Growth factors. If you’re a science nerd, this category of skincare ingredients is one of the most fascinating in terms of the science and possibilities for skin rejuvenation. But like most science heavy topics, growth factors have also been plagued by misinformation. We’re diving into this topic head first and sort through what’s fact and fiction.
What is a Growth Factor?
Growth factors are chemical messengers secreted by our cells to regulate one or more growth-related cell processes: making new cells, healing damaged ones, and/or deciding what kind of cell it’s going to be.
Instead of thinking of them as a specific ingredient, think of “growth factor” as a description of what they can do.
Growth factors are grouped as such according to their function and can be steroid hormones, glycoproteins, neurotransmitters, cytokines, and even small molecules like nitric oxide or reactive oxygen species. All that matters is whether the molecule behaves like a growth factor.
Essentially, growth factors are able to interact with cells and get them to carry out tasks. Growth factors tell cells what to do and when - provided it relates to one of those three growth-related cell processes.
How Do Growth Factors Work?
Growth factors are found throughout your body, and many of your cells have special “growth factor receptors”: doors that only the corresponding growth factor can open. Once that door is open, the growth factor activates a cascade of activity in the cell, which eventually leads to increased synthesis of certain proteins as well as DNA.
Growth factors are also team players. Imagine, if you will, a soccer game.. All the players on the soccer team have the same ultimate purpose: to score goals and win. But each player has a different specialized position, and they all need to work together to achieve their mission. The goalie is just as important as any other player but they can’t win the game on their own; they need every other player working in unison..
Growth factors are like those soccer players, they must work together. Each growth factor is precision engineered by evolution to target one particular cell type.. As a result, they have to work with other growth factors in order to cause cell proliferation (division and growth of new cells) or any of the many growth-related processes like the wound healing cascade.
They are also grouped into different families depending on their function, structure, and what cells they interact with.
A Deeper Look: for the science & skincare nerds
Growth factors are biologically active molecules and primarily interact with cells through surface receptors found in their cell membrane. This process is called signal transduction and causes the cell to transmit a growth signal, telling the cell to produce new genes. These signaling pathways are involved in essential growth processes like cell proliferation, differentiation, and migration.
Growth Related Cell Processes
- Cell Proliferation: the process of a cell growing and dividing into two new daughter cells to increase the number of cells
- Cell Differentiation: the process of stem cells maturing into more specialized cells (keratinocytes, melanocytes)
- Cell Migration: the movement of new cells to where they’re needed (i.e. during repair when cells migrate to replace damaged cells)
Almost every cell in the body can secrete growth factors but in the skin, they’re mainly secreted by skin cells called keratinocytes, as well as fibroblasts, platelets, and macrophages.
There are many different growth factor families, but two of the main ones found in the skin are: 1) Epidermal Growth Factors (EGF) which help maintain and protect the skin in the epidermis, and 2) Fibroblasts Growth Factors (FGF) which act on the fibroblasts to produce new collagen and elastin in the dermis.
Since EGF works in the epidermis (the uppermost layer of your skin), its main benefits align with the whole purpose of the epidermis: strengthening the skin barrier to keep your insides in and the outsides out. FGF, which functions deeper in the skin, helps build out the “scaffolding”: the matrix of collagen and elastin that keeps your skin firm, bouncy, and youthful.
How Do We Use Growth Factors in Skincare?
“All that science is interesting,” you may (hopefully) be thinking. “But do they actually work in skincare?”
It’s a great question. After all, many of us remember the days when collagen was the star ingredient in many anti-aging night creams. While it’s a great hydrating ingredient in its own right, it can’t increase the skin’s own collagen or elastin. We can’t take the name of an ingredient at face value; we have to look at the evidence and see whether it actually works when applied to the skin.
Like with many of the ingredients in skincare, the research started in the medical field. Whether patients come in with wounds or they’re healing after surgery, interventions that improve the healing process are invaluable. Doctors have found that growth factors improve wound healing outcomes and use them in a number of ways, from injecting them into injured joints to applying them directly to wound dressings. It wasn’t long before growth factors began to be used in aesthetic treatments like lasers before finally making it into skincare.
Cosmetic Applications for Growth Factors:
- Fine and wrinkles
- Skin appearance
- Sun damage
- Skin irritation
- Barrier repair
- Skin texture
Why Don’t We Put Growth Factors in Everything?
The downsides of growth factors mainly has to do with the difficulty of formulating them into effective products. Not all growth factors are stable and in order for them to be effective, they need to get to where they’ll be most helpful. For example, if we want to increase the collagen in our skin, we need to get ingredients down to the fibroblasts that produce collagen. This presents a tricky challenge to cosmetic formulators, and informs everything from the vehicle formula to the packaging to the shelf life.
Plus, as is the case with most of the really effective skincare ingredients: growth factors are just plain expensive.
Growth Factors in Your Skincare
Stem Cell Conditioned Media. Despite the name, this product does not contain any stem cells. Using a growth medium, biotech companies culture stem cells or fibroblasts to essentially mimic what occurs in our bodies when cells secrete growth factors. They discard the cells and you’re left with what I call “growth factor soup.” The conditioned media contains a wide array of growth factors, just like you’d find in our skin.
INCI Names: Human Stem Cell Conditioned Media, Human Fibroblast Conditioned Media
Synthetic Growth Factors. Individual growth factors can also be synthesized in a lab, usually by bacterial fermentation. This allows brands to select which specific growth factors they would like to use and they don’t have the high costs associated with stem cell conditioned media (SCCM) since you don’t need to obtain stem cells from donors. Synthetic growth factors are often more stable in cosmetics.
INCI Names: Sh-Oligopeptide-1, Rh-oligopeptide-1, Sh-Oligopeptide-11, and more
Both stem cell conditioned media and synthetic growth factors have their pros and cons. SCCM requires healthy donors for the stem cells, leading to a higher price alongside being more unstable in cosmetics. Because they’re so concentrated, they can be a great option for use with aesthetic treatments like lasers and microneedling. Synthetic growth factors can be a better option for daily use but you’ll want to look for them in formulations with multiple growth factors and peptides as well as a delivery system.
Stratia’s Next Level Growth Factor
If you’re familiar with our Interface peptide cream, you may be wondering if you need both growth factors and peptides – or are they the same thing?
It’s like how all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. Most growth factors are peptides, but not all peptides are growth factors. In fact, the vast majority of peptides aren’t growth factors; those are just a tiny special subset of the peptide family.
The signaling peptides we use in Interface are fragments from larger proteins that have biological effects. Signaling peptides are the perfect complement to growth factor formulas as a result as while the research is newer, they can more easily get into the skin and work alongside the more traditional growth factors.
Interface combines signaling peptides with synthetic growth factors aFGF, bFGF, EGF-1, IGF-1, and VEGF to provide the array of growth factors we discussed at the start of the blog.
- EGF-1, or Epidermal Growth Factor: stimulates growth of skin cells in the epidermis to strengthen the skin
- IGF-1, or Insulin-Like Growth Factor: promotes cell proliferation and wound healing
- Acidic-FGF and Basic-FGF: the two Fibroblast Growth Factors which stimulate the growth of fibroblasts, the organelles responsible for creating collagen and elastin
- VEGF, or Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor: promotes the growth of capillaries to bring nutrients to the dermis
This “team” of growth factors provides skin rejuvenation from every angle and is paired with our intelligent delivery system that uses a carrier peptide to get our ingredients where they’ll best work.
Product Tip: remember how we discussed how many molecules behave like growth factors? The DMAE in our Rewind serum is a precursor for acetylcholine, a molecule that also regulates cell processes like cell proliferation in our skin. Rewind is a great pairing underneath our Interface.