Peptides Are Taking Over Your Skin Care Routine

No, you’re not imagining it — they really are in everything.

Originally Published: 
peptides in skin care
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As an industry, beauty thrives on newness. So consider us surprised that the hottest ingredient in skin care right now is one that’s actually been around for decades. Peptides are literally everywhere you turn, popping up in every product category from some of beauty’s buzziest brands. The renewed interest in this restorative skin superstar has led to a deluge of new releases featuring the anti-aging, barrier-building ingredient.

But, as is typical of many classic ingredients that have earned their place in the beauty hall of fame, while many people have heard of peptides, they aren’t sure exactly what the ingredient is or how it works on the skin to achieve its many benefits. In fact, there are thousands of different types of peptides, each with its own unique function, so knowing your tripeptides from your hexapeptides can help you understand what type of results you’ll get with a specific product. Not to mention the continuing confusion between peptides and epidermal growth factors that seems to be sweeping the skin care community.

To help you better understand the role the buzzy ingredient plays in your skin care regimen, TZR went to the experts for a primer in all things peptides. Keep reading to learn what they are, what they do for your skin, and why they’re suddenly such a BFD in beauty… again.

What Are Peptides?

“Peptides are the fundamental building blocks of proteins, such as collagen, elastin, and keratin, and are made up of amino acids, with each playing a role in preserving skin’s texture and strength,” explains Deborah Kilgore, global director of skin care knowledge at Paula’s Choice. While your body naturally produces these vital substances, over time, says Kilgore, your protein levels will naturally decrease with age, leading to loss of firmness, wrinkles, and dehydration. Topical peptides can supplement that loss, working to boost protein levels and help skin essentially act younger. “Each peptide works in a lock and key fashion, connecting to receptors within skin to activate or unlock specific functions that encourage skin to be more youthful and firmer,” explains Kilgore. Adds Claudia Roseler, senior formulation manager at Dr. Brandt, “As you age or have been exposed to UV rays, much of the collagen and elastin fibers in your skin break down and become ‘loose.’ In order to strengthen these delicate areas of our skin again, we must re-introduce peptides that can help build and strengthen these areas for firmer-looking skin.”

How Do Peptides Work?

What makes peptides such a fascinating ingredient is how they work to essentially trick the skin into working smarter, not harder. In simple terms, “When they are applied topically, [peptides] basically remind skin to speed up production of the proteins that make up the peptides. This can help your skin appear smoother and less wrinkled,” explains celebrity esthetician Shani Darden. But peptides have evolved in recent years to have a variety of functionalities that go beyond their classic use. “Different peptides function in different ways,” says NYC-based dermatologist Dr. Dennis Gross. “Essentially, if you put signal peptides onto your skin, you’re tricking the body into thinking that your collagen and elastin are breaking down, and it will respond by pumping out extra collagen and elastin fibers. This was actually the first identified function of peptides — but now we know they work in many more ways. They work across different aspects of the skin cells to do different things like plump, firm, create more collagen and even repair sun and environmental damage.” According to Gross, there are even some peptides that can relax the skin cells so that they don’t have tense contractions, similar to the way Botox works. “There are peptides that reduce collagenases — the enzyme that breaks down collagen and causes thin skin — or reduce the overproduction of melanin, stimulate collagen production by working on the cell machinery that synthesizes collagen, or repair the moisture barrier,” he says.

The Different Types Of Peptides

Peptides fall into four different types of categories, explains Kilgore. There are signal peptides, which send messages to deeper layers of skin to perform specific actions that promote natural cellular repair. “Carrier peptides act as facilitators to transport important trace elements (such as copper and manganese) necessary for wound healing,” she says. Neurotransmitter-inhibiting peptides, explains Kilgore, penetrate skin and interrupt the communication between nerves and muscles, preventing lines and wrinkles from forming, while enzyme-inhibitors will inhibit the action of protein-digesting enzymes known as proteinases. “They can also inhibit enzymes such as tyrosinase, which stimulates or triggers skin darkening,” says Kilgore.

However, you won’t see peptides listed on labels as carriers or signals. Instead, you’ll often see peptides listed with a numerical prefix in front of them, like tri- or hexa-. According to Kilgore, that number is an indication of the number of amino acids that make up the peptide. While there are hundreds of peptides, Gross, says there are five main peptides you will see used most commonly in skin care:

  • Dipeptide: Helps improve skin hydration and strengthens the moisture barrier.
  • Hexapeptide: Inhibits the release of neurotransmitters to diminish the repetitive creasing that causes fine lines and wrinkles for a Botox-like effect.
  • Tetrapeptide: Reduces inflammation and cues the skin’s repair response. It also has the ability to reduce hyperpigmentation.
  • Oligopeptide: Promotes collagen and hyaluronic acid production, giving it a firming and plumping effect.
  • Tripeptide: Strengthens and firms skin’s structure.

Peptides Vs. Epidermal Growth Factors

Recently, many skin care enthusiasts have been grouping epidermal growth factors (EGF) into the peptide family. While EGF confusingly can sometimes go by the name polypeptides, they do not function in the same way as peptides, says Dr. Sigrun Dögg Guðjónsdóttir, chief research and development officer at Bioeffect. “EGF are growth factors that everyone has on their skin. [EGF are] naturally occurring signaling proteins that are important for skin repair and remodeling,” she says. “They signal to other cells to repair and rejuvenate, as well as [encourage] the production of collagen, elastin, and hyaluronic acid.” Bioeffect, for example, uses a bio-tech engineered, plant-based EGF derived from barley in its new supercharged Power Serum to provide deep hydration and support skin’s natural collagen production as it replenishes the skin with vital protein growth factors and nutrients for a smoother, firmer, more even, and hydrated complexion.

While that may sound similar to peptides, according to Dögg Guðjónsdóttir, the two are fundamentally different. “Peptides are much smaller molecules — they are always below 50 amino acids. EGF are quite big molecules in that they are 50+ amino acids,” she explains. “Think of peptides as more of a messenger — they are smaller, faster, and not quite as specific. They deliver a message to the skin that something is happening and needs to be done to fix it. EGF fall into receptors on the skin’s surface and have a specific role to play and the cells that have the receptor respond in a specific way.” Adds Gross, “Growth factors work directly on the DNA while peptides use different pathways. They really should be thought of as two totally different ingredients.” In short, growth factors are large molecules that communicate directly with the skin and activate it into healing and repair itself, whereas peptides are much smaller molecules that help your skin cells to communicate better and work more efficiently on a specific task.

Peptides’ Newfound Popularity

Considering copper peptides first made their skin care debut way back in the ’80s, and traditional peptides have been prevalent in anti-aging since the category hit its peak in the early aughts, why the sudden prevalence of peptides in formulations? According to Gross, the last three to five years have seen a marked increase in studies showing the effectiveness of peptides and clinical proof of their benefits. “Up until recently, studies have been small and more anecdotal,” he explains. “Remember, peptides is a large category of ingredients — there are over 7,000 peptides, so there is a lot to go through. Not all are created equal, which is taking scientists and formulators more time to crack the code in using them in formulations. What we are finding is that a cocktail of peptides work best.” Kilgore points to innovations in synthetics that have helped make peptides more specialized and specific to target more issues. “Cosmetic chemists are creating synthetic peptides in the lab, which provides greater control over where and how they affect skin,” she says. “This is done by fine-tuning the amino acids used to create the actual peptides.”

How To Add Peptides To Your Skin Care Routine

The great thing about peptides is, as Roseler puts it, “there is no wrong way use [them],” but depending on what type of peptide you are using and what type of skin issue you are addressing, that will impact the product formulation you should be reaching for. It’s also beneficial, according to Gross, to look for formulations with multiple peptides. “There is a lot of diversity in peptides — a blend of peptides gives you multiple benefits,” he says. Just don’t expect them to replace your other heavy hitter active ingredients like retinol, ceramides, or vitamin C. Instead, look for those that combine peptides with other actives, particularly those with high hydration and skin strengthening components, Gross advises. Just remember that, as is the case with any collagen-promoting ingredients, it’s always best to start early. “Peptides are ideal for anyone seeking a targeted treatment to address the first signs of sagging, loss of firmness, stubborn expression lines, crow’s feet, and forehead lines, but you don’t have to wait until you see those things to start using them,” says Kilgore. “Adding peptides to a routine now will help preserve a more youthful appearance longer.”

The Best Peptide Skin Care Products

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