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What is a peptide?

Many creams out there are labelled as having "power peptides", "multi peptides" or even just "added peptides". It can be hard to tell if your skin will benefit from using peptides or if any of these even work! Here is a quick guide to what peptides are, which ones you want for your skincare routine, and how to quickly look up a peptide and figure out if it's any good.

Enjoy this read and, as always, click the numbers in square brackets to check out all the references!

What is a peptide?

Peptides make up muscles and tissues and perform important functions in your body. They’re made up of two or more amino acids (AAs) that are linked in a chain bond, called a peptide bond. You can think of amino acids as basic building blocks in the body.

If you see the term polypeptide, that just means there are multiple peptides attached together. The difference between a peptide vs. a protein is that peptides are short and have about 2 to 50 amino acids bound together. Proteins have 50 or more amino acids bound together (they can have 1000s of AAs together!).

Peptides do all kind of things in the body[i]. For the sake of creams and serums though, we’re interested in the fact that they help in making collagen, melatonin, and elastin [ii].

Click here to read more about what collagen does in your skin.

Amino Acid Chart. The letters on the outside of the circle are symbols of the amino acids they are next to. Amino Acids are needed for life to exist!

So the peptides in my cream work just like the ones in my skin?

This is where it gets a little complicated. In theory, topically applied peptides shouldn’t work because they are too big to penetrate into the skin.[iii] However, there are many studies that show that man-made peptides in creams actually can do some of the same things as naturally occurring ones. [iv]

Weird? Yes. Could I find a clear reason why they work despite their size? No. But, hey, if they can give your skin a plumper look[v] why not give them a try!

Okay, so which peptides are best for my skin?

Just writing the word ‘peptide’ on a jar is misleading because the word covers so many compounds. My suggestion would be to check the label and find out exactly which peptide(s) they added.

Once you have that pull out your trusty smartphone and search “evidence of [name of peptide], topical application on skin”. Your first few hits should say things like “enhanced skin permeation”, “rejuvenation”, “double blind study”, and “topical peptide treatment with effective results”.

The neater the Google hit, the more likely it is selling a product. Look for hits full of information that don't look neat!

Peptide Categories

Another thing to keep in mind is that topical peptides fall into 4 categories: Carrier, signal, enzyme inhibitor, and neurotransmitter-inhibitor[vi].

All four types have shown benefit to skin in slightly different ways. I'm only bringing this up because if you see one of these four categories when you're searching, it's a good sign that you're holding an effective product.

Finally, keep an eye out for what sources you are finding. You want the hits to come from research journals and unbiased articles, not just from the companies that make the creams!

Here are some common and effective peptides you can find on cream or serum labels:

Palmitoyl pentapeptide[vii]

Palmitoyl oligopeptide[viii]


Acetyl hexapeptide [x]


Argireline [xii]

woman admiring her complexion in the mirror
Always read the fine print on your labels!

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