Beauty enthusiasts are continually learning about the best ingredients to shop for your skin care routine, ranging from all-stars like retinol to vitamin C. One of the most seemingly abstract are peptides for skin: They’re infused in countless formulas, but what exactly are they, and what do they do for your complexion?
Quite like fellow beauty hero hyaluronic acid, peptides are naturally occurring in the skin. “Peptides are chains of amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins,” says Dr. Sandra Lee, M.D., aka Dr. Pimple Popper, board-certified dermatologist and founder of SLMD Skincare, noting that proteins make up most of your skin and hair. “Peptides are smaller fragments of these proteins, [and] are largely responsible not only for the structure of your skin but also many of the functions.”
There are a number of different types of peptides you’ll find in beauty products — including signaling, polypeptides, and enzyme inhibitors — but they all work similarly to benefit your skin’s external state, according to Dr. Jeannette Graf, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “All of these peptides aid in helping your skin look and feel healthier and younger, and keeping your skin's structural elements, like collagen and elastin, functioning properly,” she explains.
Keep reading for a comprehensive guide on peptides for skin, along with some of the best peptide-spiked products you can buy.
We only include products that have been independently selected by Bustle's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.
What Do Peptides Do For Skin?
At their essence, peptides help defend the skin against environmental aggressors and the physical effects of aging. “As we age, our bodies become less efficient at producing key proteins like collagen and elastin,” Lee tells Bustle. “Certain peptides can give your collagen and elastin production a boost, which has been shown to measurably reduce the appearance of wrinkles.”
Graf echoes this, noting that peptides really shine in the anti-aging realm. “In skin care, peptides aim to increase the amount of collagen you produce, or decrease the amount that is naturally broken down by aging,” she explains. What’s more, they’re known to improve the skin’s barrier while firming and refining it.
If you think of your skin as a sports team, peptides act as coaches instructing its players — in this case, skin functions — on how to score a goal. “Peptides are messengers,” Dr. Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, explains. “Depending on the individual peptide, it may have a collagen-stimulating, calming, or even brightening effect on the skin.” So peptides work behind the scenes to optimize your skin’s defense functionality to keep it strong, plump, and protected.
Peptides In Skin Care
Peptides are typically found in face creams, serums, and masks. “Peptides may be used as a hero ingredient in a product or are commonly combined in formulas with other complementary actives,” says Zeichner. One perk worth noting is the ingredient is easy to fold into your current routine. “Peptides tend to be stable molecules that play nicely with others.”
Lee agrees and notes that peptides are incredibly versatile and work well for all skin types. “They’re supporting essential skin structure and function, and are quite well tolerated by most people because they’re naturally found within the body,” she adds.
That said, Graf suggests that anyone interested in peptides consider their skin type when looking at peptide-infused formulas. “Acne-prone skin should opt for a lighter peptide cream serum,” she says. “Dry skin types should watch for formulas that are alcohol-free and contain hyaluronic acid and/or ceramides.”
How to Add Peptides To Your Skin Care Routine
Dermatologists advise to always follow the instructions on the specific skin care product you use, but generally speaking, it’s safe to apply peptides twice daily. Lee does however recommend sensitive skin types to pay attention to how their complexion reacts to the ingredient and use the product less often if you notice any irritation.
In terms of actual application, Zeichner recommends starting with the center of your face — after it’s been washed and dried — and applying the serum or cream up and out. “This ensures that you have no missed areas,” he tells Bustle.
Some skin care aficionados like to combine peptides with other hero ingredients, which is OK. “I get a lot of questions about layering skin care products, especially peptides and retinol,” Lee says. “It’s fine to use both in your routine, but apply the retinol first and only at night. Keep in mind that some peptide formulas contain additional hydrating or moisturizing ingredients like hyaluronic acid, which may tone down the effects of your retinol product.” In this case, she recommends alternating these products — either morning and night, or every other night — for your best results.
Shop Peptides In Skin Care
The Drugstore Staple
Zeichner recommends the Olay Regenerist Micro-Sculpting Cream, which contains a specialized pentapeptide that helps strengthen the skin, stimulate collagen, and improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. “The formula also delivers soothing niacinamide and plumping hyaluronic acid,” he adds, which keep your complexion calm and moisturized.
For Added Brightening
Bliss’ Bright Idea moisturizer strengthens and protects the skin with the star-studded combo of vitamin C and peptides. “Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that neutralizes free radical damage and evens skin tone, while the peptide helps stimulate collagen and strengthen the skin itself,” Zeichner explains.
For Juicy Moisture
Drunk Elephant’s face cream contains nine different peptides to keep moisture within your skin, giving it a more lump appearance. This, combined with pygmy waterlily stem cell extract and soybean folic acid ferment extract, promotes a soothing, calming effect to the skin while improving elasticity.
For A Serious Glow
With its combo of peptides, hyaluronic acid, and lactic acid (a chemical exfoliant), this radiance-boosting serum gently exfoliates as it works to hydrate and firm your skin. While potent, it’s suitable for all skin types — even sensitive ones — and can be used in the morning and night.
For A One-Two Punch
Rodan + Fields’ overnight cream combines a skin-strengthening peptide with retinol, so you’re getting double the anti-aging perks. “This combo of ingredients complement each other to enhance cell turnover, improve radiance, and stimulate collagen,” Zeichner tells Bustle.
Lim, S.H., Sun, Y., Thiruvallur Madanagopal, T. et al. Enhanced Skin Permeation of Anti-wrinkle Peptides via Molecular Modification. Sci Rep8, 1596 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-18454-z
Jeong, S., Yoon, S., Kim, S., Jung, J., Kor, M., Shin, K., Lim, C., Han, H. S., Lee, H., Park, K. Y., Kim, J., Chung, H. J., & Kim, H. J. (2019). Anti-Wrinkle Benefits of Peptides Complex Stimulating Skin Basement Membrane Proteins Expression. International journal of molecular sciences, 21(1), 73. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms21010073
Bauza, E., Oberto, G., Berghi, A., Dal, C. F., & Domloge, N. (2004). Collagen-like peptide exhibits a remarkable antiwrinkle effect on the skin when topically applied: in vivo study. International journal of tissue reactions, 26(3-4), 105–111.
Dr. Sandra Lee, M.D., aka Dr. Pimple Popper, board-certified dermatologist.
Dr. Jeannette Graf, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.