beauty-parlour-4-thumb622614Cosmetic companies are capitalising on the headline-grabbing allure of “restoring beauty with stem cell”, with anti-ageing creams that are the fastest-growing section of Britain’s £673 million skincare industry.

Even in these straitened times, it seems, there is a market for expensive “medical” beauty creams.

In September Lancôme will launch Absolue Precious Cells, its first anti-ageing cream that it claims will “help restore the potential of skin stem cells and bring back the skin of youth”. The cream, selling for up to £145 for 50ml, joins a range of expensive stem-cell products that have come on the market recently. But can these preparations deliver on their promises? And are there any health risks?

The reality, however, is that products available in UK shops do not actually contain stem cells, or even parts of stem cells. Under European law, it is illegal for cosmetics sold in the UK to contain human tissue or human-tissue extracts. In fact, almost all new products have nothing to do with controversial embryonic stem cells. Instead they encourage the growth of a more humble type of stem cell that exists in all adults and has the potential to produce new skin.

Dr Jeanette Jacknin, an American dermatologist who specialises in anti-ageing treatments, says that it is impossible to incorporate living stem cells into skin creams because the cells degenerate.

“Instead companies are creating products with specialised peptides [made from amino acids] and enzymes [proteins that speed up chemical reactions] or plant stem cells, which they claim help to protect the human skin stem cells from damage or stimulate the skin’s own stem cells.”

Another “stem cell” cosmetic now on the market is Amatokin Emulsion (£135 for 30ml), launched in 2007 to a waiting list of 250 Harvey Nichols customers tantalised by its claims to be able to “awaken the body’s own reservoir of stem cells”. Then there is ReVive’s Peau Magnifique, available from SpaceNK (£888 for a month’s supply), with patented ingredients that “convert resting adult stem cells to fresh newly minted cells for a firmer, more defined appearance”. Dior claims that its Capture XP anti-ageing cream “works on skin stem cells to better repair wrinkles”. Or how about Emerge Swiss Apple Stem Cell Serum (available online for $120), which “promotes the self-renewal capacity of the skin”?

The marketing of these products is — possibly intentionally — causing confusion in the public mind, creating a misleading impression of their potency. Chris Flower, director of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association, the industry trade body, says that there is “huge potential for confusion”. When he first heard of stem-cell cosmetics, he was worried that the products contained human cells. “I wasn’t sure what manufacturers meant by the product claims,” he says. All the cosmetics, in their different ways, are cashing in on the magic allure of the words “stem cell” as a route to youth.

Dr Bruno Bernard, project director at the Paris research laboratories of L’Oréal, the parent company of Lancôme, says that rather than actual stem cells, a new apple extract is the key to the Absolue cream. The extract alters the “microenvironment” surrounding the layer of skin stem cells between the upper layer of the skin, the epidermis, and the lower layer, the dermis. This reactivates sluggish stem cells and encourages the production of new epidermal skin cells, resulting in plumper, younger-looking skin.

Lancôme is aware it has to tread carefully in describing the potency of its anti-ageing cream in case its cell regeneration claims spark concerns about cells reproducing out of control, as occurs in cancers. This is reflected in carefully worded publicity, saying that the product “triggers” or “harnesses” stem cell “potential” — not that it directly causes new cells to grow.

lancome-absolue-eye-creamIn fact, despite Lancôme’s claims that the Absolue cream is the result of 20 years’ research and a “decisive breakthrough on stem cells”, the product has many superficial similarities with the others on the market. What the company has done, however, is publish research that shows how these processes actually work with the cream. L’Oréal has to uphold its much-vaunted research-based approach, with its laboratories spending £410 million a year investigating product efficacy and safety.

But, as with all cosmetics, the research has an element of “smoke and mirrors” when it comes to mixing science and marketing. L’Oréal’s studies of artificial skin show that the apple extract does make skin stem cells produce new, better-constructed skin. And a small trial of the product on 39 women showed that after two months of using Lancôme’s Absolue Precious Cells, the subjects’ skin did improve, based on a criteria of wrinkles and ageing.

But do the results of the two experiments link together? Are particular ingredients of the cream responsible for the improvement in the women? And is the cream any better than any other product (including a cheaper moisturiser)? As ever in cosmetics research, these are questions that remain unanswered.

Tamara Griffiths, a consultant dermatologist for the British Skin Foundation research charity, says that the science behind Lancôme’s stem-cell product is sound, but that doesn’t mean the product is the breakthrough that the company claims. “The coarse wrinkles and loss of elasticity of the skin, which people commonly associate with an ‘old’ appearance, are due to changes in the collagen and elastic fibres in the dermis,” she says. “This product will not have any effect on these changes and will not repair damage in the dermis, so the overall impact may be less than consumers’ expectations.”

The problem is common to all anti-ageing cosmetics: if they really do have a radical effect on the skin’s cells, and change the way skin looks and functions long-term, then they would cease to be a cosmetic and would have to be regulated by the much stricter rules applied to drugs. So the big cosmetics manufacturers build in limits to the power of their products. The bad news for consumers is that stem-cell cosmetics won’t offer a miraculous rejuvenation. The good news is that they’re unlikely to harm you.

But if you want an anti-ageing cream that really works, Griffiths suggests, there is a readily available preparation that is less glamorous and less costly, but much more effective: “The main product that promotes skin health is, in fact, sunscreen.”

Source: Times Online