You’ve probably heard about peptides and seen them listed as an ingredient in skincare products. You may know that peptides are a buzzed-about ingredient, and are supposed to be good for the skin, especially for anti-aging concerns. But what exactly is a peptide, what do they do, and how do they work? Are all peptides created equally, and should you add some into your skincare routine? Peptides may seem mysterious and confusing, but we’ll break it all down. Here’s a closer look at peptides, what they do and some of the best peptide-packed creams and serums.
What Are Peptides?
To put it into the simplest terms, peptides are made from short chains of amino acids, usually 2-50 amino acids in length. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, so you can think of peptides as little proteins.
Many of these peptides are naturally occurring in your skin. They make up proteins that are needed by the skin to synthesize collagen or other complex molecules.
Collagen is found all over the body, and in every human cell. Collagen is what keeps skin plump and firm and gives the skin structure– just picture the full cheek of a newborn baby. Collagen is also found in bones, tendons, cartilage, and ligaments. Think of it as the ‘glue’ that holds it all together.
Peptides are also the building blocks for elastin and keratin, which play a part in keeping skin looking smooth and supple. According to The Cleveland Clinic, collagen peptides make up about 75-80% of the dermis, which is the layer of skin below the epidermis. As we age, our bodies don’t produce as much collagen which can lead to wrinkles and sagging skin.
By some estimates, people lose 1% of their collagen after age 30. The sun, pollution, smoking, and a poor diet can also speed up collagen loss. Without peptides, the skin doesn’t look as firm and the texture may not look as smooth.
the good:Peptides can help in a variety of different ways from supporting hydration and collagen production to wound healing. The benefit of the peptides is largely dependednt on the type used.
the not so good:Peptides can cause some irritation.
Who is it for? All skin types except those that have an identified allergy to it.
Synergetic ingredients:Works well with most ingredients.
Keep an eye on:Keep an eye on new peptides coming on to the market.
What Do Peptides Do?
Some skincare experts describe the role of peptides as ‘air traffic controllers’- meaning they tell other cells what to do. Another way to think about peptides is that they act as messengers on a cellular level.
Different peptides have different roles and functions. This means that peptides send messages to the skin about everything from collagen and color to hydration levels and muscle control. Let’s say you have a cut on your thumb or an injury to a joint. Peptides help tell the body to zero in on that wounded area and repair it. While some peptides may help assist in wound healing and repair, others help boost hydration.
Certain peptides may have anti-inflammatory properties, while some, such as hexapeptides, have a muscle-relaxing effect which could help in temporarily minimizing the appearance of fine lines. Peptides may also help reduce the look of redness in the skin as well as help to fade the appearance of dark spots.
How Do Topical Peptides Work?
While our bodies naturally contain peptides in every cell, laboratory-created peptides can be found in skincare products including creams, serums, cleansers, and masks.
Peptide laced products are primarily used to address anti-aging concerns, such as softening the look of wrinkles and helping to hydrate the skin.
Lab-created peptides are meant to mimic naturally occurring ones, which send messages to the body about repair and hydration.
Many proteins or molecules in the body, like collagen are too big to pass through the skin, meaning that you can’t just apply collagen to the skin to help support elasticity. This is where peptides come in handy, as they are smaller molecules they are able to pass through the skin and pass on messages.
Peptides essentially tell the skin what to do. For example if you tell the skin you need more collagen then they body may respond by supporting production. Since collagen is what helps the skin look plump and firm, products that may help protect and encourage collagen levels could be a key part of any anti-aging skincare routine.
Some peptide-packed products may help boost hydration levels while others may tell a muscle to temporarily freeze, which could help soften the look of a wrinkle. Specific peptides could also help skin feel softer and smoother, while others are focused on collagen.
Are There Different Types of Peptides?
Yes. There are hundreds of types of peptides but the most commonly used peptides in skincare are often listed as argireline, matrixyl (palmitoyl pentapeptide), and dermaxyl as well as pentapeptides, palmitoyl oligopeptide, and copper peptides.
According to an article by Dr. Leslie S. Baumann in Dermatology News, the primary class of topical peptides are signal peptides, enzyme-inhibitor peptides, neurotransmitter-inhibitor peptides (or neuropeptides), and carrier peptides. Here’s what they do.
Carrier peptides help to promote fibroblast growth and may help to reduce the depth and length of wrinkles. They also function to help support wound healing and enzymatic processes in the body. It is marketed as matrixyl.
Enzyme-inhibitor peptides suppress enzymatic activity, directly or indirectly. Basically, they work by telling something not to do its job. For example, it might tell an enzyme not to degrade collagen. Some studies suggest some enzyme-inhibitor peptides may help slow down collagen loss and may help moisturize skin.
Neuropeptides help with skin inflammation. They are sometimes referred to as ‘nature’s Botox’ as they may help temporarily freeze a muscle, temporarily reducing the appearance of wrinkles. It is thought that it suppresses the release of neurotransmitters which help to ease facial tension.
What Are Peptides Made Of?
Laboratory-created peptides can be derived from yeast or oat kernels, as well as wheat, shellfish or eggs.
Are Peptides Vegan?
They can be, it depends on the type of peptide and source. It is always best to ensure that if you are looking for a vegan product to check the brand’s information on the source of the peptide.
What is a Copper Peptide?
Arguably the best-known peptide is copper peptide, and you may have seen it highlighted as an ingredient in anti-aging creams. What exactly is a copper peptide? In technical terms, it is a carrier peptide, which means it can help transport trace minerals that can assist in wound healing. It is also an antioxidant. Copper peptides are thought to help skin feel soft and smooth and help to minimize the appearance of fine lines.
It has been used in skincare and haircare since around 1990 although its historical use dates back much further. The use of copper for skin healing and cleansing dates back to the ancient Egyptians and the Aztecs who used it to sterilize wounds. It is also known as GHK-Cu and it combines copper with three amino acids, making it a tripeptide. Copper peptides are found naturally in the body in blood plasma, saliva, and urine.
Copper peptides are used in creams, serums, and gels as well as in shampoos and hair products designed for those with hair loss.
How Should Peptides Be Used?
When it comes to skincare and tackling the signs of aging, there is no such thing as a single magic bullet. Peptides are often one of many key ingredients in an anti-aging cocktail. They are often combined with hyaluronic acid, a moisturizing ingredient that can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water. Peptides are also often combined with retinol, a vitamin A derived ingredient that helps encourage cell turnover, vitamin C, which helps to brighten the appearance of skin, and niacinamide, a form of vitamin B. Some skincare professionals advise against combining peptides with products containing AHAs or alpha hydroxy acids as they may cancel out each other’s effectiveness of peptides.
Not all skincare products containing peptides are created the same. Some formulations are more stable than others. If you decide to add peptides to your routine, your best bet is to choose a product that will be on the face for a long time, such as a cream or lotion, rather than a face wash which is quickly rinsed off.
Are There Any Downsides to Peptides?
In general, products with peptides are tolerated by the skin as they are not known to cause irritation in a similar way that retinol can sometimes cause redness, irritation, and peeling – but it’s always a good idea to do a test patch first.
What is the Best Way to Get Peptides?
While peptides are found in creams, masks, face washes, and serums, many skincare experts advise choosing a serum. Why? Serums are highly concentrated and penetrate deeply into the skin. A cream product is another good option as the product sits on the face for a prolonged period of time, while a face wash is only on the skin temporarily.
Jeong S, Yoon S, Kim S, et al. Anti-Wrinkle Benefits of Peptides Complex Stimulating Skin Basement Membrane Proteins Expression. Int J Mol Sci. 2019;21(1):73. Published 2019 Dec 20.
Ganceviciene R, Liakou AI, Theodoridis A, Makrantonaki E, Zouboulis CC. Skin anti-aging strategies. Dermatoendocrinol. 2012;4(3):308-319.