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The Fountain of Stem Cell-Based Youth? Online Portrayals of Anti-Aging Stem Cell Technologies

Christen M. Rachul MA, Ivona Percec MD, PhD, Timothy Caulfield LLM, FRSC, FCAHS
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/asj/sju111 730-736 First published online: 28 April 2015


Background The hype surrounding stem cell science has created a market opportunity for the cosmetic industry. Cosmetic and anti-aging products and treatments that make claims regarding stem cell technology are increasingly popular, despite a lack of evidence for safety and efficacy of such products.

Objectives This study explores how stem cell–based products and services are portrayed to the public through online sources, in order to gain insight into the key messages available to consumers.

Methods A content analysis of 100 web pages was conducted to examine the portrayals of stem cell–based cosmetic and anti-aging products and treatments. A qualitative discourse analysis of one web page further examined how language contributes to the portrayals of these products and treatments to public audiences.

Results The majority of web pages portrayed stem cell–based products as ready for public use. Very few web pages substantiated claims with scientific evidence, and even fewer mentioned any risks or limitations associated with stem cell science. The discourse analysis revealed that the framing and use of metaphor obscures the certainty of the efficacy of and length of time for stem cell–based anti-aging technology to be publicly available.

Conclusions This study highlights the need to educate patients and the public on the current limits of stem cell applications in this context. In addition, generating scientific evidence for stem cell–based anti-aging and aesthetic applications is needed for optimizing benefits and minimizing adverse effects for the public. Having more evidence on efficacy and risks will help to protect patients who are eagerly seeking out these treatments.

There has been, and continues to be, a lot of excitement in both the scientific community and the popular press around the possibilities of stem cell science for treating countless human ailments.1,2 Indeed, it would appear that stem cells have become a symbol of hope in the public imagination.3 The phenomenon of stem cell hype, as it is sometimes called,4 has helped to create a marketing opportunity for industry, most notably the development of a direct-to-consumer market for unproven stem cell therapies for almost every known ailment and condition.5

The provision of cosmetic and anti-aging products with a connection to stem cells is a growing part of this marketing trend. Indeed, it is often stated by commentators within the cosmetic industry that stem cells are “the next big thing” in the realm of skin care and anti-aging.6,7 Given the size of the beauty industry—which is expected to reach $265 billion by 20178—and the high-profile nature of stem cell research, this is hardly surprising and can be viewed as part of a larger trend whereby the language of legitimately exciting areas of science, such as stem cell research, are leveraged by the market to sell products (a phenomenon that has been called “scienceploitation.”9)

The proliferation of cosmetic products and treatments that reportedly use stem cell technologies to address the signs of aging offers an opportunity to explore how the language of science is being used to lend credibility to less than credible claims. This study explores how these products and services are portrayed to the public through online sources.

State of Science

The ongoing reports about the therapeutic potential of both adult and embryonic stem cells10 has stimulated a great deal of scientific activity, intense media coverage, and speculation about the use of these cells for cosmetic applications. There is, no doubt, great potential. According to the ClinicalTrials.gov database, a web-based public resource of the US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, approximately 4700 international clinical trials using stem cells are currently being conducted or have been undertaken, over half of which are registered in the US.11 Unfortunately, the scientific validation of stem cell–based therapies has lagged behind the media attention and marketing due to the inherent complexity of the relevant biology.2,12,13 Indeed, most of the promotion of stem cell–based therapies for cosmetic indications has been based largely on anecdotal evidence and extrapolation of the proposed panacea of “stemness” to a multitude of stem cell and stem cell–based aesthetic and anti-aging therapies. These range from reasonable to ridiculous, most citing unsubstantiated claims and indications. Indeed, to date, there is no good clinical evidence to support the use of stem cells as an anti-wrinkle or anti-aging cosmetic procedure,14,15 though the potential is great.16 The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery/American Society of Plastic Surgeons Position Statement of Stem Cells and Fat Grafting strongly supported the need for clinically-proven, accurately-marketed, FDA-compliant stem cell–based aesthetic therapies conducted by surgeons certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery.17 More recently, Nayar et al queried board-certified plastic surgeons on their perceptions of stem cell–based aesthetic interventions and discovered severe ethical concerns relating to these therapies, including insufficient supporting clinical data, inappropriate direct-to-consumer advertising, dangerous stem cell tourism trends, and limited US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and professional society regulation of aesthetic stem cell therapies.18 McArdle et al further examined specific websites that advertise stem cell–based aesthetic interventions, including “stem cell therapies, treatment and facelifts” in relation to the FDA-approved stem cell–based indications and ongoing clinical trials with adipose stem cells.15 The authors found a distinct lack of clinical and basic science evidence to support the use of the stem cell–based, interventional aesthetic surgery procedures being advertised, typically direct to consumers, on the Internet. Together, these observations and others call for a deeper investigation into stem cell marketing practices to aesthetic consumers in order to protect and educate the consumer, advance research initiatives on stem cell–based aesthetic interventions, and institute evidence-based medicine approaches for stem cell–based therapies, as is the standard of care across other medical disciplines.


Building on the study by McArdle et al,15 we were interested in taking a consumer's perspective on the messages about stem cell–based anti-aging cosmetic products and procedures. We conducted a mixed-methods study that consisted of a quantitative content analysis of 100 web pages and a qualitative discourse analysis of one of the web pages from this sample.

For the quantitative content analysis, we collected a purposive sample of English-language websites from Google.ca on May 10 2014 using the following search strings: “(stem cell*) AND (anti-aging or cosmetics)” and “(stem cell anti aging product*)”. For each separate search string, we collected relevant web pages from the first 20 pages of results until we had collected a data set of 100 web pages (see Supplementary Materials for a list of the websites in the data set). We included web pages that mentioned stem cell technologies in relation to cosmetic products or procedures from online news sources, online magazines, cosmetic companies, and health and beauty websites and blogs, as well as websites from companies offering other stem cell–based anti-aging products such as supplements (see Table 1). The dates of publication of the web pages from these searches ranged from September 2010 to April 2014 and had no geographical restrictions: any web pages with dates older than May 2009 were excluded from the data set.

View this table:
Table 1.

Types of Websites in Data Set

Type of Website#%
Beauty/Health website2424.0%
Non-stem cell–based cosmetic company2020.0%
Online news source1818.0%
Stem cell–based cosmetic company1717.0%
Online magazine1515.0%
Beauty/Health blog44.0%
Stem cell supplement company22.0%

The web pages were coded for the source of stem cells, technology type (eg serum, facelift, etc.), whether the technology was portrayed as experimental or well-established, whether any risks or limitations were mentioned, mentions of policy or ethical issues related to the technology or stem cells, and how claims about the technology were substantiated.

To gain further insight into how messages about stem cell–based anti-aging technologies are portrayed to public audiences, we conducted a discourse analysis of one web page with a focus on the use of pronouns, tense, modality, and metaphor.19 Discourse analyses reveal how language performs social activities and identities and provides a lens into how language produces meaning in addition to the content of a text.20 We chose an article from the above data set from the Huffington Post,21 due to the popularity of the news source and its broad audience.22 The most recently-published article from the Huffington Post was chosen for its most current perspective on stem cell–based anti-aging technologies.


Content Analysis

Our sample of web pages provides a window into the messages and information that are available to consumers on the Internet. Our search showed that for consumers interested in anti-aging stem cell technologies, the most common option is products such as lotions and serums, which were mentioned in 78 of the 100 web pages analyzed. However, stem cell–based anti-aging technologies were also found in treatments such as facelifts (20 web pages) and supplements (2 web pages). Also, 5 web pages indicated that customers can store their own stem cells in biobanks for future use in combatting aging. In addition, 5 web pages included discussion of stem cell research specific to anti-aging, and 4 web pages included more general discussion of the role of stem cells in aging and anti-aging technology.

According to our sample, the most common source of stem cells used for anti-aging is from plants (39 web pages), but other sources of stem cells mentioned in anti-aging technologies included autologous stem cells, usually from a customer's own fat cells (17 articles), other sources of adult stem cells, usually from donors (5 web pages), and 1 web page even specified stem cells taken from sheep. Interestingly, 12 web pages included technologies that did not contain stem cells but reportedly are designed to stimulate or activate a customer's own stem cells. Fifteen web pages included discussion of multiple sources of stem cells included in anti-aging products, and 11 web pages did not specify the source of the stem cells discussed or advertised.

Despite the paucity of research that demonstrates the efficacy and safety of stem cells in reversing the signs of aging, the majority of web pages portrayed the technology as ready for public use (69 web pages), and 17 web pages portrayed technology as well established. Only 14 web pages represented stem cell–based anti-aging technology as experimental: of these, only 5 web pages provided a timeline for when these would be publicly available, and 2 of the web pages mentioned that while the product or treatment was still considered experimental, it was currently available to the public.

Only 45 of the web pages explained how the product or treatment is supposed to work. These descriptions ranged from quite detailed scientific explanations to short statements,23-30 such as the plant stem cells “stimulate your body's natural ability to replenish, amplify, and heal your skin” (see Table 2).31

View this table:
Table 2.

Examples of Language Used in Web Pages

“These cytokines are packed with vitamins and nutrients to nourish skin, and send signals to the body to slow down the signs of aging. After extraction, the stem cells go through an extensive process to isolate the cytokines.”20
“As the skin ages, the ability of our Stem Cells to function decreases. In order to solve this problem, PhytoCellTecTM re-encourages our skin Stem Cells to perform better, by using outer Stem Cells from a plant origin.”21
“We extract critical ‘messaging molecules’ (or proteins) from human, non-embryonic stem cells. These ‘messaging molecules’ instruct their neighboring cells to divide -- to create a proliferation of new skin cells.”22
“Plant Stem Cell formula enriches your skin with the epigenetic factors of these resilient plant cells, enabling your skin's own stem cells to self-renew while slowing down the aging process.”23
“Stemology is an all natural, intelligently organic wherever possible, skin care line that combines the very best of science and nature to address the most prevalent skin and aging concerns.”24
“The only creme with an actual clinical study”25
“But scientists have recently found a way to tap the healing and rejuvenating benefits of stem cells without all the ethical baggage: extract them from plants and fruits.”26
“This product has been rigorously tested for maximum efficacy.”27

Web pages were also coded for any mention of risks or limitations associated with anti-aging technologies that involve stem cells. Only 28 of the web pages indicated any risks or limitations, and none of these were included on web pages by companies who are advertising their stem cell–based products. For the web pages that mentioned any risks or limitations, the most common was that the technology lacked sufficient evidence for safety or efficacy (20 web pages; see Table 3).

View this table:
Table 3.

Risks and Limitations Mentioned in Web Pages

Risks or Limitation#%
Safety/efficacy unproven2020.0%
No different than other anti-aging products     7    7.0%
Scientific Implausibility     6    6.0%
Unregulated     5    5.0%
Negative side effects     4    4.0%
Short-term results     2    2.0%
Not suitable for people with certain conditions     2    2.0%

Only 8 of the webpages mentioned any policy or regulation, and mentions of these were typically in regards to lack of US FDA approval for a product or treatment. However, 24 of the webpages referenced ethical debates and controversies surrounding stem cells. These were typically statements that were designed to distance the relevant product from the controversy associated with embryonic stem cells by highlighting “ethical sources” of stem cells.

Finally, many of the web pages substantiated claims about the technologies represented using a variety of sources. While 26 of the web pages made no attempt to substantiate their claims, claims were most often substantiated through references to clinical trials or vague references to “scientific research” (31 web pages), among other types of sources (see Table 4). It is important to note that while some products and treatments provided results from clinical studies, the sample populations are often small and lengths of studies are short. For example: In the 2012 clinical study overseen by Dr. Stern, nine middle-aged men and women used the U Autologous cream twice a day on one side of the face. After 8 weeks, computer analysis revealed that the participants had 25% fewer facial wrinkles on that side and also produced more elastin and collagen.32

View this table:
Table 4.

Support for Claims About Stem Cell–Based Anti-Aging Technology

Claims Substantiated by …#%
Clinical studies or “scientific research”3131.0%
Medical professional (usually plastic surgeon)2323.0%
Representative of cosmetic company1313.0%
Author's personal experience55.0%
Cosmetic company researchers55.0%
Beauty expert33.0%
Magazine editor22.0%

Despite some differences between how different types of websites portray stem cell–based anti-aging technologies, most representations employ scientific language that provides the products and treatments with the appearance of having a legitimate evidence base for their claims (see Table 2).

Discourse Analysis

In addition to the content of the web pages in our sample, a qualitative discourse analysis provided further evidence for how the language in the web pages also contributes to portrayals of stem cell technologies used in cosmetic products and services, and may contribute to public perceptions of the efficacy of these products and services. The analysis of one web page21 revealed that language cues indicate how the aging “problem” is relevant to everyone, as well as the level of certainty in the solution to this problem.

The sample article used grammatical cues, such as its use of personal pronouns and modal auxiliaries, and cultural references and metaphors to draw readers into the problem of aging. Personal pronouns such as “we,” “our,” and “your” were used frequently in the article, and are inclusive of the reader. These pronouns position the author and readers as having shared feelings, beliefs, and knowledge, which also helps underscore aging as the readers' problem. Modal auxiliaries also help portray the reason for this aging problem as being highly probable. For example, in the sentence, “ it can be a dead giveaway when it comes to your age,”21 the use of “can” highlights for readers that their skin is very likely a “problem” for aging, especially when combined with the phrase “dead giveaway.”

The article also draws heavily on references to popular fairy tales and myths. For example, the article uses the metaphors of the “Fountain of Youth” and “‘Sleeping’ stem cells.” The reference to sleeping may allude to the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty, where the princess is called into action (ie wakes up) when acted upon (ie receives a kiss from Prince Charming), which results in a “happy ever after” ending. The reference to sleeping can also be viewed as a metaphor, and not a cultural reference, where sleeping indicates that something exists and holds power, and simply needs to be woken up to demonstrate this power. When viewed as sleeping in this way, skin stem cells are portrayed as a secret power to anti-aging, which all readers possess within themselves, and this power simply needs to be unharnessed.

In addition to constructing aging as everyone's problem, the solution to this problem is presented as certain by obscuring important factors such as the lack of scientific evidence for this solution and the length of time it takes for research to become publicly available. Grammatical cues such as the use of the present and present perfect tense help to construct statements of reality or fact in the sample article; for example, “researchers … say they have uncovered the secret.”21

Modal auxiliaries and adverbs also help obscure the certainty and temporality of the role of stem cells in anti-aging in the article. The use of modals highlights that the research will help fight aging, which is what appeals to readers and is also the point of the article, but purposefully hides or obscures any mention of how long it may be before the research is clinically available and how certain the clinical application of this research will apply to addressing aging. For example: “the research … could pave the way for development of better treatments to fight wrinkles,”21 or by understanding the mechanism better, it might be possible to find ways to combat the effects of aging on our skin.”21


Despite the state of stem cell science, where only a relatively small number of therapies have moved to clinical application, the cosmetic and beauty industry has borrowed the language of stem cell science to market unproven products and treatments as routine, effective, and risk-free ways to combat the signs of aging. The use of stem cell language to market mainstream products and services might be contributing to a normalization of the belief that stem cells are effective in addressing a wide range of conditions.

The content analysis begins to reveal the extent to which simply invoking the language of stem cell science appears to be sufficient for these sites to gain customers, and in many cases, no attempts have been made to explain the science behind claims or to provide credible scientific explanations. The frequent use of plant stem cells in products demonstrates that even concepts that are theoretically impossible, that is, plant cells interacting with human cells, provide the illusion of credible science. In cases where attempts to explain the science have been made, simply claiming that “scientists have discovered ” or “results from a clinical trial showed ” gives the impression that scientific evidence for a claim has been generated, without further explanation of the details of the research and results.

In addition to borrowing the language of stem cells to lend credibility to unproven products, the framing and use of metaphor might also contribute to the belief in the power of stem cells and the normalization of the use of stem cells. Cultural references and metaphors, such as references to the “Fountain of Youth” and claims that “sleeping” stem cells can highlight the power of our own stem cells, provide powerful explanatory frameworks,33 while other grammatical cues obscure the lack of certainty of these therapies and the time it may take for science to adequately explore the efficacy and safety of these theories and bring them to market.

There are several limitations to the study, mainly that it only examines English-language websites and is not an exhaustive list of the types of advertisements and discourse that the public might interact with on this topic, and an in-depth analysis of the language in a greater sample may reveal more insight into the messages available to public audiences on the Internet. However, given the popularity of, but also the possible risks and lack of efficacy of, cosmetic uses of stem cell technologies, the results of our study demonstrate a growing need for more attention to this area. This seems particularly relevant at this time. A recent series of animal studies that have highlighted the potential benefits of cells and systemic factors from young mice for improving a number of age-related pathologies in older mice, in part by restoring the function of aging stem cells, provided solid scientific evidence in favor of “rejuvenation factors.”34-36 While such data is preliminary and have yet to be confirmed in humans, the findings confirm long-standing assumptions on the benefits of stem cells in regenerative biology. As additional data begin to accumulate on the application of stem cells for therapeutic and cosmetic purposes, care must be used communicating this exciting work. Also, it seems increasingly important to invest in continued research in this area. Not only are there possible, as-yet-unknown risks associated with the use of stem cell technology in cosmetic products and services, the marketing of these products ahead of a solid evidence base might impact the legitimacy of the stem cell science field as it helps to normalize the idea that stem cell therapies are efficacious, risk-free, and ready for clinical application and public use. However, combating this misinformation in the context of the beauty industry will likely be particularly difficult as there are few sources of independent science and little government funding.

Arguably, the rise of stem cell hype—which has been bolstered by the cosmetic industry—has resulted in a loss of credibility in the biological significance of “stemness,” in conjunction with the extraordinary length of clinical trials on stem cell therapies for disease-based applications that failed to keep up with stem cell marketing and, in parallel, a lack of research funding for stem cell–based cosmetic therapies. Fortunately, as the relevant research moves forward, this decade-long gap between the phenomenon of stem cell hype and a lack of supporting scientific evidence show signs of narrowing somewhat. Still, the market continues its rapid expansion. Supporting scientific evidence for stem cell–based anti-aging and aesthetic applications is critical for optimizing benefits and minimizing adverse effects.


The language and hype surrounding stem cell science and its promises for understanding and treating disease have been appropriated by the cosmetic industry, as seen in the above content and discourse analysis of web pages. The interest in and market for stem cell–based anti-aging products and treatments is not likely to subside, and so further funding and research is required to ensure the safety and efficacy of the use of stem cells in this industry. The first step for this paradigm shift is educating patients, the public, and physicians about the relevant science and translation issues. We should also expand research efforts beyond disease-based therapies to elective anti-aging and aesthetic therapies to protect patients who are eagerly seeking out these treatments.


The authors declare no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and publication of this article.


The authors acknowledge funding from Canada's Stem Cell Network, part of the federally funded Networks of Centres of Excellence program (http://www.nce-rce.gc.ca/index_eng.asp), which supported background research and part of a Research Associates' salary. No other financial support was received for the research, authorship, and publication of this article.


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