When you pick a leaf off of a tree, it grows back. If a flower is trampled on, it rises again next spring, good as new. What if we could harness that regenerative power and bottle it up? That’s the thinking behind the recent rise of plant stem cells in beauty products: Harvest the part of the plant responsible for this superpower, add it to a hair care or skincare formula, and watch as it erases all signs of aging. But could it really be that simple?
You might think of “stem cells” as one of those vague, scientific terms that you inherently trust even if you don’t fully understand it yourself, like “free radicals” or “non-comedogenic.” It turns out, there’s a reason that the function of stem cells isn’t easily explained — they don’t really have a function, at first. “Stem cells are undifferentiated or non-specific cells,” Ron Robinson, a cosmetic chemist and the founder of BeautyStat.com, tells The Zoe Report. “They remain so unless the body summons them to become active, then they can differentiate and multiply into a specific type of cell.” For example, if you fall and break your arm, the body will signal stem cells to become bone cells to repair the break. Which is pretty freaking cool.
Humans, animals, and plants all have stem cells that work in essentially the same way. For ethical and legal reasons, though, plant stem cells are the only kind you’ll find in cosmetics. “The rationale for using them is to impart certain desirable qualities on the skin, such as the ability withstand environmental aggressors or to regenerate new, healthy skin,” Dr. Aanand Geria, a dermatologist at Geria Dermatology, tells TZR. The research in the field of plant stem cells is fairly limited but promising — they’ve been shown to reduce wrinkles, prevent hair loss, and even defend against skin cell damage — however, it’s important to point out that the term “stem cells” in this context isn’t 100 percent accurate. “A stem cell from a plant is long since dead by the time it's made it into your skin cream,” Dr. Geria explains. What remains active in these beauty products is plant stem cell extracts; which still deliver some mind-blowing benefits.
Brands have focused in on a few separate types of stem cells for use in cosmetic formulations, including those from ginger root, tomatoes, and apples. But because all stem cells function in the same, non-specific way, the differentiating factor between these sources really comes down to the plants’ other unique characteristics. “We use echinacea stem cells in our Stem Cell Serum,” Indie Lee, the founder and CEO of Indie Lee, tells The Zoe Report, since echinacea is gentle and anti-inflammatory. “Used in this product, it works to address firmness, texture, and tone,” she says.
Studies have confirmed these youth-preserving effects. Plant stem cell extracts have been shown to “have a regulatory effect on telomere length;” or, in other words, keep the skin’s protein complexes from degrading and shortening with age. The same scientific paper notes that apple stem cells (as found in 3Lab Super H Serum and Stacked Skincare Plant Stem Cell Peptide Serum) work to reduce wrinkles and crow’s feet; while tomato stem cells (used in HydroPeptide Hydrostem Stem Cell Antioxidant Serum and Omorovicza Magic Moisture Mist) keep skin protected from environmental damage.
In addition to their regenerative qualities, all plant stem cells share another major benefit — one with lots of research to back it up. “Stem cells are rich in antioxidants, which are known to have a variety of positive effects,” Dr. Geria says. As antioxidants, these plant extracts essentially mitigate the effects of sun damage and pollution on your skin — and your strands. Pollution tends to dry out hair, create scalp buildup, and even cause hair loss; so plant stem cells’ antioxidant status makes a compelling case for incorporating this buzzy new ingredient into your regular wash day routine, too.
“Our stem cell formula harnesses the power of plant regeneration and delivers it straight to your strands, creating thicker, younger, healthier looking hair,” David Babaii, the Chief Global Creative Director for n:p beautiful, tells The Zoe Report. Science concurs: A 2017 study showed an “increase [in] the lifespan of isolated human hair follicles;” meaning that stem cells may possibly prevent hair loss and promote scalp health when used in a formula like n:p beautiful Miracle Serum or More Hair Naturally Triple Stem Cell Shampoo.
Another plus? The mutable quality of plant stem cells makes them pretty easy — and sustainable — to harvest. InstaNatural sources the ingredients for its Youth Express Eye Gel from Globularia cordifolia — aka, daisies.
“Like any ingredient that’s sourced from nature, there is the potential that a customer may experience an allergy or sensitivity,” Lee says — so do your homework. A tomato stem cell product probably isn’t your best bet if you’re allergic to nightshade vegetables, but apple stem cells just might be your new holy grail. As the author of one stem cell study dryl notes, “It could be considered that ‘an apple a day can keep aging skin away and perhaps help regenerate skin.’”
Ahead, 15 ways to level-up your beauty game with stem cell power.