Botanical Stem Cells in Skin Care

First it was stem cells from rare apples touted as a revolution in anti-aging skin care.  Then every other plant (seller) decided to get into the game. So is it true, or is it a con? Can stem cells from plants benefit your skin, and if so how? Is “stem cell” just a buzz word that unscrupulous marketers use to dupe you into thinking they are scientifically on the leading edge?

Plant Stem Cell Basics

A fertilized ovum (egg) is the ultimate stem cell. Every animal and plant that reproduces sexually begins as a fertilized ovum, with half of its genetic material contributed by the male parent and half from the female parent. In the case of flowering plants, structures within the flower play both roles. Pollen from the stamen is the equivalent of animal sperm and the pistol is the female receptive organ. A stem cell with the ability to repeatedly sub-divide and eventually differentiate into all types of cells found within an individual animal or plant is termed totipotential.

In the animal kingdom, a fertilized ovum divides, creating daughter totipotential stem cells, for only about four days. Daughter cells subsequently differentiate into pluripotential stem cells, which can differentiate into different various types of cells, but not all types. Plants, on the other hand, have totipotential stem cells throughout their life. These cells can develop into a complete adult plant.

Totipotential plant stem cells exist in very small numbers and are found in highly specialized tissues, structures called meristems. Meristems exist in root and shoot sprouts and are the cells from which all other plant cells and structures originate. Every root and stem shoot tip contains a very small number of these extraordinarily important cells. Meristems in shoot sprouts are called apical meristems, and those on the tips of roots are called root meristems. Remove the meristem and all growth in that part of the plant ceases.

Meristem stem cells are under external control and respond to local humoral factors from adjacent cells (quiescent cells) as well as more systemic plant hormones called cytokinin and auxin. Apical and root meristems have different specific, but complementary, controlling mechanisms. Generally speaking, hormonal influences that make an apical meristem grow may be inhibitory to root meristems, and vice versa. It is an intricately coordinated process in which stem cell activity is very tightly controlled and the number of totipotential stem cells is maintained at a very sparse population in comparison to the total plant cellular number.

Of paramount interest for this discussion is the fact that both apical and root meristems have control systems that act upon them, which are controlled by the needs of the entire plant. Without these outside influences, the cells in the meristem do not divide to produce daughter cells.  While indispensable for plant growth, meristem stem cells are incapable of function without external influences dictating their response. These cells are followers, not leaders.

The photos show the relative size of structures within the meristem regions of a growing plant.

In the first photo (at right), the stem cells within the root meristem and adjacent quiescent cells are colored blue. The root meristem is also extremely tiny, consisting of only a few, albeit very important cells.

In the second photo (below) , apical meristem totipotential stem cells are colored red and the quiescent controlling cells are colored blue. From the 0.1 mm white line reference, the reader can see the cluster of stem cells is so small as to be barely visible to the naked eye (if it is even visible at all!)



Logical and Troubling Facts

From this information, three conclusions regarding the “beneficial uses” of plant stem cells in skin care products are logical and obvious.

1) No matter what species of plant is chosen from which to harvest stem cells, selectively separating these cells in any significant quantity from surrounding plant tissue and cells is hugely challenging and more likely impossible.

2) Plant stem cells are followers, not leaders, and downstream differentiated plant cells are the only ones that possess the biochemical machinery required to produce the myriad of known substances derived from plants that indeed have pharmaceutical or other value (e.g. quinine, digitalis, aloe vera, etc.)

3) Plant totipotential stem cells do not produce substances capable of affecting other cells of the plant in any meaningful way, let alone be suitable for use in influencing the behavior of cells in the animal kingdom, e.g. human skin.

The “Rationale” for Alleging Non-existent Benefits of Plant Stem Cells

Marketers want to sell stuff – that is their job. With very lax regulation in this area of commerce, they are quick to seize upon fanciful notions, wrap them in beguiling prose and postulates, and foist them upon an unwary and naïve consumer population. Throw in the timeliness of the stem cell “buzz”, and the emotional appeal to the consumer to look as young as possible, and, presto, you have sales of nonsense products – with the right photos and sales pitch, lots of sales. The ways in which this charade is promulgated can be ingenious.

Three examples of many:

  • A type of Swiss apple,  grown preferentially during the 1800′s because of its ability to be cellared for long periods of time without shriveling and rotting, makes it the perfect stem cell “source” to help prevent and treat wrinkles in human skin.
  • The Alpine edelweiss, which grows at high altitudes and thrives while being bombarded with increased UV exposure from the sun, is the perfect stem cell “source” for products that prevent and help repair the skin damage of sun exposure.
  • Because date palms thrive in very arid and hot climates, they are the perfect “source” for stem cells that can help protect the skin from the effects of arid and hot conditions.

   “Can anyone say snake oil?”


Language Difficulties between the Kingdoms

The discussion again turns to the troublesome world of science.

There are several important questions that marketers of plant derived stem cell products are unable to answer. But, hey, if they are never asked, why worry about the answer? BFT is asking.

1) If the totipotential stem cells found in the apical and root meristems of plants are obligatory “followers” , how can it be alleged that when their extracts are combined into a skin care product they are now capable of “leading” other cells to do their bidding?”

2) If science has thus far shown that plant stem cells do not have their own intrinsic “language” i.e. organic compounds with which they influence the behavior of other cells, how does preparation of an extract now give them a “voice?”

3) If it is scientifically proved that human cells are influenced by an intricate and complex symphony of biochemical signals or “words” exclusive to the animal kingdom, how can a “mute”, “aphonic” extract of plant stem cells communicate with them?


These might be good questions to consider before buying that next expensive vial of European Swiss apple stem cell extract to treat your crow’s feet.



Direct control of shoot meristem activity by a cytokinin-activating enzyme Nature 445, 652-655


Cytokinin-Deficient Plants Show Multiple Developmental Alterations Indicating Opposite Functions of Cytokinins in the Regulation of Shoot and Root Meristem Activity

The Plant Cell, Vol. 15, 2532-2550, November 2003


Auxin cross-talk: integration of signalling pathways to control plant development

Plant Molecular Biology;Volume 49, Numbers 3-4, 409-424


Control of Outgrowth and Dormancy in Axillary Buds.

Plant Physiology; December 2001 vol. 127 no. 4 1405-1413


Cytokinin regulates root meristem activity via modulation of the polar auxin transport

PNAS March 17, 2009 vol. 106 no. 11 4284-4289


Coming Soon

Stem cells and cellular communication in the animal kingdom

Ways in which real stem cell science can yield real results


  1. AS says:

    That cream they sell on TV. Is that plant or animal? Does it work?

  2. drgeorge says:

    The closest thing to a stem cell in the Stem Cell Therapy cream pitched on TV is the spelling of the words. Not a stem cell or stem cell derived compound in sight. But, alas, it claims to “activate” the stem cells that exist within your dermis. Now, the last part of that statement is true; stem cells can be found within the dermis of even the most senior citizen. The purported “actives” in this product are Phyko-Al-PF, Mitostime, and Seractin. The first two are by products of seaweed – a long chain sugar molecule and an algae extract. Seractin is who knows what. It is not listed on any chemical index or Material Safety and Data Sheet index.
    Some of the blogs on the internet about this product and company are troubling. Not only a lack of visible improvement in the skin of some users after several months, but also an alleged unwillingness for the company that sells it to discontinue shipping and billing additional product after the consumer informed them they no longer wanted it.
    I find nothing to make it worth considering, especially if one is truly interested in the “stem cell” aspect of it.

  3. Amber says:

    What is the relationship between wrinkles and stem cells if any? Thanks.

  4. drgeorge says:

    I suggest you start by reading our series on the skin. It covers anatomical and physiologic basics, how skin ages, and what can be done to affect that process. The first installment is posted as Skin 101. In the next few days, the other installments will post. If you have additional questions after that, please recontact BFT.

  5. ChicGeek says:

    Meristem culture has been successfully practiced for some time, but the purpose has always been plant propagation. The actual stem cells would be worthless. All other things aside, the value of the conditioned media should depend on the similarity of the cytokines of human stem cells that help with the regeneration of the skin…

    A great deal of the explanations about why various faddish wrinkle treatments are supposed to work smack of the Law of Signatures to me. For example, the leaves of liverwort are shaped like livers, so they must be good for the liver, etc. A very medieval sort of idea.

    • Christallin says:

      This reminds me of advice from the old book, “The Medically based No Nonsense Beauty Book.” I read this as a teen in the 70′s. They used a humorous analogy along the same lines saying that using collagen on the skin to grow new skin is akin to using a cream made of ground up legs and arms to regrow a lost limb. Gross but it made one get the point.

  6. Drgeorge says:

    Right you are, Plant stem cells are unique as they are totipotential, each can become an entire plant but only if acted upon and stimulated to do so. They are passengers along for the ride, not engineers driving the train – a major difference between plant stem cells and animal stem cells. If one looks at the arena of skin care, it is easy to find lots of examples of products that are touted to perform some miraculous transformation on human skin because of their purported usefulness or success in a totally unrelated realm. Examples in this posting about apples that don’t wrinkle and rot, flowers that can withstand the sun, are but two glaring examples. But the subterfuge comes from many more directions as you know. Sophisticated consumers know the difference; sadly, not enough of them around.

  7. Amy says:

    Most stem cells reside in a niche and while they do receive signaling from their niche, they also provide signals TO the niche and their surrounding stem cells. Really, my expertise in this field is the drosophila ovary so plants may be different but none of those literature references states otherwise. Why do you believe the plant stem cells don’t signal to other cells?

  8. Drgeorge says:

    The URLs below describes plant development including the embryogenesis and major stimulating pathways of growth of plants, which are quite distinctly different from animals. the apical and root meristems where plant stem cells abide are tiny miniscule structures fixed in place that respond to auxins and cytokinins (not to be confused with cytokines) transported from other plant tissues to them. I would not go so far as to say there are no communications locally within a meristem, that seems plausible and is even entertained as a very localized phenomenon by some. But when compared to the animal kingdom, plants are exceedingly simple structures with very limited number of distinct cell types. In the human there are at least 210 distince cell types and only the red corpuscle lack cytokine receptors. All other cells either “speak” or “listen”, or both,to the “lingua cytokina”. To postulate that miniscule clusters of a few cells from a purportedly rare Swiss apple tree, or any other plant, are going to make the cells within anyone’s skin stand up and take notice has no scientific plausibility and no supportive evidence. I am willing to learn if you can direct me to a respected scientific resouce that confirms extracts of plant derived stem cells have the ability to directly influence the behavior of mammalian skin cells through a receptor based signaling mechansim. Antioxidant activity does not count. Many parts of plants have that.

    Let me pose a question within your special interest: Do you expect that the same Swiss apple stem cell extract will influence behavior of cells within the drosphila ovary? If so, how?

  9. Amy says:

    So I did a little more research into this subject. I would like to repeat again that I am far from an expert in plant biology but molecular biology is not foreign to me.

    The fact that there are only a few stem cells in a given location (~35 cells per any given shoot apical meristem) is not a problem with modern tissue culture techniques. Once isolated, it is relatively easy to grow and culture stem cells indefinitely so it wouldn’t matter if this apple is “rare.” You would only need a small portion of one tree and have years worth of supply.

    Here is a specific example where a lab was able to isolate and culture stem cells from plant vascular stem cells from T. cuspidata, ginseng (Panax ginseng), ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) and tomato (Solanum lycopersicon) (1). Not only were they able to isolate and culture these plant stem cells but they were able to produce these cells in mass quantity and collect “drug like” molecules from the cells. Culturing T. cuspidata allowed them to collect paclitaxel (a key anti-cancer drug, Taxol), taxamairin A and taxamairin C, which have also been shown to possess antitumor activities and culturing P. ginseng gave them large quantities of ginsenosides which have been reported to show multiple bioactivities including neuroprotection, antioxidative effects and the modulation of angiogenesis.

    These are just a few examples of plant stem cells manufacturing molecules that affect human cells. Granted, there was no mention of skin cells, but to make a blanket conclusion that plant stem cells are for plants and we humans are too different to have our cells even recognize anything produced by these plant cells is, I think, incorrect.

    Now as to my option if plant stem cells would influence a mammalian stem cell niche, I can not say. Gene expression analysis has been performed on plant stem cells and they are surprisingly similar to human stem cells in which genes they choose to express (such as DNA repair genes) (2). I would have to comb through the gene expression profile of plant stem cells to make a hypothesis if these cells would/could affect human skin cells. However, I would also like to point out salicylic acid. This is a plant hormone that has very obvious affects on human skin. Just because it is a plant hormone, it doesn’t mean human cells are not affected by it.

    But I’m not sold on plant stem cells either. I was able to find what I think is the bulk of “scientific studies” done for apple stem cells and the skin (3), This is just one paper from SOFW (which does not look to be peer-reviewed). Their protocol for isolation and growth of the apple “stem cells” is unclear and vague. Also, they provide no evidence to support that the were able to collect actual stem cells. No traditional stem cell identification assays were performed to confirm that they really had isolated and cultured stem cells instead of any other kind of differentiated cell. To their credit, they did do a clinical trial over 4 weeks with 20 subjects and “measured” the difference in the crow’s feet area. Unfortunately they did not describe how they quantified this, so the numbers are a little dubious. The rest of the “science” might be impressive but since they gave no methods on what exactly they did (which genes, primer, etc.) it is hard to get too excited about that either. Another concern of mine would be safety. If these stem cells really are able to increase proliferation, like they say they did to umbilical cord blood, is it really safe to be using unregulated?

    1- Lee, E.K., Jin, Y.W., Park, J.H., Yoo, Y.M., Hong, S.M., Amir, R., Yan, Z., Kwon, E., Elfick, A., Tomlinson, S., et al. Cultured cambial meristematic cells as a source of plant natural products. Nat Biotechnol 28, 1213-1217.

    2- Yadav, R.K., Girke, T., Pasala, S., Xie, M., and Reddy, G.V. (2009). Gene expression map of the Arabidopsis shoot apical meristem stem cell niche. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 106, 4941-4946.


  10. Drgeorge says:

    Hi, Amy. Thanks for your in-depth response. A couple points. Plant derived substances have long been used in medical applications. Folk medicine and oreintal herbal medicine have been around millenia before Big Pharma got in the picture. And yes, drugs can come from unlikely sources e.g Gila Monster saliva being the unlikely source of discovery of a recent diabetes medication. Plants, animals, fungi, molds and other microorganisms have yielded beneficial compounds that then are manufactured in scale up models that may include genetic transfection to bacteria to do the production. No cows or pigs need donate their pancreata when vats of e coli can make human insulin, amino acid by amino acid. The question is plant stems cells as the source for compounds to impact skin behavior. In recent conversation with a lecturer concerning how the stem cells of the “rare” Swiss tree are obtained, the answer was that branches of the tree are abraded to create wounds which then form callus from which the product is produced. No stem cells there.

    I am open to new knowledge but continue to doubt the validity of the science that postulates macerating and pulverizing such plant parts will yield a signaling compound to promote skin rejuvenation on a receptor model of the sort that human cytokines function. It seems there should be a direct line between claims of cellular responses of the sort used in marketing materials and scientific explanation within respected academic journals.

  11. Liz says:

    Hi, I just stumbled onto your blog while researching more about a eye cream I bought from Eclos, a company that makes skincare products from the stem cells of this Swiss apple tree. Alone the way of surfing, I also read that the south Koreans have already incorporated human stem cells into their skin care as well as using nanotechnology for a better delivery system to the skin surface. Some of the high end brands are O HUI and Cellure. What do you think about the effectiveness of these human stem cell bases skin care?

  12. Drgeorge says:

    Liz, by now you know our opinion on botanical stem cells in human skin care – total nonsense. We are, however, great fans of human stem cells and are familiar with the Korean work. For our own product, we utilize the stem cell line now proved to be in command and control of healing wherever injury occurs in the body, bone marrow derived stem cells. They share identifying surface markers with the adipose stem cells the Koreans favor, but perform much different functions in life. Adipose derived stem cells have a propensity to differentiate into fat cells and produce pro-inflammatory cytokine patterns in culture. Bone marrow derived cells produce anti-inflammatory cytokines and orchestrate healilng and repair. We are concerned adipose derived cytokines may lead to chronic inflammation which is now known to be pro-aging. I highly recommend you read the cytokine series written by Drjohn on BFT. A lot of your question will be answered.

  13. tosca says:

    Finally, an excellent article on this whole plant stem cell business. Thanks for the effort put into this article. it is crystal clear!

    • Dr. Joy says:

      Dr George’s quick response to Amy and nearly instant dismissal of botanical stem cell use in human skin care as “total nonsense” leads me to believe George doesn’t hold a scientific mind.

      • drjohn says:

        Did you bother to read Dr. George’s scholarly and highly scientific post that carefully builds the case against botanical stem cells? And dismissing his arguments without offering a shred of evidence or at least some reasoned logic based in science doesn’t score you any debate points. I would have to award this one to Dr. George.

  14. Drgeorge says:

    Lumavera claims “Advanced Stem Cell Technology”. BFT says prove it.

    At a recent trade show in Miami, BFT visited the Lumavera booth and was profoundly underwhelmed by the lack of scientific knowledge on the part of the personnel pitching their products. After all, according to their literature, the name Lumavera means literally “the light of truth” (from Latin: lumen = light; veritas = truth.) Such an enticing and promising name and yet so little “light” or “truth” at the booth. BFT would settle for either.

    In BFT’s humble opinion, it’s the same ol’ smoke and mirrors used to confuse and seduce the consumer into buying a technology that makes no sense. Because the ” remarkable Argan tree adapted to rough, dry conditions of southwestern Morocco”, the unwary are asked to believe the Agran tree stem cells can “restore vitality in soft tissues assaulted by time and the elements”. Can you say anthropomorphism? How and why should the attributes of the Agran tree, which admittedly evolved according to Dawwinistic influences to survive in a pretty rough climate, be of particular benefit in enabling human skin to do the same? Oh, forgot the important part… this evidently requires a “sophisticated blend of Argan Tree Stem Cells…”

    To some, the scientific non-sequitor won’t matter because those magic words are used – “stem cells” Our opinion is save your money. Readers can find multiple cautionary postings on BFT: the translation of botantical attributes necessary for a particular plant to survive and thrive in a particular climate cannot be passively imbued into whatever human tissue a concocted nostrum based on that plant is slathered. We are well aware of the antioxidant benefit provided by certain botanical products. We recommend readers of this comment read the entire parent post, as well as other posts about what stem cells can and cannot do.

  15. mia1986 says:

    i have a skin care product at home called minicell tomato stem extract from south korea, it is suppsed to clear the skin and shrink pores, So if the cell is a rider and not a train driver chances are that my product is useless and i need to do further research on what product will benefit me. am i right?

    • drjohn says:

      Lets say for the sake of argument that the progenitor cells of tomato plants bear some resemblance to stem cells. Would their chemical messengers be discernable to human skin cells or fibroblasts? Not likely. Why not just get your “stem cell extract” at Safeway for $.089 (Heinz makes a good stem cell extract). Ketchup can shrink pores – its a defensive response!

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