• Dawn Naylor BS, RN, MSN, ACNP

Peptides, growth factors, & stem cells: what they are & how to use them!

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

More and more skincare companies are spotlighting peptides, growth factors, and stem cells as the rising stars in anti-aging products. These active ingredients are the latest technological advances in skincare, effectively protecting skin from damage, dramatically slowing signs of aging, and accelerating the regeneration of skin cells for more youthful-looking skin.

What the heck is a peptide anyway?

Peptides are mini-proteins, consisting of chains of 2 or more amino acids arranged like pearls on a necklace. Peptides formed in a certain pattern make specific proteins that function as messengers, allowing the epidermis and dermis to communicate efficiently to promote collagen synthesis.

However, as skin ages, communication diminishes, resulting in wrinkles, loss of firmness, and changes in texture. Peptides are like anti-aging keys that unlock skin cell surface receptors to open the doors of cellular communication and help skin repair itself.

Peptides: Pros

  • Less irritation. Peptides are not as irritating as other anti-aging ingredients such as tretinoin and retinol, which stress skin to promote collagen synthesis (Note: peptides can be used in conjunction with retinols).

  • Anti-aging results. With appropriate delivery systems, peptides signal skin to produce more collagen and hyaluronic acid, which decline with age.

  • Variety. The appropriate peptide must be selected for specific results, such as promoting collagen synthesis, targeting environmental damage, or diminishing wrinkles.

Peptides: Cons

  • Cost. Peptides are expensive, so although a product contains one or more peptides, the percentage may be too small to make a difference. That's why we recommend medical grade products only. These have high levels of active ingredients.

  • Delivery. Because peptides are protein fragments, the molecules are very large. If used in a thick cream, they sit on top of the skin. An effective delivery system helps peptides arrive at targeted cells.

  • Percentage. Numerous different peptides per bottle does not necessarily mean a superior product. Peptides must be at high enough active levels to signal skin to produce more collagen.

  • Stability. High temperatures, such as those required in cream formulations, break down peptide amino acid chains. Active peptides should be added at a lower temperature, so serums are often more effective than heavy creams, allowing peptides to have maximum efficacy.

  • Claims. Results from peptides are not immediate and require consistent application over time.

Peptides are continually being synthesized in labs, so there is no single "best" anti-aging peptide. The most effective way to benefit from peptides is to ensure that they are combined with other anti-aging ingredients, such as ceramides, antioxidants, stem cells, and growth factors.

Let's talk about growth factors!

Growth factors are naturally occurring proteins that stimulate cellular renewal. When there is damage, cells produce growth factors that communicate to surrounding cells that repair is needed. In fact, growth factors were first used to treat patients in burn centers.

Cells naturally secrete growth factors as signaling molecules that keep cells healthy and stimulate them to divide. However, the aging process leads to a decrease in growth factors. When growth factors are applied topically, the stratum corneum stimulates a repair message that goes into the dermis via a signaling cascade, stimulating fibroblasts to produce collagen and revitalize damaged or aging skin.

Growth Factors: Pros

  • Post-Care. Growth factors accelerate skin renewal during and after aesthetic procedures that create stress to skin such as micro-needling, dermaplaning, laser, IPL, and peels.

  • Availability. Growth factors are a "must" for people over 30, who are already experiencing skin aging and environmental damage.

  • Source. Growth factors are most bio-active when derived from human sources (adipose tissue, amniotic membrane, baby foreskin) since they work with growth factors normally present in the skin.

Growth Factors: Cons

  • Contraindications. Research has shown that too much epidermal growth factor may accelerate cancer growth if cancer is already present. However, studies have not shown that growth factors cause non-pre-cancerous cells to become cancerous.

  • Odor. Since growth factor is a protein derivative, its distinctive odor may be off-putting to some clients.

  • Source. Growth factors derived from baby foreskin can be a controversial issue. However, research is moving toward utilizing stem cells from human adipose tissue.

  • Delivery. Due to their size, topically applied growth factors may not be absorbed.

Some growth factors used in skincare include Epidermal Growth Factor (EGF) to accelerate healing, Fibroblast Growth Factor (FGF) to stimulate fibroblast production, Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF) to promote cell growth, Keratinocyte Growth Factor (KGF) to stimulate epithelial cell growth, Platelet-Derived Growth Factor (PDGF) to regulate cell growth, and Transforming Growth Factor-Beta (TGF-β) to stimulate collagen secretion. Growth factors are often cocktailed with peptides, hyaluronic acid, antioxidants, and growth factor precursors—stem cells.

Last one to go! Here's the skinny on stem cells.

Stem cells function as a type of internal repair system. They work best with growth factors, which signal the stem cells to go to the targeted location and renew collagen, elastin, and epithelial cells.

Stem cells can be derived from humans, animals, or plants. However, human stem cells functioning with growth factors in skincare formulations stimulate epidermal stem cells to help repair wrinkles, improve elasticity, and protect skin from environmental exposure.

Stem Cells: Pros

  • Stem cells stimulate cellular growth and division, leading to collagen and elastin synthesis, filling out wrinkles and slowing the development of new wrinkles

  • Repair. Human stem cells may be more effective in activating wound healing and stimulating collagen synthesis, but plant stem cells (apple, grape, edelweiss, Alpine rose) may promote improvement due to antioxidant benefits.

  • Human stem cell byproducts (from skin or adipose tissue) appear to be the best candidates for use in skincare products due to their ability to produce (in the right conditions).

Stem Cells: Cons

  • Plant-derived stem cells are not as effective as human-derived stem cells. However, due to conflicting ethical viewpoints on the source of human-derived stem cells, there is also interest in stem cells derived from fat.

  • New frontier. Research on stem cells is ongoing. Some specialists point out that stem cell extracts (instead of whole stem cells) are actually depending on other ingredients such as growth factors and peptides to influence the adult stem cells present in the skin.