What You Need to Know About Peptides

woman touching her face
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"Peptide" is one of those words that you regularly see on face creams and serum labels. Beauty brands often highlight the ingredient as an all-singing, all-dancing, age-defying superstar. Even if the term isn’t on the front of the label, if a formula promises to replenish, rejuvenate, or restore your skin, it’s likely to contain at least one or two peptides. But what the hell is a peptide? We spoke to dermatologists Justine Hextall and Dr. Erin Gilbert to break it all down.

Type of ingredient: Amino Acid

Main benefits: Smoothes skin, boosts hydration, and strengthens skin barrier.

Who should use it: Generally, peptides are agreeable with all skin types.

Peptide products are safe to use twice a day during your regular 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 Peptides?

“Collagen is a protein comprised of long segments of amino acids arranged like a chain,” says consultant dermatologist Hextall. “When collagen breaks down, short segments of amino acids are formed.” These short chains of amino acids are what we know as peptides, and are fundamental for healthy skin. They are the building blocks of proteins, including keratin, collagen, and elastin. Board-certified dermatologist and neuroscientist Gilbert backs up this statement. "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.

In skincare products, synthetic peptides are used to support and boost skin proteins. There are three main types of peptide—signaling peptides, neurotransmitter-affecting peptides, and carrier peptides—and all three work in different ways.

Benefits of Peptides for Skin

From smoothing out lines and reducing sagging to strengthening your skin barrier and locking in hydration, the benefits of peptides are impressive, to say the least.

"Every year collagen production decreases, which causes wrinkles, dehydration, discoloration, loss of firmness, and a dull complexion," Gilbert says. "Peptides help to rebuild collagen and preserve skin’s youthful appearance."

In effect, peptides are messengers, sending a signal to your skin's cells telling them it's time to boost collagen production. Through stimulating collagen production, peptides can give your skin the appearance of being more "plump." In turn, this reduces the appearance of those pesky fine lines. It also smooths out your complexion and helps make skin more firm—so your skin doesn't just look better temporarily, it actually feels better in the long run too.

“Signaling peptides, such as pentapeptides (think Matrixyl) is the most commonly used and stimulates collagen and elastin production,” says dermatologist and Eudelo founder Stefanie Williams. Signaling peptides can also help prevent the breakdown of collagen. Neurotransmitter-affecting peptides, like Argireline, have a Botox-like effect on your skin and prevent the nerve-to-muscle movement to ease lines and wrinkles.

And last, carrier peptides, like copper tripeptide complex, help to enhance collagen and elastin production, as well as protect and soothe your skin thanks to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory powers. Before panicking about having to buy three different products, most formulas include at least two of these peptides—look out for the term peptide complex.

"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."

Side Effects of Peptides

While there are no known side effects of peptides, it is important to consider the quality of the products you're using.

“The term peptide has been over-generalized to a degree. There are specific roles of peptides and some are more active and successful than others,” Hextall says. As with all ingredients, including retinol and vitamin C, there are different qualities of peptides. “The best ones are highly sophisticated ingredients. They’re the designer clothing of the skincare world,” says Begoun. And as science evolves, so does the quality of peptides.

How to Use Them

With hundreds of peptide-focused lotions and potions on the market, finding the right one for you can be a minefield—and an expensive one at that. Don’t waste your money on peptide cleansers or scrubs—instead, invest in leave-on treatments.

"The bare basics are to apply a peptide product to clean skin morning and night," Gilbert says. "Some of the newer peptide containing products make your life a ton easier by combining multiple desirable products into one," she continues. We're all for simplifying our skincare routines.

Like most skincare products, it's best to apply anything with peptides to a clean face, both morning and night. Gilbert also recommends applying products to your neck for maximum benefits. Consistency is key here, remember to apply morning and night, every day.

The Best Products With Peptides

Vichy Liftactiv Peptide-C
Vichy Liftactiv Peptide-C Anti-Aging Moisturizer $39
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"Vichy’s Liftactiv Peptide-C Anti-Aging Moisturizer takes some of the time consuming product layering and guess-work 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 anti-oxidant and pigment reducing properties of Vitamin C," Gilbert says. "You’ve just reclaimed 5 minutes of your day trying to figure out what to put on your face first!"

what are peptides: Paula's Choice Peptide Booster
Paula's Choice Peptide Booster $52
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Paula's Choice is a Byrdie-favorite brand for their clean and efficacious formulations, so we recommend checking out this peptide booster. It's another step to add to your routine, but it will make your skin look so good.

what are peptides: Shaba Complex Eye Serum
Drunk Elephant Shaba Complex Eye Serum $60
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It's rare that any kind of eye cream stays at the top of the market for long, but this one has held its own as one of the best for a few years now. The packaging describes it as satiny, and although we were skeptics at first, we'd have to agree.

Magic Cream Moisturizer
Charlotte Tilbury Magic Cream Moisturizer $64
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This cream is a cult-favourite, made by makeup artist Charlotte Tilbury to be the perfect moisturizer for underneath makeup. It plumps perfectly thanks to its inclusion of hyaluronic acid, vitamins, and their BioNymph peptide complex.

Peptidin™ Radiance Serum with Energy Peptides
Dr. Jart Peptidin™ Radiance Serum with Energy Peptides $48
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Up late at night? This serum is your new best friend for your meetings the next morning. If you want to look refreshed and awake even after the most exciting night out, this is where you should turn.

Freeze Frame Beauty Essence
Saturday Skin Freeze Frame Beauty Essence $47
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Another cult-favorite product, Saturday Skin's essence isn't exactly a toner, but people with dry skin can use it in place of one. Pomegranate and avocado proteins keep your skin nourished and get rid of pesky free radicals, and the peptide formulation plumps your skin.

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