The Truth About 3 Of The Buzz-iest Ingredients In Cosmetics

Part of my job is to determine what new technology or ingredient goes into your new lotion or shampoo and what is merely a gimmick.
Publish date:
April 22, 2014
science, infrared light, probiotics, stem cells

Trends: the hottest spring fashions, the newest colors and chicest looks. When you think of trends, this is probably what comes to your mind, right? Well, trends mean something a little different to those of us working in cosmetic chemistry.

Scientists like myself ultimately decide what ends up in many cosmetic formulas. How about stem cells from an apple? Or probiotic yogurt for your skin? Sunscreen that can protect you from different types of the sun’s rays? These things are all trending right now in cosmetic chemistry, but are they the next big thing, or are they our century’s version of snake oil?

Part of my job is to determine what new technology or ingredient goes into your new lotion or shampoo and what is merely a gimmick.

New cosmetic technologies often stem from the medical and health-food sectors. This is very common, as the cosmetic industry likes to look outward for inspiration. And the more cosmetic medical procedures become the norm, the more people expect out of their cosmetic bottles. The ingredient and technology trends I’m going to touch on here are no different. They stem from medicine and health-food... and spacecraft technology.


Starting about 30 years ago, scientists discovered that stem cells could hold the key for treating incurable diseases.

Quick definition: a stem cell is a non-differentiated naive cell. They come in two generic types: embryonic or adult. The embryonic types have the greatest potential for healing because they have not yet become specialized cell types, but they are associated with the most controversy. Adult stem cells have less potential, but have the most green lights for research.

Stem cells are basically a blank slate. And as we age, the cells in our skin and hair begin to slowly reduce in number as their division slows down. This reduction can cause issues like hair thinning, hair loss, wrinkles, and loosening of the skin, and can exacerbate conditions like eczema and psoriasis.

Up to now, human stem cell therapies have shown success in medical applications, but their use in cosmetics has been untested, unapproved, and logistically not feasible. This is because there would be huge issues with locating donors, and the expense and logistics are not really user-friendly to the market.

Because of these issues, some companies have turned to something more abundant and less expensive: plants.

Are plant stem cells the next best thing right? Not exactly; plant stem cells aren’t as useful as you may have been lead to believe. The problem is that we are humans, not apples. The cells are fundamentally different. If we wanted to grow a firm, colorful skin with a sweet delicious center, then we would be in luck, but we are not fruit. For humans to take advantage of stem cell technology, we need access to human stem cells, either from our own bodies or from a donor.

So, are companies that sell products with plant stem cells like this one junk? What about supposed clinical results? Looking into the callout ingredient, Malus Domestica Fruit Cell Culture, there is little evidence to support that stem cells are actually a significant part of the ingredient; it just specifies “cell culture” and does not produce any proof of their “stem” status. But does this even matter?

Well, it turns out that there is something our bodies do share with plant cells: amino acids. The amino acids present in fruit stem cell cultures form similar and nearly identical proteins that the body uses: something called transcription factors. They're not stem cells, but they do signal to our adult stem cells to reproduce at a faster rate. Basically, think of transcription factors as stem cell fertilizer.

This is important because adult stem cells that matter to us from a cosmetic perspective are skin stem cells (basal cell keratinocyte) and hair stem cells (hair bulge cells). Regaining the ability to have them start dividing again can really help us with treating wrinkles, hair loss, skin thinning, and overall signs of ageing.

So next time you see a company selling a vial full of fruit stem cells as a treatment, don’t bust out your credit card too quickly. Remember, what is more important is to try and find if the products have good clinical results, and that they focus on “cell turnover” and/or “cell stimulation.”

The fact is that these benefits are not just exclusive to stem cells. They can be found in extracts, oils and plenty of other protein treatments. Here are two products that include stem cell stimulating ingredients, but are not actually made of stem cells:

bareMinerals Active Cell Renewal Night Serum

Worker ingredients: 3-O-Ethyl Ascorbic Acid, Palmitoyl Tripeptide-5, Syringa Vulgaris (Lilac) Leaf Cell Culture Extract

Murad Essential C Night Moisture

Worker ingredients: Rice Amino Acids, Retinyl Palmitate, Tripleurospermum Maritima Extract

Fruit Stem Cell Verdict: Overhyping use of the term: “stem cell.” Look instead for cell “stimulating” claims.


I think we've all seen the commercial of Shakira belly-dancing her way to bacterial goodness and spouting the importance of live cell cultures to return the “good bacteria” to our body. More and more, I am seeing that skincare is starting to jump on the bacterial bandwagon, too.

If you didn’t already know, your skin is home to about 1,000 different species of bacteria. The existence of this bacteria is completely normal and a sign of good skin health. After the craze of hand sanitizers passed, we realized that these bacteria are a good thing to keep around and that our skin should get in on the probiotic goodness our stomachs were enjoying. Plus, recolonizing our skin can help treat certain skin ailments, like acne.

However, as I mentioned in my last article, we have a different relationship with our cosmetics than we do with our food. And while a cool fridge and a pH-neutral, preservative-free yogurt with a three-week expiration date may be a nice place for probiotic bacteria to hang out, body lotion is a different beast.

The steps we take to make sure we don’t get E. Coli poisoning from our favorite body butter is what makes it almost impossible to create a good probiotic skin treatment. The truth is that it’s just currently not a great option to manufacture a probiotic treatment for the skin.

But should our stomachs get all the bacterial benefit at the expense of our complexions? Nope.

We chemists are working hard to find a way around this problem, and we may have hope. Some of us are using liposomes (an oil-walled bubble) to protect our precious bacteria. Liposomes are naturally occurring barriers in our cells. When aligned, the oil and water groups in certain fats and create a walled bubble, and we can separate unpreserved and preserved sections of a lotion AND help keep our good bacteria buddies alive to live on our skin.

This technology has been used in new chemotherapy treatments and is a key factor in “smart” drug delivery. Because of its use in the medical field, we can take advantage of it in cosmetics, but it’s difficult to manufacture, and, in many cases, too expensive for many cosmetics.

Probiotics Verdict: It's too early to buy a good cheap probiotic for your skin, but in a few more years, expect to have some nice body yogurt.


We all know how important sunscreen is, and if you don’t, check out what Sable has to say about it. But there’s even more to know.

Currently, when we talk about sun protection, we’re mostly talking about protection against UVA and UVB rays. We already know that these ultraviolet light rays can cause some pretty scary things to happen to our skin. But researchers have recently found that infrared (IR) light can cause some problems, too.

IR light has much less energy than its UV counterparts, and because of this low energy, it was initially disregarded as an area of concern. However, the IR light spectrum makes up almost half of the sun’s radiation. And though it may be weaker than UV radiation, IR radiation can still penetrate down into your hypodermis (the deepest layer of skin).

When this happens, IR light has been shown to release free radicals that disrupt your skin’s cellular matrix (the natural collagen fibers binding your skin cells that create healthy looking skin). It can also alter your dermal structural proteins, and this means premature aging.

The good news is that there are some good technologies out there to help your cells fight back. One specific technology is an extract of Thermus thermophilus.

This is a specialized bacteria that lives only in thermal vent environments. It thrives in temperatures of approximately 150 degrees and the special properties of what allow this bacterium to survive underwater in extreme heat can now protect your skin from IR radiation (which is mostly heat). Here are some products that use this special extract:

Lancaster Velvet Touch SPF 30

IR defense: Thermus Thermophilus

MyChelle Deep Repair Cream

IR repair: Thermus Thermophilus

IR Verdict: This is the future of sunscreens and sun protection. Stay ahead of the curve and look for infrared protection!

So just like all the writers and editors of xoVain, I hope to keep you guys on top of the latest trends, even if the ones I focus on are a little more scientific. Feel free to ask about other science-based trends or ingredients you've seen out on the market, or something you may want me to put under the microscope!