We'll be the first to admit that there are enough enticing skincare technologies, ingredients, and product compilations to excite, overwhelm, and last even the most avid skincare aficionado a lifetime. And since virtually every buzzword and component makes lofty promises (many of which claim miracle—aka realistically impossible—results), it's essential to have information on what you're putting on your skin.
However, not all buzzy ingredients and products are fallacies. In fact, far from it! The importance lies in the research and what objective skin, and health, professionals can verify in terms of efficacy. This brings us to the topic in question: polypeptides in skincare.
Peptides have been widely thought to help preserve and boost collagen (and, in turn, lessen the appearance of lines and wrinkles). But do polypeptides do anything? Or are brands only riding the viral and very trendy collagen wave? To get to the bottom of it, we consulted three industry-leading dermatologists based in Beverly Hills. And to be honest, we were slightly shocked by what they had to say.
Meet the Expert
- Jennifer Herrmann, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist at Moy Fincher Chips Facial Plastic Surgery and Dermatology in Beverly Hills.
- Erin Gilbert, MD, FAAD, PhD, is a board-certified dermatologist and neuroscientist.
- Nancy Samolitis, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist and the cofounder of Facile Dermatology + Boutique.
Type of Ingredient: Protein
Main benefits: Smoothes fine lines, increases collagen production, decreases the appearance of pores.
Who should use it: Generally, polypeptides are safe for all skin types.
How often you can use it: For maximum effectiveness, polypeptides should be applied during both morning and nighttime skincare routines.
Works well with: Getting a facial peel before applying peptide products will help peptides penetrate the skin more deeply.
Don't use with: AHAs will reduce the efficiency of peptides.
What Are Polypeptides?
According to Herrmann, polypeptides can best be understood as "small chemical compounds composed of short-chain amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein." Gilbert continues: "Peptides tell your cells to produce more collagen: one of the major building blocks of the skin. So by applying them directly to your skin, you're telling your body it needs to make more collagen," she says.
Having sudden flashbacks of junior high science class? We are, too, which brings us to our next burning question: Why have they been having such a buzz-worthy moment in the skincare spotlight, and why exactly are polypeptides so frequently found in our favorite serums and creams?
"Peptides are essentially fragmented portions of proteins. So when they're used in skincare, the objective is for those fragments of collagen to stimulate collagen growth," explains Samolitis. "Complete, non-fragmented proteins (like collagen) are not able to be directly absorbed through the top layer of skin, so these smaller pieces are able to get deep into the cellular level."
"Peptides can be included in serums, moisturizers, and masks," Gilbert explains. "They are also included in some topical serums used after microneedling or superficial laser procedures to increase the penetration of the peptide and help the skin recover from the procedure."
Benefits of Polypeptides for Skin
"When used in cosmetic skin products, peptides fall into three main categories: signal peptides, carrier peptides, and those that inhibit nerve signals," Herrmann elaborates. "By acting as messengers, signal peptides can trigger collagen synthesis, which then increases skin firmness."
- Reduces the appearance of fine lines: By stimulating collagen production, peptides can give your skin the impression of being plumper: "Peptides help to rebuild collagen and preserve skin's youthful appearance," Gilbert says.
- Strengthens skin barrier: When peptides help amp up your skin cells, they may also help improve your skin barrier.
- Locks in hydration: As you age, collagen production decreases, which also causes dehydration. When peptides help boost collagen production, it also boosts hydration.
- Aids in collagen production: When collagen breaks down, the peptides send a signal to our skin's cells, informing them to make more collagen to replace what we lose naturally as we get older. "Every year, collagen production decreases, which causes wrinkles, dehydration, discoloration, loss of firmness, and a dull complexion," Gilbert says.
- Has anti-inflammatory properties: Antioxidants found in peptides help calm and soothe your skin, leading to less inflammation.
- Helps make skin more firm: By signaling your cells to produce collagen, peptides help your skin become more firm: "[Peptides] that inhibit nerve signals have the potential to soften fine lines caused by muscle movement—in theory, it's like topical Botox," Herrmann concludes.
- Smoothes out complexion: With upped collagen production likely comes clearer, more even skin, too.
- Repairs damaged skin: Carrier peptides work to heal your skin from the inside out.
Using products with peptides directly on top of our skin acts as a fake-out, tricking our skin into thinking it's lost collagen and needs to make more. Ingenious, right?
So there's the underlying thinking and theory behind the benefits of polypeptides. But are these too-good-to-be-true-sounding claims legitimate?
Side Effects of Polypeptides
Unfortunately, maybe not. (And if it's any indicator, "unfortunately" was also the first word uttered by two of my three experts after I posed the question).
"I personally haven't been convinced that peptides marketed to inhibit nerve signals effectively reach nerve targets (these are deep in muscles!) in large enough numbers to smooth lines as Botox can, but this may change in the future," says Herrmann. (For some context, many polypeptide-infused skincare products claim results as good—or better—than the treatment).
Samolitis, too, has some disheartening news: "There just has not been significant scientific data on peptides for anti-aging, and they may not be as effective as the tried-and-true retinoids, AHAs, and antioxidants. Plus, the word 'peptide' can be used generically to describe any short chain of amino acids, so that term can easily be used for marketing even if the product does not contain a known active ingredient."
After zeroing in on your regimen, Herrmann says you can take it a step further with things like lasers or other skin-tightening treatments to maximize restoration and skin health. In other words, things like this (versus peptides alone) will act as a cherry on top.
How To Use It
As you can probably guess, this trending ingredient has found its way onto store shelves in the forms of face washes, serums, creams, masks, and more. The frequency of usage will depend on the product or treatment that best suits you and your skin type. Generally, however, polypeptides are safe to use twice daily. It's also recommended that you opt for a peptide product that can be left on the skin, such as a cream or serum.
If you're determined to try peptides in your skincare, don't waste your money on a peptide-filled product like face wash, which you'll rinse off almost instantaneously. Opt for a serum or moisturizer, which tends to have smaller molecule sizes and may penetrate the skin more deeply.
The Best Products With Polypeptides
Keep scrolling for the specific polypeptide-rich skin care products recommended by our dermatologists. Plus, a few Byrdie-editor favorites we swear—on our lives—actually work.
Because polypeptides in skincare only boast subtle improvements, Herrmann recommends saving your money and opting for less expensive products. She suggests something like this cream from Olay, which she commends as very lightweight in texture and also infused with hyaluronic acid for an extra kick of hydration.
However, if you're interested in a splurge, Herrmann recommends this game-changing pick from HydroPeptide, which has a similar light and airy feel but also contains a whole host of antioxidants that can help preserve and protect your current collagen and elastin stores.
According to Samolitis, the most popular and effective polypeptide combination in skincare is known as Matrixyl 3000, and this serum from The Ordinary sets the gold standard in formulation. She tells us it's one of her favorites. Plus, it's so affordable.
Brand new and garnering fast and furious admiration from editors and reviewers alike, this peptide-infused moisturizer from Drunk Elephant is excellent for all skin types. It masterfully melds signal peptides, growth factors, amino acids, and pygmy water lily extract to deliver noticeable results that the brand claims you'll actually be able to see.
A recommendation from Byrdie's wellness editor, Victoria Hoff (who has very glowy skin, by the way), this peptide-heavy serum may be an investment. Still, it's a worthy one thanks to its high-quality formulation, which is expertly curated for those with depleted collagen stores.
Another recommendation from Victoria with a very loyal fan base in both the United States and Australia (the brand's birthplace), is this luxurious mist from Grown Alchemist. Enriched with heavy-hitting peptides, hyaluronic acid, and antioxidants, this mist helps to calm the skin while simultaneously plumping it for an ultra-youthful glow. In other words, it's the perfect mid-afternoon pick-me-up.
I have sung this product's praises before (actually, multiple times), and I'm wholeheartedly sure I'll continue to do so for the rest of my life. Essentially, it's the only thing I'll put on my face pre-foundation and is equally wonderful on days when I go makeup-free. (The healthy luminosity it delivers is truly on another level). And while the quenching formula boasts an entire host of skin-loving ingredients (think vitamins, omegas, and minerals), it also features a triple threat of peptides, hyaluronic acid, and antioxidants—a winning trio when it comes to protecting your collagen quota.
"Vichy's Liftactiv Peptide-C Anti-Aging Moisturizer takes some of the time-consuming product layering and guesswork out of the equation by combining the skin-strengthening and soothing properties of the Mineralizing Water, the firming effects of its natural origin Phyto-peptides and the antioxidant and pigment reducing properties of Vitamin C," Gilbert says. "You've just reclaimed five minutes of your day trying to figure out what to put on your face first!"
All in all, there definitely still needs to be more research regarding the efficacy of polypeptides in skincare. However, if you shop and apply strategically, your skin's future may be brighter—literally.
Can I use peptides with vitamin C?
Yes. Vitamin C and peptides work synergistically together, improving skin's texture and trapping moisture.
Can I mix peptides and retinol?
There's no harm in mixing peptides and retinol products, but if you're using new products, it's best to introduce one new product into your skincare routine at a time to rule out irritation or allergic reactions.
Ganceviciene R, Liakou AI, Theodoridis A, Makrantonaki E, Zouboulis CC. Skin anti-aging strategies. Dermatoendocrinol. 2012;4(3):308-319. doi:10.4161/derm.22804
Linus Pauling Institute. Peptides and skin health. Updated October, 2012.
Edgar S, Hopley B, Genovese L, Sibilla S, Laight D, Shute J. Effects of collagen-derived bioactive peptides and natural antioxidant compounds on proliferation and matrix protein synthesis by cultured normal human dermal fibroblasts. Sci Rep. 2018;8(1):10474. doi:10.1038/s41598-018-28492-w
Qian B, Zhao X, Yang Y, Tian C. Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory peptide fraction from oyster soft tissue by enzymatic hydrolysis. Food Sci Nutr. 2020;8(7):3947-3956. doi:10.1002/fsn3.1710