The latest high-tech skin-care ingredients, stem cells could be miracle workers—or mad science.

By Stacey Colino
Updated March 11, 2013
An apple, raspberries, and rose petals
Credit: Manfred Koh

Just when you think that skin-care ingredients can’t get any wackier (snake venom, anyone?), along come stem cells, popping up in all kinds of creams and serums. “Stem cells have a mystique—they’re chameleon-like cells that are thought to be able to make skin look fresh and young,” says Erin Gilbert, a dermatologist in New York City. But are they the key to finding the fountain of youth?

Why Stem Cells?

Multicellular organisms (plants, fruits, animals, humans) have stem cells. They are found throughout our bodies, where they can play an essential role in tissue renewal. Stem cells just below the surface of the skin can help with restorative functions, such as cellular regeneration, and may ultimately enhance the capacity to repair aging skin, says Gilbert. The real beauty of stem cells, however, is that they have the amazing ability to develop into many different types of cells. Where skin care is concerned, the theory is that by applying a product that contains stem-cell extracts derived from plants or fruits, you may encourage the growth of your skin’s own stem cells and possibly trigger their anti-aging effects.

Where Do They Come From?

The stem cells in beauty products are obtained primarily from plants and fruits that can stay fresh for a long time, like Swiss apples, edelweiss, roses, date palms, and gotu kola (a swamp plant). Extracts of these stem cells—not the live cells themselves—are added to skin-care products. “It’s not possible to maintain live stem cells in cosmetic emulsions,” says Zoe Diana Draelos, a consulting professor of dermatology at the Duke University School of Medicine, in Durham, North Carolina. If a product is labeled as a stem-cell cream or serum, you may see some of the stem cell’s key substances, such as ferulic acid, ellagic acid, and quercetin, listed on the ingredient panel. “To yield the most potent, stable extract, the fruits and the plants that are the source of the stem cells must be cultivated in a controlled environment, without any contaminants,” says Draelos. This unique and precise extraction technology can drive the cost of these products to $100 and upward.

The Bottom Line

“Although stem cells are a sexy story, the jury is still out on their power,” says Patricia Farris, a clinical associate professor of dermatology at Tulane University, in New Orleans. “Even if they can jump-start the body’s own stem cells, it’s unclear whether this will ultimately improve the appearance of your skin. That’s where the quantum leap comes in.” Still, some research suggests that stem cells can promote the production of collagen, the skin’s firming protein. And stem-cell beauty products are often formulated with other effective moisturizers. So they might be worth a try. But don’t expect a sci-fi miracle just yet.

Dream Creams

Stem-cell creams often have ferulic or ellagic acid (components of stem cells) listed in the ingredients, plus hydrators like hyaluronic acid.

Lumene Excellent Future Dual Boost Age-Defying & Repairing Day Cream, $30 at drugstores.

Origins Plantscription SPF 25 Anti-aging Cream, $55,

Physicians Formula Deep Wrinkle Corrector Day & Night Cream, $20 at drugstores.

Skin and Tonics

Check out Skin-Care Tips for Every Skin Type for our comprehensive guide to moisturizers and more.