There are so many effective skincare ingredients out there. You’ve probably heard of retinol, retinoids, collagen, niacinamide, vitamin C… I mean, the list goes on and on. But have you heard of peptides? They’ve been gaining buzz in recent years, and it seems that more and more products are enriched with the ingredient. And if you’re not quite sure what they are, just know that they have skincare benefits that will really make you sit up and listen.
“A peptide is an amino acid that is naturally found in the body,” explains Ife Rodney, MD, FAAD, of Eternal Dermatology and Aesthetics. “Peptides act as a precursor (or signaling agents) for certain proteins in our bodies and activate thousands of biological functions, like promoting memory; DNA repair; gut health; attacking free radicals; sexual function; hair, skin, and nail health; and much more. Over time, scientists have been able to isolate certain synthetic and plant peptides for use in medicine and cosmetics. The objective is to stimulate certain cells to increase protein production in key problem areas.”
And Tiffany Libby, MD, FAAD, Reserveage’s resident dermatologist, adds that peptides are essentially the building blocks of proteins, like collagen, elastin, and keratin. You’ve probably heard of all three of those when it comes to healthy hair, skin, and nails.
Libby says there are several types of peptides used in skincare. “When applied topically, the peptides act as little messengers and instruct skin cells to perform various functions and effects on the skin, from building collagen and elastin to reducing inflammation and maintaining hydration,” she says. They can improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and they also act as a humectant to bind and hold on to water.
These are the most common peptides you’ll find in skincare:
Signal peptides: “Signaling peptides work to stimulate new collagen and elastin production,” Libby explains.
Enzyme-inhibiting peptides: These block the enzymes that break down or degrade elastin production.
Carrier peptides: “They deliver minerals to the skin that are essential for specific enzymatic processes like cross-linking collagen and wound healing,” Libby adds.
Neurotransmitter-inhibiting peptides: Libby explains that these work similarly to neurotoxins, like Botox, but with lower efficacy to reduce wrinkle formation.
And while all of this sounds really good, it’s important to note that we’re still learning more about peptides. “We should note that the research on the impact of peptides on the skin is still in its infant stages,” Rodney explains. “Peptides are great at penetrating the skin since the molecules are so small, but the long-term benefits to our skin have not yet been confirmed. Most of the feedback on peptides is mainly anecdotal.”
If you want to incorporate peptides into your skincare routine, you can start with a serum. “Peptides work well in products that stay on your skin for extended periods, and serums are one of them,” Rodney says. “Serums are usually lightweight applicators with high concentrations of active ingredients found in most skincare products. They absorb well and are best used after cleansing. As the name implies, peptide serums contain one or more peptides that will send high concentrations through your skin.” You can use peptides on all skin types, Rodney adds, because they’re naturally found in our bodies.
When choosing a serum, Libby recommends keeping your specific skincare needs in mind. “If you tend to have drier or more sensitive skin, stick to moisturizing formulas that calm and soothe and contain ingredients like hyaluronic acid, glycerin, ceramides, and niacinamide,” she says. “Peptide is a term that can be used widely in skincare, but it’s important to recognize that there are some peptides that are more well-studied than others and have human clinical studies to back them.”
And Rodney recommends looking for a product with as many natural ingredients as possible that has peptides or polypeptides as the main ingredient. “Peptides work well with other products like hyaluronic acid or retinoids, so your product can include these ingredients. Note that products with peptides are some of the more expensive on the market,” she says.
Take a look at some serum options below.
Since peptides also bind and lock in moisture, they also make for a good ingredient in a moisturizer. Rodney says they provide a collagen boost, and since they’re humectants, they work well for dry, oily, and combination skin types.
“A peptide cream … infuses high concentrations of peptides into your skin over a period of time,” Libby explains. “I would recommend a cream-based formula for those looking for more hydration and moisturization for their skin, as well as those looking to improve visible signs of aging like fine lines and wrinkles, discolorations, and loss of elasticity and firmness.”
When shopping for a peptide cream, look closely at the ingredient list and do your research on brands and specific products. “Although peptides help with anti-aging, I want my cream to not stray from its primary function, which is to keep my skin moisturized and lock in moisture. (Peptides do help in this area too.) You can look for peptides or polypeptides on the ingredient list, along with glycerin, hyaluronic acid, and other humectants,” Rodney says.
Here are some peptide cream options below.