Are 'Zombie Cells' Ageing Your Skin? Here's What To Know.

Zombie cells might be the next big thing in anti-ageing skin care concerns.
Illustration: HuffPost; Photos: Getty

The term “zombie cells” sounds scary, but everyone has them floating around in their bodies and on their skin. These complex cells can help us, harm us and make us look older. A bit conflicting, right?

Products that fight or even clear zombie cells have already hit the skin care market, promising to halt the aging process, but are they legitimate? We asked top dermatologists for their takes.

What are zombie cells?

Dr. Christine Ko, a board-certified dermatologist and professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine, explained to HuffPost that “zombie cells are another name for senescent cells.”

“These cells have stopped dividing, but are not dying off,” she added.

Dermatologist Dr. Michele Green noted that zombie cells are a normal part of the aging process and every cell in the body has the potential to turn into one.

When zombie cells form, they stop “performing their natural function,” said Dr. Mariano Busso, a board-certified dermatologist. In small numbers, zombie cells aren’t problematic. They may even have some benefits, including preventing cancer and healing wounds. However, as we age, our immune systems lose the ability to clear zombie cells, Busso said.

“When this happens, the benefits are lost,” explained board-certified dermatologist Dr. Kristina Collins. Moreover, as zombie cells accumulate they start to affect nearby, healthy cells by releasing “inflammatory chemicals that have toxic effects,” she added.

“It is clear that despite whatever evolutionary mechanism caused us to develop these cells, they cause more harm than good when they are not effectively cleared,” Collins explained. Ko pointed to studies that say this accumulation can contribute to diseases like arthritis and Alzheimer’s.

Because zombie cells can form throughout the body, they also accumulate on the skin. When this happens, zombie cells lead to signs of aging, including “poor wound healing, wrinkles, fine lines, inflammation and pigmentation,” Green said.

Can getting rid of zombie cells result in healthier skin?

Research has shown that when zombie cells accumulate on the skin, they result in a “less youthful” appearance, according to Ko. Clearing zombie cells from the skin seems like a logical step to prevent signs of aging, and dermatologists are optimistic about new treatments being developed.

However, we don’t yet know what those treatments will look like. Although animal studies have been successful, human studies are still underway. These therapies, called senotherapy, work in two ways, either “selectively killing” zombie cells or interfering with the negative effects of the inflammatory chemicals released by zombie cells, Busso explained.

In animals, senotherapy “boosts collagen production and makes the skin proliferate, things that can make the skin look younger,” Ko said.

Collins noted it’s a “very new area of study but one with great potential benefits.”

So what about over-the-counter products? Do they work to clear zombie cells?

Some companies, including Nescens and One Skin, have developed topical treatments called senolytics to try to combat the effects of zombie cells on the skin. According to Green, products that clear zombie cells from the skin typically contain polyphenols like fisetin and quercetin, which have been proved effective in clearing zombie cells in animal studies.

However, Green cautions that although these treatments show promise, there are currently no “human studies to confirm the safety and efficacy of the therapies.”

Busso also said we don’t yet know the long-term effects of these treatments on normal cells or what the long-term impact of killing zombie cells might be. Additionally, because zombie cells play an important role in wound healing, “We don’t want to remove all of them,” he said. “We don’t know the ideal regimen, daily versus weekly versus monthly.”

Hopefully, we won’t have to wait long for answers about the best way to get rid of zombie cells on the skin. “Major breakthroughs and contributions to delaying of the aging process are expected in the near future,” Busso said.

Can we limit the number of zombie cells that form on our skin?

Although it’s still unclear whether zombie cells can be safely and effectively cleared from the skin, it is possible to prevent some zombie cells from forming in the first place. Collins explained that zombie cells are formed as the result of both biological and environmental factors. “The internal factors, like aging or genetic disease, are not so much within our control,” but the external factors can be controlled, she said.

“Using sunscreen is a good idea,” Ko said. “Topical antioxidants like vitamin C can also keep skin healthy.” Collins added that using products with “ingredients that penetrate the skin well and have strong anti-oxidative properties” effectively stops some zombie cells from forming. She recommended looking for skin care products that include vitamin C, niacinamide, astaxanthin, galangal root, ginger root and vitamin E.