Recently it has become trendy in the personal care industry to tout products that contain “plant stem cells” which are claimed to confer miracle benefits. This is mostly fraudulent advertising in both claims and composition, and with this article I will explain exactly why. The biology is not too complicated, so once we apply a little logic to the science, it should become very clear. There is a figure of speech about putting lipstick on a pig…
The only reason that this is even occurring is because the word “stem cell” is a great way for marketers to mislead the public by confusing plant stem cells with human embryonic stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS), the latter two of which are human cell lines that could actually have real therapeutic value for human skin (and other human organs).
There is zero research nor any logical reasoning to the claims that plant stem cells do anything for human skin cells, yet I’ve seen it commonly hyped. Apparently merely using the word “stem cell” is effective as an advertising approach, even though it has absolutely nothing to do with the regenerative human stem cells that most people subconsciously think of when they hear the word “stem cell”. As mentioned, there is real therapeutic promise in human stem cells, but “plant stem cells” have nothing to do with these.
First of all, the fundamental natures of animal cells and plant cells are dramatically different, as a basic review of cell biology on Wikipedia would reveal. The biochemical processes, hormones and signaling molecules, and cell structures, among other things, are all completely different. Plant hormones have no affects on animal cells as animal cells do not have receptors for plant hormones, nor do they have the same cellular physiological functions.
The structures and functions of plant cells do not carry over in any useful ways to animal cells. Plant stem cells do not produce fibroblasts, they do not produce collagen or elastin, they do not produce human growth factors, nothing. The key benefit of stem cells to any organism is that they help to repopulate cells lost to damage or senescence. Plant cells don’t do this for humans. Regardless, it seems unlikely that you would want to repopulate your skin with green, hard-walled plant cells. That is disregarding the fact that any plant stem cells actually contained in such products are most certainly dead or destroyed as a result of industrial production processing.
If you do research into real peer-reviewed scientific research on plant stem cells (such as on PubMed) you will find zero actual scientific studies showing that plant stem cells do anything for human skin. Instead you will find nonsensical “marketing publications” (not real scientific research) like this one and this one, that tout benefits, but contain no actual research, involved no experiments, have no data, and are a back door way for marketers to make false claims by corrupting real scientific outlets. At least the first paper listed contains this bit of honesty: “In fact, almost all cosmetic companies advertising to contain stem cells in their products actually contain stem cell extracts and not the live stem cells.” More on this topic shortly.
How do I know that the two articles mentioned above are “marketing publications” and not real research? Simple, I read the articles sentence by sentence, and checked the references that were used. What I discovered, was one of two things: 1. The references apply to things such as how the plants are grown, or things like common themes in plant biology. None of these are related to actual clinical trial research showing improvement in human or animal skin after application of “plant stem cells”, nor even research showing effects of “plant stem cells” on human cells in a petri dish. 2. When checking their references such as this one, related to claims about the effects of “plant stem cells” on human skin, the information provided by such “references” does not provide any experiments or data; they are no better than the article referencing it. These articles also make completely unsupported claims such as when they say “specialized peptides and enzymes or plant stem cells which, when applied topically on the surface, help protect the human skin stem cells from damage and deterioration or stimulate the skin’s own stem cells.” If you look at their references, there is no scientific data or experiments to show that this statement about plant stem cells is true or supported by any evidence. “Stimulate” the skin’s own stem cells to do what? How? Also note that the authors jumble together peptides, enzymes, and plant stem cells, which are all very different compounds and have very different effects on human skin. (Peptides and enzymes could have effects on human skin – depending on which ones.) So to combine them as all having the same properties is inherently misleading.
On top of all that, many of the so-called “references” used in these publications appear to utilize a type of circular logic, in the sense that each of these articles references another article, which then references back to the original article. And all these articles are either written by the same company, or companies working together. But none of the articles contain any real research, experiments, or data. They merely make unsupported claims. I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s just just a shell game of fraud with the intent to fool people into taking their money.
But let’s return to the question of whether or not plant stem cells could even be beneficial to human cells.
Even if these so-called “plant stem cells” were miraculously still living, and even if they were performing some biochemical process that was affecting a person’s skin (unlikely since as mentioned, mammalian and plant biochemistry are dramatically different), then there is the huge problem of immune rejection. The human immune system does not take kindly to foreign cell types influencing human cellular physiology. That is often treated as an infection, and could lead to a skin rash. Most people are familiar with organ transplant rejection, and that is from human to human. Plant to human would be even less compatible.
Now some people may argue that it is not the plant stem cells themselves that do anything, it is some miracle chemicals that they contain like growth factors that actually do the “magic”.
Well, as mentioned above, since human and plant biochemistry are dramatically different, this is very unlikely, and there is no evidence to support that any such plant growth factors would have any affect on mammalian (human) cells. It is possible that certain compounds found in plant cells may function as antioxidants, or have pro- or anti-inflammatory properties. But those properties can be found in many plant products, and have absolutely nothing to do with plant “stem cells”. In other words, the use of the word “stem cells” is completely and totally a manipulative marketing ploy to convince lay person consumers of some “magical properties” when really, the same effects can be found in many other plant based products for a fraction of the cost. So the phrase “plant stem cell” is a meaningless term meant to fool you into handing over your hard earned money.
The final response I might get is something like, “But Rob, I’ve used some plant stem cell cream and it has done wonders for my skin, so there has to be something to it.” My response is, great, glad you found a product that is working for you. Please tell me what product that is. But may I suggest you look at the other ingredients on the label, because those are what are actually doing anything for your skin. (Or else some unlisted ingredient dishonest companies are not telling you about.) It has nothing to do with “plant stem cells”. And don’t forget about the placebo effect.
Personal care product marketers likely won’t stop this practice because there’s too much profit involved. As long as this ploy continues to work economically, the practice will continue, despite the fact that such companies are destroying their own credibility with scientific ignorance and fraud. (Lies are free, so the profit margin works exceptionally.) Companies who want to earn money honestly in the personal care industry do real research, and make real products that do real things, and don’t lie about why they work.
Since the dishonest companies probably will not stop this practice, the best way for consumers, such as you, to discourage such unscrupulous companies from taking advantage of people, is to not financially support companies touting “plant stem cell” products. Or at least not until they produce real scientific research experiments and data to back their claims. Until then, you vote with your wallet every single day.
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