Understanding Growth Factors

Can you clearly explain to your patients/clients what a growth factor is?  If you said no, don't feel bad; you're not the only one.  We currently have over 3300 licensed aestheticians in our private Facebook group, Aestheticians Connect, and skincare ingredients is a common topic.  

When it came to the topic of growth factors there were a lot of professionals, including myself, who needed some clarification and I knew just the person who could help.  Dr. Rahul Mehta is the Vice President of Research and Development for SkinMedica, an Allergan Company.  

If you're unfamiliar with the SkinMedica product line, they are a global skincare brand founded by Dr. Fitzpatrick and are known for making major scientific advancements when it comes to skincare.  In fact, SkinMedica was the first line on the market to develop a line that used Epidermal Growth Factors.  

Check out the interview with Dr. Mehta below. 

Here are some of the key takeaways from our interview.

What is the difference between a Growth Factor and a Stem Cell?

Growth factors are natural substances made by skin cells to maintain healthy skin. They are responsible for stimulating repair of damaged skin, making components that provide firmness and elasticity to the skin and help maintain skin’s protective functions. 
Adult stem cells are cells which maintain and repair the tissue in which they are found by creating new cells. Where you hear about stem cells in skincare products, its actually either an extract of stem cells or stem cell conditioned media, the solution in which stem cells grow in a laboratory. Stem cells can be obtained from human tissue or from plants. Plant stem cell extracts are very rich in antioxidants where as human stem cell extracts or conditioned media are a good source of growth factors.

Human Growth Factors and Plant Growth Factors are used in skincare.  Is one more effective than the other and what are they doing in the skin? 

Advances in biotechnology over the past decade has created multiple sources of growth factors. They can be derived from several different human cells grown in a laboratory (skin cells, bone marrow stem cells, fat stem cells), extracted from one’s own blood (PRP - platelet rich plasma) or from non-human sources such as snails and some plants. 
While all cells can produce growth factors, the composition of the growth factor blend they produce is likely to be ideal for the health of cells that produce them. For example, fat stem cells are likely be produce growth factors that help functioning of fat cells and bone marrow stem cells are likely to produce growth factors that help with functioning of bone marrow. 
Similar logic can be applied to growth factors or growth factor like substances derived from non-human sources. Therefore, to maintain optimal skin health, ideal growth factors would be produced by skin cells, called fibroblasts, whose main function is to produce the components necessary to maintain skin structure and function. 
There are no true plant-based growth factors. Most data on plant stem cells show that they have very potent antioxidant components, which are important in providing protection to the skin but are not likely to have effects similar to growth factors.

Any skin types or conditions that you would not recommend using growth factors on? 

I don’t know of any contra-indications for using topical growth factors based on skin types, however, growth factors should not be used on open wounds or any medical condition that compromises the skin barrier (such as eczema or psoriasis) or alters cellular proliferation (such as skin cancer). The products help most with photodamaged skin with increasing effects with increasing severity of photodamage.

Many have expressed concern with using growth factor products on patients with cancer or who have had cancer in the past. Has this been studied and if so, what were the findings?

Using any active products on patients with cancer or who have had cancer in the past in a complicated matter. We do not recommend using our products  on patients with cancer or any other pathological skin condition simply because there are no studies that can prove safety in such vulnerable populations. All of our products are designed for use on in-tact skin. 
With respect to products with growth factors, the concerns people have stem from a few studies in cell culture or animal models where extremely high doses of a single growth factor is implicated in carcinogenic transformations. 
However, there are three main reason we believe topically applied growth factor products are safe.
  • Topically applied growth factors have very limited skin penetration abilities and therefore the amount of growth factors in the skin after topical application is several thousand or million times less than the levels of growth factors studied in direct contact with cells.
  • All the pre-clinical studies are on conducted using a single growth factor. In nature, no growth factor acts singly. They work in a physiologically balanced way so if one growth factor takes over the biology, others get involved and balance the physiology, not allowing any single growth factor to take charge.
  • We have been actively monitoring adverse event reports for our products for the past 10+ years and have only seen mild skin reaction such as rash and breakout in less than 0.02% of the products used.

Where would you suggest aesthetic experts to go if they are wanting to do more reading and research on the topic?

I just co-authored a chapter with the late Dr. Fitzpatrick, on Cellular Growth Factors in a Wiley Blackwell published book titled “Cosmetic Dermatology, Products and Procedures”, edited by Dr. Zoe Draelos. Chapter 35 gives an overview of the growth factors and a review of published data on current products. 
Another review was published in April 2014 issue of the journal “Facial Plastic Surgery” by Drs. Sabrina Fabi and Hema Sundaram. It also provides an overview of growth factor use topically and via superficial injections. 
Google Scholar lists many article using the search term “growth factors as cosmeceuticals”

I hope this interview with Dr. Mehta helps to clarify growth factors for you!  It certainly did for me!  

Do you regularly recommend products with growth factors to your patients/clients?  If so, what are your favorites?  Let me know in the comments section below.