.
Basically, the stem cells work by replicating other cells. “The cell replica has the same amino acid and 3D structure as the natural cell. Therefore, it can activate human cells through their receptors on the cell membrane,” says Dr. Engelman.
These plant stem cells are typically sourced from two areas, “the shoot apical meristem and the root ampical meristem,” says Dr. Shah. “The meristem is found at the growing tip of the root and this is where we find the actively dividing cells that are most beneficial.” The type of plant is less important. “There is no one featured plant which is considered the best plant for stem cells,” he adds.
The plant stem cells function in the same way as human stem cells, in that they are vital for repair. “In humans, these stem cells theoretically will communicate with our cells to help stimulate some type of benefit including treatment for thinning hair, graying hair, and balding,” notes Dr. Shah. Of course, since this is a new trend, don’t expect a miracle overnight. “Since the science of these products is relatively fresh consumers should be cautious of any claimed benefits.”
However, stem cells are particularly promising for scalp care as they can ideally, “improve blood flow and revitalize follicles to help grow more hair,” says Dr. Engelman.
Dr. Shah breaks this down further. “The scalp becomes healthier by increasing vascularity and blood supply. This helps the scalp nourish existing hairs with the blood supply,” he explains. “Products such as Rogaine vasodilate the blood supply to nourish the hair,” he says, which is a widening of the blood vessels. “The stem cells are doing this via natural organic products. In addition, the stem cells and growth factors can combat inflammation, which is thought to play a role in graying of hair, thinning of hair, and many types of hair loss.”
The Future of Stem Cells
All of our experts agree that the application of stem cells is headed in the right direction, it’s just a matter of further harnessing them for specificity. “Ultimately, the best products will be the ones left standing,” says Dr. Shah. “Hopefully consumers can now have a variety of choices to use science to treat scalp conditions, rather than labels and celebrity endorsements. Science-backed beauty treatments are the wave of the future for all skin and beauty products,” he adds.
Dr. Engelman has a similar take on the stem cell landscape. “Stem cell usage is big right now—whether it’s via in-office procedures like PRP injections, or through topical products containing stem cells. I think we will see more and more stem cell-derived products hitting the market in the future as consumers see their benefits and become more familiar with their role.”
Of course, this is even more exciting when applied to life sciences. “In medicine and science, we have a bit of a way to go yet, but we could potentially see stem cell therapies as treatments for many diseases. In common current use, patients undergoing severe chemo (e.g. for leukemia or lymphoma) will have the stem cells from their bone marrow harvested, stored, and then re-introduced after treatment. This helps them replace the cells lost during chemo,” Dr. Burg explains.
We can’t wait for sci-fi shelves to cure all our scalp needs. In the meantime, check out NatureLab Tokyo’s range of stem cell-derived haircare.
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