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As much as it’s an annoyingly vague term, growth factors are probably among the few skincare ingredients that aim to mimic your skin’s own way of renewal. Your skin, home of the growth factors, has inspired the beauty industry. And now we have growth factor creams and serums making some of the most expensive anti-aging products.
But what are growth factors anyway? Factors involved in growth? Growth of what exactly? More importantly, do growth factors actually work in skincare? Keep reading to find out.
What Are Growth Factors?
Growth factors are essentially proteins present in your skin (1). They are responsible for a variety of activities like skin cell growth, division, collagen production, and overall skin health maintenance.
There are different types of growth factors used in skincare. And each of them does something specific or is involved in a certain step.
Additionally, you’ll sometimes come across the term cytokines, which is another category of growth factors. In your skin, growth factors and cytokines work together to maintain the status quo, so to speak.
Growth Factors vs Peptides
Growth factors and peptides are two of the broadest topics in skincare. And because they resemble in structure, things get confusing. That’s why I wanted to clear the air. So here’s your roadmap.
There are these small molecules called amino acids. And a chain of amino acids forms peptides. A chain of peptides forms polypeptides. Polypeptides form proteins. And proteins form growth factors.
As you can see, growth factors are proteins but also polypeptides. But just because polypeptides form growth factors doesn’t mean that they are the same thing. That said, peptides, with their own subcategories, can stimulate the formation of growth factors.
List of Growth Factors Used in Skincare
Enough with the term growth factors, am I right? So what are some examples of actual growth factors used in skincare?
First of all, there are different types of growth factors. Their functions vary and they can have different, often confusing names when you look them up in your skincare products.
The most common types of growth factors used in skincare are epidermal growth factor (EGF), fibroblast growth factor (FGF-2), transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-b), and platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF) (2).
And in your skincare products, they’re usually listed as sh-oligopeptide followed by a number. ‘Sh’ is short for ‘synthetic human’ (3).
It refers to the fact that the growth factor is designed to mimic human growth factors. In your skincare products, an example of an epidermal growth factor is sh-oligopeptide-1.
How Do Growth Factors Work in Skincare?
Growth factors are most notable for their involvement in wound healing and skin rejuvenation. Because both of these things require a carefully orchestrated chain of events.
To illustrate with an example, after a skin injury like a small cut or a laser skin treatment, growth factors rise to the occasion and make sure that all helper cells are at the scene and the skin heals properly.
This is what happens behind the scenes when you’re young. But as we age, our skin’s response to skin aggressors slows down.
Growth factors become lazy and collagen production slows down. And that’s why our wounds heal slower as we age.
As growth factors are involved in processes like collagen production and skin repair, skincare products with growth factors can help improve the look of aging skin.
What Are Growth Factors Derived From?
Growth factors can be synthetically derived and naturally obtained (4). For example, they can be derived from actual human cells where they get a skin sample and engineer it under laboratory conditions to obtain growth factors.
This method is also called ‘human conditioned media’. Not everyone is happy with this. Another source for skincare is synthetic growth factors derived from bacteria or yeast. Before you pick sides, know that there are strings attached.
Human sourced growth factors, because they’re the closest to the actual thing, are said to be richer in the number of growth factors or proteins obtained. Therefore, they’re generally more effective.
What Are The Benefits of Growth Factors For Skin?
Growth factors are helpful in repairing damaged skin by stimulating its renewal. And that renewal requires the production of proteins like collagen.
Collagen is what keeps your skin smooth, healthy, intact, and strong. That’s why growth factors are touted to be amazing anti-aging ingredients.
We’ve mentioned that growth factors are important in wound healing. But remember that wrinkles or aging skin are different than wounded skin.
Aging has a lot to do with inflammation from external sources like sun exposure. So just because something heals wounds doesn’t necessarily mean it ‘heals’ wrinkles.
That being said, wound healing also requires reducing inflammation. And as wound healers, growth factors also help reduce inflammation, making them indirectly anti-aging too.
Do Growth Factors Work?
Growth factors work and this is documented. However, there are strings attached, which is probably why it’s best to stick with established brands.
There are concerns related to the efficiency of growth factor products. But there are also some workarounds. First of all, skin penetration is a common concern regarding growth factors (5).
Remember that growth factors are proteins, which are large molecules. So can growth factors penetrate the skin and work? Some say yes and some say no.
But because of these concerns, there have been some workarounds to make sure that growth factors penetrate the skin. For example, growth factor serums are the most popular serums used together with procedures like mesotherapy or micro-needling.
The idea is that with those tiny punctures from micro-needling, you can help growth factors penetrate better. Another workaround is encapsulation.
Just like encapsulated retinol, growth factors are encapsulated with a material, which is more likely to penetrate the skin. And after penetration, growth factors are released and get to work.
Are Growth Factors Safe?
Another concern is about the safety of growth factors. Here’s the backstory. If growth factors are so good at making new collagen and renewing the skin, what happens if things get out of control?
Remember that abnormal growth in your skin can be a bad thing. So using growth factors may have the potential to make things worse.
Unfortunately, there is no answer to this question yet. Other than that, growth factors are not irritating ingredients and are unlikely to sting, or burn.
In sum, growth factors help with aging and wrinkles by stimulating collagen, maintaining your skin’s health, and aiding in its repair. The only downside is that growth factors are generally expensive ingredients. That’s why we’re usually stuck with fancy, high-end options.
Read Next: The Best Growth Factor Serums
- Pamela R. D. (2018). Topical Growth Factors for the Treatment of Facial Photoaging: A Clinical Experience of Eight Cases. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 11(12), 28–29.
- Farage, M. A., Miller, K. W., & Maibach, H. I. (2009). Topical growth factors for skin rejuvenation [E-book]. In Textbook of Aging Skin (pp. 1079–1087). Springer Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-540-89656-2
- International Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary and Handbook. (2016). Personal Care Products Council.
- Draelos, Z. D. (2015). Cellular growth factors [E-book]. In Cosmetic Dermatology: Products and Procedures (2nd ed., pp. 302–308). Wiley-Blackwell. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118655566
- Eskens, O. and Amin, S. (2021), Challenges and effective routes for formulating and delivery of epidermal growth factors in skin care. Int J Cosmet Sci, 43: 123-130. https://doi.org/10.1111/ics.12685