Everything You Need To Know About Peptides In Skincare

Two dermatologists break down the buzzy collagen-boosting ingredient.

A woman applying face cream for an article on peptides as a skincare ingredient.

(Photo: Courtesy of Olay)

It can be difficult to stay on top of all the latest buzzy skincare ingredients, especially when new contenders enter the ring on a regular basis. Case in point: Peptides have been around for a while, but they’ve been gaining a lot of buzz lately, popping up in countless new moisturizers and serums and promising to dial up skin’s collagen production. As it turns out, there’s a lot to know about this gentle, skin-loving ingredient, so we tapped two of Canada’s top dermatologists for answers.

Read on for our guide on everything you need to know about peptides, including what they are, what they do and a few of our favourite peptide-rich formulas.

What are peptides?­­

Simply put, peptides are short chains of organic compounds called amino acids that act as building blocks for proteins essential to skin, such as elastin, collagen and keratin. “[When applied to skin], peptides are able to penetrate the outer layer, so they can be absorbed more deeply instead of sitting on top of your skin,” says dermatologist Dr. Victoria Taraska, who owns The Derm Centre in Winnipeg. Peptides are essentially fragmented pieces of proteins, and their small size allows them to penetrate the skin. This is especially handy since collagen molecules are too big to be absorbed into the skin when applied topically, so peptides are used instead to help boost collagen production. “Think of them as messengers for other cells, sending signals telling the cells to produce collagen and elastin,” says Taraska.

Hundreds of different types of peptides exist, though not all are used in skincare. Dr. Nazli Ghiasi, a Toronto-based dermatologist and the owner of MapleDerm, explains that what makes each peptide unique is the type and number of amino acids it contains and the order in which they are joined. Oligopeptides contain anywhere between two and 20 amino acids, while polypeptides contain over 20.

What are the benefits of using peptides in skincare?

Peptides have several properties, but they’re best known for their ability to stimulate collagen production in skin, says Ghiasi. Collagen plays a big role in firmness, elasticity and hydration levels, and its production naturally decreases with age. When applied topically, peptides are absorbed into skin and signal its cells to make more collagen, which helps minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, explains Taraska. Peptides also have anti-inflammatory and hydration-boosting benefits, which leads to clearer, smoother and more resilient skin.

While peptides are a promising skincare ingredient, both Taraska and Ghiasi warn that more research and data are needed to back efficacy of peptides in skincare.

What are some of the most commonly used peptides in skincare?

“The list of commercially available peptides is very long and always evolving,” says Ghiasi. If you’re scanning a product’s ingredient list, keep in mind that different names may be used for the same type of peptide. Common peptides that you may recognize include acetyl-tetrapeptides, tripeptide-1, matrixyl and argireline.

Are peptides safe to use on all skin types?

Unlike retinol and some chemical exfoliants (like AHAs), peptides generally don’t cause irritation or redness and are safe to use on all skin types. Both Taraska and Ghiasi say those with acne-prone skin should look for oil-free products and lighter textures, while dry skin types should look for richer formulas that provide plenty of hydration.

How do I add peptides to my current skincare routine?

Thanks to their gentle hydration-boosting power and ability to be used day or night, peptides are easy to incorporate into any existing skincare routine. Ghiasi notes that peptides are safe to mix with most active skincare ingredients, such as retinol and vitamin C. However, it’s worth noting that some types of peptides have been shown to cause irritation when used alongside AHAs, like glycolic and lactic acid.

From moisturizers to serums, there are a ton of different formulas on the market that contain this collagen-boosting ingredient. That said, peptides need to be absorbed into the skin to be effective, which means peptides-infused cleansers that are immediately rinsed off won’t allow the ingredient to do its job properly.

While peptides can promote healthy skin, both experts stress the importance of an all-encompassing daily skincare routine that will protect and nourish your skin, which includes using sunscreen to protect against UV rays, ceramides to strengthen your skin barrier and antioxidants, like vitamin C, to shield skin from environmental damage. If you need help finding the right peptide-rich cocktail for your individual needs, pay a visit to your dermatologist or seek out a skincare professional.

Looking to give peptides a try? Here are a few formulas to try.

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