Understanding the Power of Peptides in Skincare

Jul 1, 2023by Heather Smith


You've likely heard the term 'peptides' floating around in the skincare world. But what exactly are they, and why are they touted as a key ingredient in many skin rejuvenation products?

At a time when skincare technology is continuously advancing, peptides are emerging as a huge player in the beauty industry. However, before you start incorporating them into your skincare regimen, it's crucial to understand what this buzzword means and how they work (or don't work) at the cellular level.

Key Takeaways

  • Peptides are small proteins that have a wide range of functions in skincare, including regulating melanin production, improving hydration, and reducing inflammation.
  • Peptide-based skincare products should be stored in opaque, airless containers to prevent degradation and ensure their effectiveness.
  • Consistent use of peptides in skincare can lead to youthful, glowing skin by stimulating collagen production, maintaining elasticity, and promoting overall skin health.

The Power of Peptides in Skincare

The power of peptides for skin goes beyond just collagen production. Some peptides also perform other functions, such as regulating melanin production, which can help reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation and even out skin tone. Others can help improve hydration by strengthening the skin barrier, resulting in plumper, smoother skin. Meanwhile, specific peptides have anti-inflammatory properties that can soothe irritated skin and reduce redness.

Incorporating products with peptides into your skincare routine could be a game-changer. They're found in various products, from serums and creams to masks and eye treatments. And because they're generally well-tolerated, they can be used by almost anyone, regardless of skin type or sensitivity.

Understanding the Basics: The Science Behind Peptides

A peptide is a short chain of amino acids grouped (think about 16-30). A protein is a long chain of amino acids (think 2000-3000) organized into a specific shape that will give structure and function.

stock image of peptides, amino acids, and proteins

Muscle and connective tissues like collagen are examples of proteins coming together to form a functional unit. These proteins are the foundations of your skin and are responsible for its texture, strength, and resilience. If you think of a paper chain, think of the individual rings as amino acids. Link a few together into short segments, and you have a peptide. String together a large number, and your long paper chain is a functional protein, like collagen.

Approximately 22 amino acids exist - you may have heard names like arginine, cysteine, phenylalanine, and tryptophan. Most are made by cells within our own bodies. Some, similar to the essential fatty acids, must be supplied by diet 100% as we cannot manufacture them ourselves.

When you apply peptides in your skincare products, they're designed to penetrate the top layer of your skin and send signals to your cells to let them know how to function effectively.

How Do Peptides Work at the Cellular Level?

The role of a topical peptide applied to the skin is to penetrate and reach the cells and signal them to do something - increase collagen or decrease melanin are two examples.

Claims and Proof of Effect

Sounds amazing right?

There are a few issues that make peptides less desirable.

First, brands are NOT allowed to discuss the benefits of any product in relation to effects at a cellular level. If they do, they are crossing into making drug claims, and they should be expecting a letter from the FDA. Even using the word collagen can get dicey if the language is misused. Many brands push the limits - consider how many products you've seen advertised to "stimulate collagen production." Those claims are usually a no-no, and the brand can get in trouble.

Second, no standardization or formalized guidelines for use or clinical testing is required for proof of efficacy. A brand can just put some protein into a jar, call it a peptide, and off it goes to market. When there actually is some clinical testing done (either by the manufacturer or the brand), sample sizes are very low, and commercial bias is significant.

What does this mean? It means consumers need to be educated about the ingredients they're interested in using and the marketing techniques and scientific evidence (or lack thereof) surrounding them.

stock photo of peptides in skincare

Peptides Used in Skincare

Like so many things in cosmetics, there isn't a standard definition of a peptide. Generally speaking, when brands discuss peptides, they refer to a functional unit of amino acids designed to tell cells what to do.

In general, the ingredient list will contain the word peptide: Palmitoyl pentapeptide (a.k.a. Matrixyl™, Matrixyl 3000), Acetyl tetrapeptide-9, Acetyl hexapeptide 3, 8, and 20, Palmitoyl oligopeptide, Tripeptide 1, etc. Many of these are patented molecules, and many have a good amount of evidence backing up their effectiveness.

Other ingredients, like tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (oil soluble Vitamin C) work on similar pathways, but with different mechanisms. 

Signal Peptides

A signal peptide is a short peptide (i.e. 20 amino acids long) that, when present, tells your cell to manufacture a specific protein like collagen. When your skin is stressed or damaged, it signals that it needs assistance. Signal peptides are designed to communicate with your skin cells, instructing them to produce more collagen, elastin, and other essential proteins that keep your skin looking healthy and young.

Phyto Peptides

Phyto-peptide is a newer word used to describe peptide molecules that are synthesized from plant-derived amino acid sources. Remember, not all peptides are vegan, and many ingredients (like collagen) can only come from animals. Harnessing the power of plants as well as biofermentation processes has opened up a world of botanical-based peptides with skin benefits.

Oil-Soluble Peptides

Most peptides used in skin care are water-soluble due to their bioavailability and ease of formulation. The idea of oil-soluble peptides in skincare is intriguing because oil-based products tend to have better skin penetration. However, making peptides oil-soluble can be challenging due to their naturally polar, water-attracting characteristics.

Some oil-soluble peptides do exist, but they are rare. Two good examples are Dipalmitoyl Hydroxyproline, a phyto-peptide associated with firming and plumping, and Undecylenoyl phenylalanine, associated with lightening and brightening. 

Potential Down-Sides of Using Peptides in Your Skincare Routine

While peptides are widely celebrated in the skincare industry for their promising benefits, like any other active ingredient, they're not without potential downsides. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind:

    1. Limited Research: While there's a growing body of evidence supporting the benefits of peptides in skincare, some experts argue that more extensive, long-term studies are needed. Many of the current studies are conducted by companies that produce peptide-based products, which can potentially introduce bias.

    2. Skin Penetration: We already know that using large proteins like collagen topically on your skin really has no effect because it doesn't penetrate. Despite being smaller, peptides are still fairly large molecules, and there's an ongoing debate about how effectively they can penetrate the skin to reach the deeper layers where they can stimulate collagen production. Some peptides may not penetrate the skin deeply enough to provide significant benefits.

    3. Product Stability: Peptides can be unstable and may break down when exposed to light and air. Therefore, they require careful formulation and packaging to maintain their effectiveness.

    4. Cost: Skincare products containing peptides can be expensive. While some people see significant benefits, others might not find the cost justified by the results.

    5. Interaction with Other Ingredients: Peptides can react with certain other ingredients, which might render them less effective by breaking down the peptide bonds and reducing them back into non-functional amino acids.

These potential downsides don't necessarily mean you should avoid peptides; they're just factors to consider. Anti-aging skincare routines are filled with options.

The Future of Peptides in Skincare: Emerging Trends and Insights

The future of peptides in skincare is looking bright, with new peptide products being developed that are more effective and have fewer side effects than their predecessors. One of the most promising emerging trends is the use of copper peptides, which are known for their ability to promote skin regeneration and reduce the appearance of wrinkles.

As these trends continue to evolve, it's becoming clear that peptides will play a crucial role in the skincare industry's future. Here are some insights into what that might look like:

    • More advanced peptide products: Innovation is at the heart of the skincare industry, and peptides are no exception. As our understanding of peptides increases, we can expect to see more advanced products on the market. These could include products with a higher concentration of peptides, or products that combine peptides with other beneficial ingredients, like growth factors and conditioned media, to enhance their effects.

    • The rise of copper peptides: Copper peptides are already making a splash in the skincare industry. They've been shown to have a range of benefits, from promoting skin regeneration to reducing inflammation. We could see an even greater emphasis on these powerful peptides in the future.

    • Increased understanding of peptide benefits: As research into peptides continues, we're likely to gain a better understanding of their benefits. This could lead to the development of peptide products targeted at specific skin concerns, such as acne or hyperpigmentation. With the future of peptides in skincare looking so promising, the possibilities seem endless.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is the difference between natural and synthetic peptides in skincare products?

Natural peptides in skincare originate from plant or animal proteins, retaining their natural properties. Synthetic peptides, made in labs, mimic natural ones, often enhanced for specific effects. Both types effectively boost collagen production.

Q: Can peptides in skincare cause allergic reactions?

Yes, it's rare but possible. Symptoms may include redness, swelling, or itching. Always patch-test new products to ensure your skin won't react adversely. Always check with your dermatologist or primary care physician if you're worried.

Q: How long does it take to see results from using a peptide-based serum?

It typically takes around 6-12 weeks to see noticeable results from using peptide-based skincare products. However, it varies based on individual skin type, the specific product used, and the frequency of application.

Q: Are peptides in skincare safe for all skin types, including sensitive skin?

Yes, peptides in skincare are generally safe for all skin types, including sensitive skin. However, everyone's skin is unique, so it's crucial to do a patch test before fully incorporating any new product into your routine.

Final Thoughts

The role of peptides in skin care is expanding at a rapid rate. They're often included in moisturizers and serums designed to target aging, and they're often combined with other active ingredients like hyaluronic acid and niacinamide.

While skin barrier repair, decreasing melanin production, and plumping are common targets, collagen production is usually the main goal with topical peptides. Dermatologists are a bit divided on efficacy as the evidence exists but needs to be strengthened. However, peptides are an important anti-aging ingredient to consider when building your routine.


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About the Author

Dr. Heather Smith developed her love for skinimalism and clean beauty years ago when she began making home remedies for her newborn's eczema. She is an expert in natural ingredients and active botanicals and has now launched bareLUXE Skincare - a full line of effective oil serums. She dedicates this blog to consumers who are researching ingredients and working to make their beauty ritual more natural and sustainable.


This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Smith nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content should consult their physicians about their skincare concerns and routines.