Imagine a burn victim whose skin can miraculously regenerate with an injection of her own stem cells — no painful skin grafts required. Sounds like a sci-fi dream. But in the fast-evolving world of stem cell research, this technology is very much in sight — we're talking years, not decades, away.
The magic of stem cells is their versatility: "They have the ability to divide, renew themselves, and form new organs," explains Dr. Alfred Lane, professor of dermatology and pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. "Recent discoveries have shown that somatic [adult] stem cells, found in skin, can be programmed to grow new skin, hair, and nerves." Or, theoretically, any of the 200-plus types of cells that make up our bodies, in addition to healing wounds and fixing chronic skin diseases like psoriasis. Now just imagine what they could do to reboot wrinkled, sagging, mottled skin.
Beauty companies are eager to find out. So much so that some are even teaming up with the medical world's researchers to reap the benefits of their discoveries — as in the case of Dior/LVMH's partnership with Stanford University's Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.
Dior delved into Stanford's findings to formulate the new Capture Totale antiaging skincare (opens in new tab) line. "What's been established is that epidermal stem cells fuel the turnover of all skin cells, which essentially keeps complexions looking bright, plump, and refreshed," says Eric Perrier, head of LVMH Research and Development. "Problem is, stem cells are also the most fragile of cells. Stress from the sun, pollution, and other toxins weaken them significantly as we get older." The goal: Protect these frail cells. Dior does it with TP Vityl, a topical ingredient derived from vitamin E, which absorbs into the dermis. "Think of it as SPF for stem cells, protecting them so they work more efficiently," adds Perrier. One Essential serum, the line's star product, uses TP Vityl to up the strength of proven wrinkle-smoothing, skin-tone-evening ingredients like retinol, vitamin C, and AHAs.
Stem-cell-boosting skin creams are cropping up everywhere, but serious research and clinical tests separate the coveted from the late-night infomercial specials. La Prairie's new Cellular Power Infusion combines a special peptide with "red grape stem cells and extract of Swiss snow algae, to trigger the natural self-repair of your skin's stem cells," explains Dr. Sven Gohla, vice president of R&D for the brand. "Otherwise, epidermal stem cells—the skin's own renewal resources—get weaker with age, and skin gets thinner, less radiant." In extracting stem cells directly from hardy plants and fruits, companies hope they will lend a similar level of protection to our skin: Stem cells from Swiss green apples (which remarkably almost never brown) are found in Sonya Dakar's Nutrasphere Stem Cell Transformer and StriVectin's SD Eye Concentrate; extracts from especially winter-resistant roses make up Goldfaden's Alpine Rose Stem Cell Cream; super-antioxidant-rich raspberries fuel Chantecaille's Biodynamic Lifting Neck Cream.
For a customized fix, New York beauty guru Mary Schook's Stem Cell Facial has garnered a loyal list of (top-secret) bold-faced devotees. The key to her treatment is the electricity-assisted application of serums (she won't disclose the brand used) infused with real adult human stem cells. "My clients have been giving up Botox and fillers. The treatment increases collagen, so even fragile skin looks alive and spongy!" she enthuses. A caveat: With sessions starting at $600, regular facials get expensive.
At that price, most women have no choice but to forgo Botox. But trading a frozen forehead for a naturally radiant, plump complexion? Priceless.
Even if you're nowhere near a socket right now, your body has an electric charge. It's a long way off from X-Men-level magnetism, but all living cells (even plants) use positive or negative currents to communicate. Unfortunately, this charge lessens with age. For your face, this means that the fibroblasts that pump out skin-plumping collagen stop keeping up with the damage (from sun, stress, pollution) that causes wrinkles. The good news is that cutting-edge technology can help zap your complexion back into peak condition.
Though it may sound, um, shocking, interest in skin shock therapy began years ago, with the rise of "galvanic facials" in Europe (galvanic is another word for electric). But now, at-home galvanic systems (like Nu Skin's) are appearing stateside, too. Similar to professional models, these devices use a low voltage to increase product penetration. "Like charges repel each other, so in theory you can use a positive current to push a positively charged cream into the skin," explains Dr. Patricia K. Farris, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Tulane University in New Orleans. Galvanic facials promise to instantly plump, but Farris warns that there is still little scientific proof that these treatments produce real, long-term results.
Instead, Farris is excited about two new technologies that are clinically proven to drive product into skin: "Electroporation delivers short, high-voltage bursts to create tiny holes in the skin that molecules can then pass through. It's worked with getting green-tea polyphenols, peptides, and hormones into the body, but the sky's the limit," she enthuses. Another breakthrough, Iontophoresis, uses a similar process for ingredient penetration but at a lower (and less painful) current. "We've been using Iontophoresis to push antiperspirant through sweat glands and hair follicles to reduce perspiration," says Farris.
Meanwhile, celebrity facialist Melanie Simon has been using high-tech medical devices to energize, tighten, and rethicken skin. A-list clients fly in every few weeks to keep the scalpel at bay—especially when hectic schedules mean limited shut-eye. "Insomniacs have worse complexions than drug addicts because they're never getting the deepest stage of sleep, when cells regenerate," says Simon. To coax cells into repair mode, she uses a Nano Perfector machine to replicate the brain's electric current during deep sleep: "Everyone has a unique electrical signature, like a fingerprint. A lightbulb runs on one ampere. The Nano Perfector replicates your frequency at an accuracy of one billionth of an ampere. Most people get two hours of deep sleep a night. Using metallic gloves connected to the device, my treatment takes about an hour and 15 minutes, but the restful wavelength stays in your body for 72 hours, prolonging the skin's natural repair mode. It's like being in a sleep tank for weeks." Simon uses her Nano Perfector with another machine called the Arasys, which works like a pacemaker (invented by the same scientist), conducting energy to contract facial muscles through patches placed on the skin. "After one treatment, some clients will look five years younger. Their pores are smaller, their complexion is more even, and overall texture is improved," she says.
If you can't get to Simon's spa in Montecito, California (or don't have $200 to spend every 20 days on her facials), you can now try an at-home alternative: Simon's Circ-Cell skincare line stimulates repair with a powder and serum that activate when blended. "The powder contains zinc, copper, magnesium, tourmaline, and amethyst, which are electric minerals. Copper is the most conductive metal besides silver," says Simon. Once applied, the minerals heat up and put off an electric charge, which feels warm on your face. "It's the same technology that keeps a quartz watch ticking," according to Simon.
Neutrogena, RoC, and Aveeno use similar technology but with zinc and copper only. "All these electrical creams try to mimic the skin's frequency that stimulates collagen production," explains Farris. "When a wound starts to heal, fibroblast cells turn each other on using a low level of electricity. By activating the powder ions with the liquid, you're creating a tiny battery that tells the fibroblasts to make more collagen. Water is a good conductor, so any moisturizer works in the mix." Just don't expect any zaps. Unlike a defibrillator's jump-start to the heart, these gentle skin treatments work on such a low voltage that you won't feel a thing. But the cost for this pain-free beauty is patience: Results take about two months.
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