SKIN | What the hell are peptides?

Image of peptide-rich products including eye creams and serums with peptides

Peptides! What are they? Good question. Plenty of skincare products use them—you might have seen Clinique’s new Pep-Start eye cream, as an example—but no one has ever really explained to me what they are or what they do. I’ve done a bit of research and I’ve got some answers, so if you’re wondering whether peptides are good for your skin, whether they’re anti-aging or just another marketing buzzword, I’m here to help.

What are peptides?

To understand the role of peptides in relation to the skin, we need to know a bit about collagen. Collagen is found in the dermis, which is the middle layer of your skin. Collagen provides your skin with structure, strength, and along with elastin, elasticity—the ability to bounce back. Collagen is a protein, and there’s actually a family of collagen molecules, all made up of three long protein chains held together in a strong triple helix. Each of these protein chains is a polypeptide.

So, peptides are portions of protein, chains of between 2 and 50 amino acids—again, a category of molecules rather than one specific molecule. They are a component of collagen, and they’re what collagen breaks down into when it is damaged.

Where do peptides come from? Are peptides natural?

Peptides can be either synthetic or natural. They’re found in our skin naturally, and they’re also found in a lot of protein-rich sources, like seaweed, algae, and milk. The problem with using naturally-derived peptides in skincare, however, is that it’s harder to control the exact peptides and lengths of amino acid chains used—and the less stable your ingredients are, the harder it is to make a quality product with measurable results. For this reason, a lot of peptides used in skincare are synthetic.

How do peptides work?

Collagen breaks down into peptides, so when your skin senses the presence of peptides, it thinks it needs to create more collagen. There’s some evidence to suggest that when you put more peptides on your skin topically, your skin produces more collagen accordingly.

But what do they do for your skin? Do they make a visible difference?

They do! Peptides can be effective anti-aging ingredients. Stimulating collagen production with peptides can lead to stronger, more supple and plump skin. All these things make wrinkles appear less wrinkly, so while peptides can’t get rid of your wrinkles entirely, they can diminish their appearance. Which is the same thing, really.

Do I have to have wrinkles to use them?

Nope! As with all anti-aging skincare, prevention is better than a cure (because there isn’t a real cure). Everyone’s skin will benefit from supporting its collagen production. And if you’re wondering if there’s such a thing as having too much collagen in your skin… well there’s a rare autoimmune disease called scleroderma, but you’re not going to cause that with topical application of peptides.

How will I know a product has peptides?

Look for ingredients with peptide in the name in the ingredients list! Not all peptides are made equally, but I can’t speak to every individual one. You may want to search the specific peptides included in a specific product if you’re wondering about their efficacy.

Do I need to do anything to make the peptides work?

Not really, although using retinols and chemical exfoliants like AHAs or BHA will help them to penetrate your skin.

Products with peptides

Clinique Pep-start eye cream

Clinique Pep-start eye cream*, $49
Pep-start came out at the start of the year to lots of fanfare and early-morning rave parties, I guess to show you that you can be peppy in the morning especially if you use this specific eye cream~~~ This is Clinique’s cheapest eye cream offer by far and is definitely targeted towards a younger audience. It has a large round plastic applicator designed to be used to spread the cream around your under-eye area, but I prefer applying it with my fingers. This does contain a long list of peptides, but I didn’t find it made an instant visible difference to my eye area like it claims to. It has a very lightweight texture, which may appeal if you don’t like balmy eye creams.

Estee Lauder Advanced Night Repair, Clinique Smart Eye Treatment and Indeed Labs Snoxin

Estee Lauder Advanced Night Repair, $129–$230
I haven’t written about ANR in any great detail on my blog because I’ve never brought myself to spend the money on a full-size bottle, but it’s a classic and truly effective serum. It has heaps of great ingredients like retinyl palmitate and sodium hyaluronate as well as tripeptide-32. I know I’m meant to be using anti-aging skincare before my skin starts showing signs of aging, but instead I’m picturing myself in a future where I’m older and wealthier and use dollops of the stuff daily.

Clinique Smart range, $95–$168
The Smart range was very popular when I worked at Clinique. I don’t buy into it being able to ID what your skin needs and provide that specifically, but it is an effective multi-tasking serum that can help both younger and aging skin. The Smart range contains a couple of peptides, including palmitoyl oligopeptide which Paula’s Choice lists as one of the best.

Indeed Labs Snoxin, $49
It’s a real shame about the name of this product! I have a tiny tube pictured but have also used this more extensively in the past (I gave my bigger tube of it to my Mum, though, in favour of using a more well-rounded serum). Snoxin is a dedicated ‘line-filling’ serum and while it’s not going to magically improve the appearance of your lines, it’s super functional. What I really like about all the Indeed Labs products is that they’re fragrance free and very basic, but are much more affordable than the big counter brands while being equally as effective, if not better.

Retinol Reface and Olay Regenerist Revitalizing Night Moisturizer

Indeed Labs Retinol Reface, $45
I’ve written about this recently so I won’t recap too much, but remember what I said above about retinol helping peptides work? They’re packaged together in this product, which makes it a bit less of a single-task serum than Snoxin, so I’d recommend Retinol Reface over Snoxin unless you know your skin is sensitive to retinols. This also has the added bonus of an air-tight pump as well as the opaque tube. Why isn’t everything packaged this sensibly?

Olay Regenerist Revitalising Night Cream, $40
I’ll be writing about this night cream a bit more in an upcoming post about niacinamide, but this does have a peptide in it quite high on the ingredients list (palmitoyl pentapeptide-3) which is a nice bonus. Olay products are also incredibly easy to access as they’re sold worldwide and I actually bought this from my supermarket here in NZ (and set off the alarms while walking out of the store with it, but that’s not important).

Sebamed Q10 Lifting Eye Cream

SebaMed Q10 Lifting Eye Cream*, $21
This eye cream contains a couple of peptides alongside sodium hyaluronate and the co-enzyme Q10. There’s some evidence that Q10 slows signs of aging, so that alongside peptides makes the SebaMed eye cream an appealing prospect for only $21. This eye cream absorbs very quickly and is very light-weight, like Pep-start, without sacrificing moisture.

Do you use any products with peptides, or will you seek them out?
You might want to take a look at the ingredients lists of products you’re using, as it turns out they’re in a lot of things!

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  • This was so interesting Morgan!

    • Thanks Lena! Thought I better pull out some more science. Niacinamide is next!

  • Imogen

    Great informative post Morgan! I must dig out my Clinique smart serum.