Stem Cell Facelifts – What's the Real Deal?

Reviewed by Felmont F. Eaves III, MD

One of the newest buzz terms to surface in plastic surgery is "stem cell facelift," and it's creating a lot of interest as well as confusion. In a nutshell, the procedure involves the harvesting and manipulation of adipose (fat) stem cells, which are then injected into key areas of the face to create a rejuvenated look. Major professional organizations in the field of cosmetic plastic surgery — the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS) and the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) — state that there is tremendous potential for use of stem cells in cosmetic surgery, but as of now there is not enough evidence to substantiate any of the current marketing claims.

What Is a Stem Cell Facelift?

stem cell

Simply put, the stem cell facelift isn't really a facelift — and it's not just about stem cells, either.

As we age, our tissues sag and we lose volume all over, but this loss is especially noticeable in the face. Traditional facelifts involve surgical incisions and the lifting of skin and connective tissues to smooth away loose and sagging skin. The procedure does a great job of repositioning tissues, but it doesn't replace volume. Fat grafting adds volume, but doesn't lift anything. That's why many, if not most, facelifts done today include fat grafting as part of the procedure.

Fat injections are not new. Doctors have been using them for years to rejuvenate other body parts, including the hands and neck and, more recently, for fat transfer breast augmentation. Fat adds volume — and while you may not want that extra fullness around your hips and thighs, you might need it in your face as it starts to lose volume due to aging.

So what's different about a stem cell facelift? In these procedures, physicians take the harvested fat and concentrate and/or manipulate the stem cells prior to injection. Once injected, advocates claim, the stem cells work magic. Proponents also insist that the risk of facelift complications is lower with the new procedure than with traditional facelift surgery.

Stem Cell Facelift: The Procedure

The first step in a stem cell facelift is the harvesting of the fat cells, which is accomplished through a gentle procedure similar to liposuction. The amount of fat removed from donor sites for a stem cell facelift is generally not enough to make much of a difference in the appearance of those areas.

After the fat cells are gently suctioned out of the donor sites on the body, the stem cells are processed using a special device or "activated" via drugs, chemicals, or lasers. It's important to note that the stem cells found in fat cells are not the embryonic stem cells we've heard so much about at the political level. Adult stem cells are the building blocks for all cells in the human body, including fat cells.

After processing, the stem cells are injected along with fat cells into the facial areas where fullness is desired. No devices for concentrating stem cells are currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration, nor is there sufficient clinical data regarding the safety and efficacy of these methods.

Stem Cell Facelift Cost and Risks

Stem cell facelifts cost between $5,500 and $15,000. This is significantly more expensive than fat grafting alone.

As with any surgery, there are risks associated with a stem cell facelift. They include lumps or bumps of injected fat, contour deformities at the donor site, and a general dissatisfaction with the aesthetic results.

Traditional Options

For those who are still wary of the promise of stem cell facelifts, other, more established facial rejuvenation procedures are available. Among the possibilities are soft tissue fillers like Sculptra and Juvederm, brow lift, lip augmentation and cheek augmentation. Consult with a board-certified plastic surgeon to learn more about your options. Start your search for a qualified surgeon now.

About the Reviewer of This Article

Felmont F. Eaves III, MD, is a plastic surgeon in Charlotte, NC, and an associate clinical professor at the University of North Carolina. He is a past president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS). Dr. Eaves is board certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery and is a member of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the Southeastern Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, and the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. After receiving his medical degree from the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center in Memphis, Dr. Eaves completed his general surgery residency at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas in 1992. He then relocated to Atlanta, where he completed his plastic surgery training in 1994. At that time he joined the faculty of Emory University School of Medicine and simultaneously undertook the first fellowship in minimally invasive and aesthetic plastic surgery. Dr. Eaves has received several awards from ASAPS, including the Sherrell J. Aston Award and the Lockwood Award, and he was twice a recipient of the Simon Fredricks Award.