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Need to Know: Growth Factors in Topical Skin Care

In the skin care sphere, bottling that next big breakthrough is always at the forefront of cosmetic chemists’ minds. So when researchers discovered that topically applied growth factors speed up wound healing, the anti-aging skin care sector took notice.

“This was a logical step for science and skin care because the biologic processes and pathways used in the body’s healing process are also the same biological processes that work to help regenerate, revive, and refresh aging skin,” says board-certified oculofacial plastic surgeon Dr. Chaneve Jeanniton at Brooklyn Face & Eye in Brooklyn, New York.

It makes sense: She reasons that mature skin experiences a form of damage, whether by lifestyle, genetics, or a combination of both, and growth factors’ ability to help build collagen and reduce inflammation during the healing process makes them ideal for addressing aging skin. As exciting as growth factors sound, they aren’t without a little controversy. Here, an exploration of their impact on topical skin care in the anti-aging realm. 

What Are Growth Factors?

As proteins in the human body, growth factors are skin’s greatest ally: They aid in increasing skin’s elasticity, firmness, and overall health. “They do this by their biological processes of communication between skin cells, such as fibroblasts and keratinocytes among others, to help the skin signal that it needs to ‘repair’ itself — essentially to stimulate new, healthy skin to grow, which is how you end up with a glowing complexion as well as less pronounced fine lines,” Dr. Jeanniton explains.

Of course, youth begets a greater amount of naturally occurring growth factors; on the flip side, age diminishes our growth factor surplus. However, when certain growth factors are added to skin care, they’re believed to replenish the skin’s own depleted levels of growth factors and activate the skin’s natural biological processes to help to restore collagen and elastin production, as well as facilitate overall skin repair. Put simply: “Topically, we’re looking at these products to help in reducing fine lines, wrinkles, and skin discoloration, as well as increase elasticity and firmness,” says Dr. Jeanniton.

Which Growth Factors Benefit Skin? 

Dr. Jeanniton is quick to point out that not all growth factors address skin’s healing process — that prime function mature skin vitally needs — so you’ll want to keep an eye out for the following growth factors when skin care sleuthing:

Epidermal growth factor (EGF)

A popular choice for topical skin care, this polypeptide signals epithelial cells for healing as well as activates hyaluronan synthase 2 to increase skin’s hyaluronic acid production.

Insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1)

This hormone fortifies skin structure by stimulating fibroblasts, which are responsible for the production of collagen and elastin.

Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF)

This signal protein facilitates skin repair by stimulating new blood vessel formation, which in turn helps bring more oxygen and nutrients to the skin. 

Fibroblast growth factor (FGF)

This stimulates fibroblasts in skin to make more fibroblasts — a proliferation and eventual regeneration of skin cells.

What to Know Before You Buy

Growth factor skin care can cost a pretty penny, so you’ll want to make sure your investment pays your skin back.

First, Dr. Jeanniton impresses upon the importance of checking the label. “Unfortunately there are products marketed as containing things they do not have, so make sure the ingredient list includes growth factors, which may be listed as being from either human fibroblast conditioned media or called rh oligopeptide 1,” she says, adding that the commonly known initials, such as EGF, might not be listed.

Second, seek out “clean” products: formulas that contain less “inactive” ingredients and focus on growth factors, which should be listed as one of the first ingredients on the label.

Finally, know the source. Human-derived growth factors, which can be harvested from fat, umbilical cords, or foreskin, deliver the most benefits, while non-human-derived (think: plant- or snail-derived) growth factors do not. “It’s largely accepted these sources don’t sufficiently stimulate the biochemical signals of human skin to regenerate and repair our skin cells,” says Dr. Jeanniton. Are these sources a complete wash for growth factor skin care? Not exactly — though she warns that further research is needed to prove their worth. “Non-human-derived growth factors may have other benefits for the skin but will likely not influence the same biological pathways that human-derived growth factors do,” she explains. 

Controversies Surrounding Growth Factors 

You should always have a healthy level of skepticism when science meets skin care. Dr. Jeanniton asserts that being critical of a product’s abilities and efficacy is always warranted. However, growth factors have attracted a few debates worth knowing before you add them to your vanity.

To start, worries over carcinogenesis have plagued growth factors from the get-go. “The concern arises out of the fact that some malignant cells (like cancers) in our body have receptors for certain growth factors,” explains Dr. Jeanniton. Because some growth factors may increase cellular proliferation, naysayers believe they could potentially aid in tumor formation or increase the chance of abnormal cellular growth. However, the link between growth factors and carcinogenesis remains to be scientifically proven. “There simply isn’t sufficient evidence to indicate that topical or injectable growth factors stimulate or inhibit cancer formation,” Dr. Jeanniton says. 

A second concern stems from the belief that topically applied growth factors are molecularly too large to penetrate deep into the skin where they’d create actual change. “That’s true to an extent and why in-office growth factor procedures are attractive — because penetration isn’t an issue,” says Dr. Jeanniton. However, don’t rule out topical creams and serums: She notes that circulating theories purport that growth factors may reach deeper levels of the skin through hair follicles and sweat glands, or even due to the fact that aging skin is more permeable because of wear and damage. 

As for the concerns over growth factor sourcing, misinformation abounds, but Dr. Jeanniton says that current sourcing doesn’t violate restrictions on stem cell or other embryonic biological research issues. In fact, you can be your own source: “Do an in-office procedure where you’re using growth factors derived from your own body. It’s a great option!” she says.

Photo: Green Art Photography

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