When it comes to achievable beauty, there’s no market as saturated with products as skin care. Soft, supple, even-toned skin is the goal — and dozens of new products drop every month aimed to help us get there. Yet only a handful deliver science-backed results dermatologists stand behind, like a tried and true retinol, hyaluronic acid or vitamin C treatment.
There’s new science about a buzzy treatment serum known as “growth factor,” and dermatologists are optimistic about its power to make skin look younger, firmer and more elastic. Ahead, three celebrity, board-certified dermatologists explain the science behind growth factors, and why they’re so excited about the results generated from this youth-boosting skin care treatment.
What is ‘growth factor’ anyway?
Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Robyn Gmyrek, the medical adviser for Delavie Sciences and the lead instructor for cosmetic dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center, said it’s best to think of growth factors as proteins. “Growth factors are regulatory proteins that work as chemical messengers that travel between cells and direct them to turn on or off specific cellular activities such as cell growth. They can cause the cells to produce new collagen, suppress the enzymes that breakdown collagen and decrease inflammation,” Gmyrek said, adding that the results of using them in skin care are “associated with reduced signs of skin aging, such as fine lines and wrinkles and improved skin texture.”
Dr. Dan Belkin, a board-certified dermatologist trained in Mohs micrographic surgery, laser surgery and cosmetic dermatology, said growth factors “have widely varied effects, but those used in skin care are often made by and influence fibroblasts, the cells in our dermis that produce the extracellular matrix that includes collagen and elastic fibers.”
Dr. Dendy Engelman, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at the Shafer Clinic, explained that, in the context of skin care, “Growth factors signal cells to increase collagen and elastin production and generate more skin cells, to strengthen the skin barrier, heal wounds and prevent and minimize signs of aging.”
Where is growth factor derived from?
Now for the controversial part: Growth factors can be extracted from human cell cultures, and/or bioengineered cells that are created to mimic human skin cells.
Gmyrek specified that they can come from “epidermal skin cells, human foreskin, placental cells, recombinant bacteria, snails, yeast and plants and they can also be produced biosynthetically.”
Any product on the market should specify the source of the growth factor, and most are either bioidentical human growth factors or derived from plants.
“Growth factor serums from reputable brands are completely safe in terms of any infectious potential,” Belkin said. “While the most effective are derived from human cell cultures, these lab-grown cultures are carefully kept sterile and disease free.”
How does growth factor work in skin care?
As our skin ages, it begins to show signs of deterioration. “Our bodies naturally decline in the production of collagen and elasticity as we age,” Engelman told HuffPost, “and in combination with exposure to skin stressors like free radicals, the skin will begin to show signs of aging in the form of lines and wrinkles, loss of elasticity and more as early as our 20s or 30s, depending on the individual. While there is no way to permanently increase internal collagen and elastin production, topical products and treatments can help supplement, or trigger the body to produce, what it needs to appear more youthful as we age.”
Growth factors, like their name implies, help skin cells generate collagen and elastin, encouraging skin to retain its supple texture, elasticity and firmness — an antidote to creping, droopy skin. When you get an in-office laser or microneedling treatment, what you’re doing is wounding the skin in order to trigger healing, and thus stimulate the production of collagen and elastin in the process. “Topical growth factors stimulate the same healing pathways without the wounding,” Gmyrek explained.
Gmyrek is enthusiastic about growth factors in skin care, but “not as a sole therapy modality.” She predicts they will be used more often along with other treatments, such as resurfacing lasers and microneedling.
“Right now, based on the studies available, the collagen production, increased elasticity and anti-wrinkle effects are good but still modest,” Gmyrek said. “However, I expect that as the formulations will be improved in terms of penetration, they will become routinely used to increase collagen and elasticity with lasers and other microneedling radiofrequency procedures.”
Here’s what to be cautious of.
Belkin is optimistic about the science behind growth factors in skin care (he favors those that are derived from human cell cultures over those derived from plants), but he urges patients to do their research before investing in any so-called fountain of youth products.
He warned that the Food and Drug Administration mostly considers skin care products as cosmetics and not drugs, so products’ claims are not regulated as closely. “Companies can make all kinds of claims on labels including ‘collagen-stimulating,’ ‘growth factors,’ ‘peptides’ and ‘dermatologist tested’ or ‘recommended’ with no prior FDA approval. Look to unbiased board-certified dermatologists or critically evaluate clinical data to help determine what’s bogus and what’s real,” Belkin added.
Gmyrek told HuffPost, “There are currently no standardized treatment, protocols or guidelines regarding the use or the production of topical growth factors for skin rejuvenation.”
Engelman said there have been concerns that growth factor could potentially trigger the development of skin cancer, but that more research and proof is needed. “At this time, there have been no studies supporting this hypothesis,” she said. “Studies do, however, show that epidermal growth factors have the ability to help strengthen the skin barrier and reduce the appearance of aging signs.”
Belkin echoed that sentiment: “There is some small amount of controversy among the dermatology community regarding whether growth factors could potentially cause too much growth of skin cells, like skin cancer. In my education and experience, I feel confident that they improve skin health, and I regularly recommend either growth factors or peptides for their anti-aging benefit.”
Growth factor serums you may see on the market.
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