Plants and animals both have the ability to regenerate tissues throughout life. Regeneration depends on “youth-in-waiting” cells called stem cells. Stem cells in both kingdoms even share a gene that tells them when to get going and make something new (2010).
This overlap now extends to exciting research on the potential for plant stem cells to benefit your health, particularly your skin.
The use of plant stem cells in cosmetics represents one of the latest scientific achievements for creating safe and effective organic products for topical skin care.
Let’s take a look to see what we know so far about this new trend.
Plant Stem Cell Ingredients
Scientists have been studying plant stem cell cultures since the early 20th century. Growing new tissues in culture reflects a general response by plants to injury or other stress. Their biochemical profiles also change in culture.
A wide variety of substances have been discovered in plant cell cultures. Many of them are now known to be highly bioavailable and biocompatible to human cells (2017). Their activities are due in part to structural and functional similarities with human regulatory hormones, neurotransmitters, pigments, polyamines, amino acids and fatty acids. These substances can trigger plant cell antioxidant and detoxification mechanisms resembling those of human cells.
A typical stress response of plant cells in culture is to produce greater amounts of antioxidants and detoxification molecules. Stresses can include UV light, high or low temperatures, heavy metals, organic toxins, nutrient deprivation and microbial infections. This is how plants defend themselves against stress.
The technology for using live plant stem cells in cosmetic products has not yet been perfected. Extracts of cultured plant stem cells, not the stem cells themselves, comprise the ingredients for skin care products. Recent research reveals the potential for such extracts to restore aging skin to a more youthful state.
One of the earliest studies of such an extract for skin health came from an old variety of apple from Switzerland (2008). This study showed that the extract could reverse age-related damage to human fibroblasts. These are the cells that foster collagen synthesis in skin and connective tissues.
This same study also showed the apple extract to have significant potential to reduce “crow’s feet” around the eyes.
Cultured stem cells from the tomato plant provide strong protection for skin against the aging effects of heavy metal toxicity (2014).
A refined ginger culture extract improved skin structure by reducing pore size, reducing skin shininess, and increasing elastin protein (2016). Elastin is responsible for maintaining the flexibility of skin.
An Italian biotechnology group has patented the use of cell cultures of the edelweiss plant as a cosmetic treatment (2015). Edelweiss cell cultures secrete substances that inhibit enzymes that destroy collagen and hyaluronic acid (HA). Collagen and HA are both important for maintaining healthy skin structure.
The most recent review of these and other studies of plant-based stem cells in cosmetics concluded that plant cells offer an exciting new source of ingredients for making safer and more effective cosmetics (2017). Cutting edge scientific research is now expanding in this direction.
The Special Case of Red Snow Algae
The most promising discovery for skin health from plants is red snow algae. These are small, single-celled plants that thrive on high, snow-covered mountains. They are constantly challenged by the freezing temperatures and high doses of UV radiation that are not tolerable to other plants.
When stressed, each cell has the capability of transforming itself essentially into a stem cell. Scientists have discovered how to induce this process in laboratory cultures of the algae.
Red snow algae deal with harsh environmental conditions with an array of defense mechanisms. Scientific research has revealed the ability of these algae to produce substances that rejuvenate their cells by turning red from high levels of carotenoid pigments in the face of intense UV radiation (2016).
One of the main carotenoids is astaxanthin, which has become a leading ingredient in many of the best skin care products.
Red snow algae also activate two key anti-aging mechanisms that help repair DNA. These mechanisms entail the production of two powerful anti-aging enzymes, called Klotho and AMPK.
In humans, both enzymes taper off as we age. Extracts of red snow algae reverse this trend in human skin cells. In addition, these same extracts also stimulate collagen production by suppressing enzymes that are responsible for collagen destruction.
In clinical research, extracts of red snow algae also reduced age spots and inhibited the loss of moisture from the face (2015).