Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/17/2021
Search for hot skin care ingredients and you’ll quickly come across recommendations for facial creams, serums and moisturizers containing peptides.
Peptides, or polypeptides, are amino acids that your body uses to create proteins, including the proteins used to maintain and repair your skin. They play a key role in the synthesis of collagen, one of the most important structural proteins for your skin’s texture and elasticity.
So, are peptides worth adding to your skin care routine? Below, we’ve explained what peptides are, how they work as skin care ingredients, as well as the potential benefits that peptides have to offer for your skin’s health and appearance.
We’ve also explained how you can use peptides and other skin care products to keep your skin looking and feeling its best throughout your life.
Peptides are short sequences of amino acids, or precursors to proteins. They play a major role in the growth and maintenance of your skin, with research showing that they help to shield your skin from UV radiation, promote wound healing and slow down some signs of aging.
To understand how peptides work, it’s important to go over the basics of how your skin becomes damaged, how it maintains itself and the key substances involved in this process.
Just like your other organs, your skin constantly repairs and rejuvenates itself by producing new cells. Every 40 to 56 days, the cells of your epidermis -- the outer layer of your skin -- are shed, with new cells replacing them via a process called epidermal turnover.
As you get older, this process can slow down. Other changes also begin to affect your skin. The production of collagen and elastin -- important structural building blocks that provide skin with its elasticity and strength -- slows down, and your skin becomes thinner and less flexible.
These changes have aesthetic effects. Thanks to the effects of gravity, your skin starts to sag as you get older. Repetitive facial expressions, such as squinting, can cause fine lines and wrinkles to form as your skin folds over on itself repeatedly.
Part of this process is a natural consequence of getting older. But another part is environmental, with factors such as sun exposure accelerating damage to your skin.
Sun exposure harms your skin by allowing UV radiation to affect your DNA. The same process that gives you a tan can also cause permanent damage to the collagen fibers that give your skin its smoothness and youthful appearance.
In fact, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, the damage to your skin from spending time in bright sunlight may be responsible for as much as 90 percent of the visible changes that happen as you get older.
So, how do peptides fit into this? Research suggests that the use of peptides can slow down the decline in collagen production that usually occurs as you get older.
By supplying your body with these short chains of amino acids, it’s more capable of creating the collagen your skin needs to maintain itself. You can think of peptides as both an ingredient your body uses to create collagen, and as a signal for it to produce more collagen.
Because more collagen leads to smoother, stronger and healthier skin, this increase in collagen production may help to prevent many common signs of skin aging.
Peptides offer numerous benefits, making them more than deserving of a place in your skin care routine. We’ve listed some of the most significant skin benefits of peptides below.
Since peptides are involved in the production of collagen, they play a major role in giving your skin its firmness, strength and elasticity.
Research shows that collagen peptides make skin more elastic, allowing it to bounce back into place after being manipulated. Peptides also help to promote thicker skin, which is less likely to form creases and wrinkles.
By preventing the breakdown of collagen, peptides help to strengthen your skin from the inside out, giving it both improved function and a better appearance.
In addition to improving your skin’s structural qualities, people may also help to strengthen your skin’s barrier function.
In a review published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, researchers found that antimicrobial peptides improve certain aspects of skin barrier function. Your skin barrier helps to keep moisture in your skin, all while keeping potentially harmful substances out.
By strengthening your skin’s ability to act as a barrier, some antimicrobial peptides may reduce your risk of dealing with inflammation or skin infections.
By making your skin firmer, more elastic and more able to retain moisture, peptides can help to reduce the visibility of common signs of skin aging, such as fine lines and wrinkles.
In a recent small study of 22 people, researchers found that women who used a peptide complex displayed visible improvements in skin wrinkles around the eyes, neck, forehead and nose.
Another small study also involving 22 people published in the International Journal of Tissue Reactions found that women who used collagen-like peptides experienced reductions in the total surface of wrinkles over a period of four weeks.
In short, peptides make wrinkles and lines less visible, likely because of their effects on moisture retention and collagen levels.
Although peptides usually aren’t viewed as acne treatments, some peptides have antimicrobial properties that may help to control acne-causing bacteria.
With this said, there’s much less research on peptides and acne than there is on the effects of other acne treatments, such as tretinoin, benzoyl peroxide or antibiotics.
Think of peptides as a complement to other acne treatments, not as your main line of defense against acne.
Most creams, serums, supplements and other products that contain peptides are safe and rarely cause side effects. In a 2014 study of an oral collagen peptide supplement, no side effects were reported by any of the 23 participants.
Although uncommon, some skin products that contain peptides may trigger allergic reactions or immune responses.
Products that contain peptides may also contain other ingredients that affect your skin. In some cases, these ingredients may cause issues such as dryness, redness or itching.
It’s important to alert your healthcare provider if you experience any severe reactions to skin care products.
Since most products that contain peptides are sold over the counter, they aren’t regulated by the FDA in the same way that medications are. Make sure to inform your healthcare provider before using any peptide supplements or other products.
You can find collagen peptides, carrier peptides, signaling peptides, enzyme-inhibiting peptides and antimicrobial peptides in serums, night creams, moisturizers and a wide range of other skin care products.
Many peptides are also available as oral supplements formulated for stronger, healthier skin and muscles, such as our Collagen Peptide Powder.
To use peptides for your skin, follow the instructions provided with your skin care products. You’ll generally want to apply products that contain peptides before bed to let them have direct contact with your skin for as long as possible.
In addition to peptides, other active ingredients can help to slow down the effects of aging and give you smoother, better looking skin.
Try adding the following active ingredients to your skin care routine for better results:
Tretinoin. Arguably the most versatile skin care ingredient available, tretinoin works by promoting the shedding of dead skin cells. It’s used to treat acne, wrinkles, age spots and other common skin imperfections. You can find tretinoin as an ingredient in our Anti-Aging Cream, which is formulated to smooth fine lines, improve your skin texture and boost collagen production.
Over-the-counter retinoids. Retinoids such as adapalene and retinol are sold over the counter in cleansers, serums and other skin care products. These ingredients aren’t as strong as tretinoin, but offer similar benefits for your skin.
Hydroxy acids. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) promote exfoliation, or shedding of dead skin cells. They’re generally used to treat wrinkles, fine lines, acne and improve skin tone.
Hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid is an important molecule that retains moisture, giving your skin its volume and improving its function. It’s found in night creams, moisturizers and other hydrating skin care products.
Vitamin C. Normal skin is rich in vitamin C, which helps stimulate collagen synthesis and protect your skin from UV radiation. Look for vitamin C as an ingredient in serums and other topical skin care products.
Niacinamide. A form of vitamin B3, niacinamide increases protein synthesis and helps improve the texture of your skin. It’s often used to treat wrinkles, acne, rosacea and other skin conditions.
Our full guide to building a face care routine shares other products you may want to consider for smoother, healthier skin.
While adding anti-aging peptides to your skin care routine will almost certainly have a positive effect on your skin, it’s not the only thing that you can do to slow down the aging process and avoid the aged skin look.
Use the following habits in combination with peptides to keep your facial skin looking fresh and healthy:
Always use sun protection. Sun exposure damages your skin at the DNA level and worsens skin aging. Keep your skin protected by applying SPF 30+, broad-spectrum sunscreen whenever you spend time outdoors.
Understand your skin type. Do you have dry, oily or sensitive skin? By understanding your skin type, you’ll find it easier to find and buy skin care products that are designed to treat your specific needs.
Moisturize regularly. Moisturizer helps to trap water in your skin, which can make the anti-aging effects of peptides and other products more visible. Try to apply moisturizer whenever you have dry skin, or after you finish showering.
Our guide to preventing wrinkles shares more tips that you can use in combination with peptide products to slow down the effects of aging on your skin.
Your body uses peptides to create essential proteins for smooth, healthy skin, such as collagen and elastin.
While peptides aren’t vital for effective skin care, a growing body of research suggests that they offer real benefits for improving skin elasticity, smoothing lines and wrinkles and improving your skin’s barrier function.
Since peptides are available in over-the-counter products, they’re an easy addition to your skin care routine.
For better results, consider combining products that contain peptides with our selection of skin care and anti-aging products.
Want to learn more about caring for your skin? Our list of dermatologist-recommended skin care tips covers everything you need to know about taking care of your skin, from preventing pimples and blemishes to countering the effects of aging.
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