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Trying to grasp atomic structures and ionic compounds in science wasn't always all that thrilling for us, and presumably—and it's amazing if it is—it's not your forte. Yet poring over the ingredient lists on skincare products is practically a hobby. We all love hearing about the latest skincare ingredients to deliver big results and usually rush to the nearest shop to find them afterward. This is the kind of science we can all get excited about. So for strictly educational purposes, it's our duty to share something that might have had your eyes glazing over in chemistry, but with these serious skin claims, you'll want to know all about it.
We're talking about amino acids for skin. They're essential throughout the body but may be especially beneficial for your skin. To steer you in the right direction, we spoke with dermatologists Justine Kluk, MD, and Michele Farber, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC; along with board-certified dermatologist Richard Bottiglione, MD, founder of Dermatologist’s Choice Skincare; and Rachel Ho, a cosmetic chemist and the founder of Rho Cosmetics; who gave us the full scoop on amino acids.
Type of ingredient: Varying
Main benefits: Soothe skin, help moisturize, act as antioxidants
Who should use it: In general, whatever amino acids are added to your skincare will be catered to the function of the product.
How often can you use it? You can use amino acids as often as you want; they are gentle enough for everyday use.
Works well with: Pretty much everything; glycerides, ceramides, and peptides in particular.
Don't use with: Amino acids can be mixed with a host of other ingredients.
What Are Amino Acids?
First up, why should we be paying attention to amino acids at all? We know skincare ingredients come and go in waves of popularity, but these are keepers. Kluk reminded us of something you may have learned in AP Bio (we sure did)—that "amino acids are the building blocks that make up proteins and have a role in virtually all the biological processes that occur in our bodies. The sequence in which they combine together determines which particular protein they will form and how they will function."
As Bottiglione explains, "There are 20 amino acids, 11 of which are considered 'nonessential' and nine that are considered 'essential,' yet all are vital for the body’s survival. Nonessential means that the body can make them on its own. Essential amino acids must be obtained through the diet (the body cannot make them on its own)." In other words: amino acids are vital components in making our bodies work, so it stands to reason that they're also vital in anything happening on a skin level, too.
Benefits of Amino Acids for Skin
• Hydrate the Skin: We already have amino acids in the top layers of our skin, and they're very busy working on keeping our skin hydrated by pushing moisture through and into the skin. We've all known the tragic impact a lack of moisture makes on our skin. It's not just dryness—everything from acne to rough textures to those pesky lines may pop up—so we're all for an extra boost of hydration in whatever form it comes.
• Increase Water Retention: When used in conjunction with other ingredients, amino acids plump the skin by helping increase moisture: "Amino acids work the best with additional ingredients that help retain moisture in the skin, think hyaluronic acid and glycerin," says Ho.
• Protect the Skin Via Antioxidants: As we know, science class gets way more interesting when it leads to noticeable results for our skin, and amino acids for your skin certainly do. See, amino acids "promote cellular repair, hydrate the skin, and provide antioxidant protection," says Kluk.
• Reduce Inflammation: Joanna Vargas, celebrity facialist and founder of Joanna Vargas Salons and Skin Care, notes that amino acids "increase hydration, plump the skin, reduce inflammation and build collagen."
• Build Collagen: "Amino acids are either made by the body or essential amino acids must be absorbed from food," says Farber. "They are fabulous for collagen regeneration, but to make it worth your while, be sure to choose a product from a clinically tested brand so you know what you’re getting."
• Make Other Products Work Harder: We know there's a lot happening on your bathroom shelves, so luckily, amino acids don't require an entirely new step in your routine. They're just an addition; one that will make your products work harder. As Kluk explains, this is because "amino acids can combine together to form protein fragments known as peptides, which have been studied and proven to increase skin firmness and texture and to reduce wrinkles when applied topically to the skin."
• Promote Cellular Repair: As Farber explains, "In skin care, peptides can be absorbed from topical creams and help to stimulate collagen production. Certain peptides help reduce wrinkle formation and others help reduce inflammation and promote skin repair." That's right: when you see peptides as an ingredient in your products you're essentially getting something built by amino acids; it's just an evolved form.
• Smooth Fine Lines: "Amino acids in skincare can target various concerns to help soothe the skin, firm the skin, and diminish fine lines and wrinkles," notes Ho.
Side Effects of Amino Acids
Amino acids as a group have no known side effects but, as always, you should exercise caution when introducing a new product into your daily skincare routine. "Irritation is always a possibility due to one's skin chemistry," says Ho. "It's best to perform a patch test prior to using a product if there is any concern. In general, amino acids should work well for most skin types."
How to Use Them
The easiest way to reap the benefits of amino acids are via the diet. "Dietary sources containing essential amino acids are indispensable," says Bottiglione. "The nine essential amino acids are found in complete proteins. Examples of complete proteins are meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy. For individuals following a vegan diet, essential protein options include quinoa, buckwheat, and soybeans."
But it's also become clear that using amino acids in your skin routine gives you an extra boost. As explained by Farber, "Amino acids are great in a skincare regimen to help with collagen regeneration. The ingredient is most commonly found in facial creams, especially those for sensitive areas like around the eyes." Kluk adds that "if you would like to introduce these into your skincare routine, a moisturizer or eye cream would be a good place to start." When you're looking for amino acids in skincare specifically, some of the acids you might want to look out for (the ones that may work the best topically) are arginine, lysine, histidine, glycine, and leucine.
The Best Products with Amino Acids
Glycine is an amino acid that's great for elasticity and smoothing fine lines. It can be found in soy, but there's only so many soybeans that you can eat. Thankfully, this gentle cleanser has bottled all of that glycine goodness so you can get the benefits straight on your skin.
This do-it-all eye cream not only boasts a variety of puff-reducing amino acids and magically plumping hyaluronic acid but also the brand's Retinol 8 meant for serious wrinkle smoothing. It will also significantly reduce your yearly concealer bill. Leave this product on overnight for the best results, as Ho notes that amino acids "can be found most effectively in overnight masks, treatments, and moisturizers."
This potent serum is made with the brand's signature fermented Pitera complex, a powerhouse combo of organic acids, minerals, and amino acids. Niacinamide promises to brighten, and Siberian ginseng extract is meant to firm and tone the skin.
Hemp seed oil (what this product is based around) is full of amino acids to keep your skin healthy. However, that's not the only punch this oil is packing. It's also loaded with ashwagandha and turmeric, adaptogens that keep environmental pollution and UV damage at bay.
This ointment-to-serum concoction is our go-to for any skin irritation, and one of the founders of the brand even claims it's the only thing that has cured her eczema. It's chock-full of the brand's proprietary tulip-based complex, which is meant to provide a rich source of amino acids to soothe whatever maladies may come your way. It also utilizes white horehound and hyaluronic acid meant to draw in and seal away moisture.
We all wake up without enough sleep sometimes, and Boscia's eye treatment is here to help with that. Lightweight and moisturizing, this product promises to get blood flowing under your eyes, help with cell turnover, and stop hyperpigmentation in its tracks. Amino acids, vitamin E, and licorice root extract all combine into the perfect morning eye cream, for times when your mornings aren't so perfect.
Only have room to pack one oil on your next trip? Let it be this one, which is chock full of jojoba, MCT, marula, sea buckthorn, and other essential oils. It's dual use (face and body), and the ingredient list means it's packed with essential fatty acids, antioxidants, and amino acids.
Park JI, Lee JE, Shin HJ, Song S, Lee WK, Hwang JS. Oral administration of glycine and leucine dipeptides improves skin hydration and elasticity in UVB-irradiated hairless mice. Biomol Ther (Seoul). 2017;25(5):528-534. doi:10.4062/biomolther.2017.089