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Vampire facials sound like a totally modern sci-fi development, but people have thought that drinking or slathering on blood can heal and renew for millennia. Pliny the Elder, nearly 2,000 years ago, wrote, “[e]pileptic patients are in the habit of drinking the blood even of gladiators, draughts teeming with life.” Elizabeth Báthory, a noblewoman from early modern Hungary, was said to have murdered virgins and then bathed in their blood in order to retain her youth. (It’s worthwhile to note that King Louis XV and Marie Antoinette were also accused of bathing in their subjects’ blood.) In the stories, Báthory literally soaks up the youth of virgins via contact with their blood.
The tales of blood baths seem spurious to say the least, and apparently they’re not backed up by primary evidence. But the fact that people have been passing the stories along for centuries tells us something about how we think. Even now, we seem to really dig the idea of applying or consuming human cells for the purpose of absorbing beauty and health from them. Vampire facelifts and Dr. Barbara Sturm’s MC1 cream make use of plasma from one’s own blood — drawn and separated in-office — to supposedly renew skin. We think topically applied and ingested blood, bones, organs, and cells are magical sources of life force, health, and youth that somehow surpass the efficacy of less gory, more common ingredients.
Ingredients associated with conception, birth, and nursing seem to particularly excite us. Semen facials — inadvisable and groan-worthy — seem to make the rounds again when clicks are needed. In Korea, the brand Isa Knox uses recombinant human placenta protein (rHPP-8TM) in the Te’rvina line, supplied by the CHA Placenta Institute (part of the CHA Global Medical Network that includes a university medical school and institutes for stem cell and cosmetics research).
The idea of human ingredients is so seductive that people pay extra for them even when they’re not actually in the products. A Korean beauty product nicknamed “mother’s milk,” Eureque Muru Mor Cream, contains no human milk, just baby powder fragrance and animal milk extracts that are supposed to be similar to human breast milk. If you’re looking for the real deal, check out Mud Facial Bar, which offers an ethically sourced, $10 breast milk add-on for its facials.
In the case of human stem cell skincare, companies have slapped a veneer of science on our old magical beliefs to ratchet up prices and expectations. Stem cells — here I’m talking about pluripotent human stem cells — can be manipulated to become any cell type in the human body under the right conditions and divide “essentially without limit to replenish other cells as long as the person or animal is still alive” according to the National Institutes of Health.
The twist is that stem cell skincare brands such as Lifeline Skin Care don’t actually use whole, live human stem cells in their products. “An actual stem cell would need to be kept alive in a skin cream, and that would certainly be challenging to accomplish,” according to cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos. Lifeline’s parent company, International Stem Cell Corporation, extracts human growth factors from stem cells by stimulating unfertilized eggs. It’s the growth factors — which stimulate cell growth, differentiation, healing, and proliferation — that end up bottled, not the whole stem cells.
I asked Stephen Alain Ko, cosmetic chemist and blogger at kindofstephen, whether applying growth factors to skin makes sense. He wrote via email, “[t]here really isn't any concrete, unbiased research to support” the use of epidermal growth factors (EGF) “on healthy human skin, and there is also a concern that EGF can also be involved in certain cancer growth as well.” Ko noted that Oprah-recommended SkinMedica’s TNS Essential Serum ($281 for one ounce) faces a California class action lawsuit claiming the company failed to disclose cancer risks associated with applying human growth factors to skin.
When asked about Skinmedica’s TNS Essential Serum, Dobos wrote, “[a]t $281 for one ounce and questionable science backing the ingredient claims, I would opt for a less expensive skin care product.” Skincare companies don’t need to make extravagant claims about the power of stem cell-derived ingredients, or even use whole human stem cells in their products; simply mentioning “stem cell” taps into long-held beliefs about the power of wearing and consuming human cells — and our wallets.