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Do peptides deserve a place in your skin care routine? A dermatologist weighs in

You've probably heard of this skin care ingredient before, but here's what it really does.
Woman putting serum on her face
Kara Birnbaum/ TODAY

From bakuchiol to hyaluronic acid to niacinamide, there is no shortage of trendy ingredients to choose from in skin care products. Peptides, while not exactly new, are another ingredient you've probably seen listed on countless product packages, but you may have no idea what they actually do. Is this an ingredient you should be looking for? Are they safe to use?

In short, yes. Peptides are a harmless ingredient that generally won’t negatively affect you, explained Dr. Susan Massick, board-certified dermatologist at The Ohio State University. To gain a greater understanding of the commonly-touted skin care ingredient, Shop TODAY asked Massick for her expert insight.

How do peptides work for your skin?

“Peptides are basically a short chain of amino acids,” Massick said. “Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, so peptides are a generic term for small chains of these amino acids.”

Studies have shown that peptides can help repair your skin barrier or produce collagen when used in certain products or combinations. However, with surrounding science still being so new, there’s no concrete long-term evidence of its anti-aging benefits yet, she explained.

“While they may be nourishing, hydrating [or] moisturizing [for your skin], in terms of [whether] they really reverse aging? It may not necessarily be as effective as they’d hope."

Despite the lack of current data available on the ingredient, she assured us that peptides are very safe to use. “They’re not harmful in any way and I think that’s important in terms of trying to find all these products,” she said.

Unlike other ingredients that can irritate your skin, Massick says that’s typically not the case with peptides. In fact, certain peptides have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, according to a 2018 study.

But again, don’t expect to see miracles from solely using products with peptides. “Some of them look really interesting in terms of all the things that they promise on their packaging but in terms of 100 percent age reversal, it's probably not going to happen,” she advised.

Tips for using skin care products with peptides

When looking for a product with peptides, Massick recommends opting for creams and serums. “I don’t think they’re necessarily as effective when they’re in the washes because they don’t really have enough time to penetrate the skin when you just put them on and directly rinse them off,” she elaborated.

When you find a product you want to try, Massick stresses the importance of starting with a test area to assess any irritation that may arise and checking the other ingredients that are in the formula. She says that oftentimes peptides work synergistically with ingredients like vitamin C, hyaluronic acid and niacinamides, so you should keep an eye on the ingredients list to see if any of these or other beneficial skin care ingredients are present.

Like every dermatologist, Massick also stressed the importance of making sure you have proper sun protection in your skin care regimen. “That’s really what’s going to be driving…the changes to the skin that we’re trying to combat and reverse with these products,” she said.

Best peptide creams and serums, according to shoppers

Stratia Interface

Shop TODAY associate editor Fran Sales called out this peptide-filled moisturizer for its affordability and compatibility with her sensitive skin. She says it layers well on top of her serums and she alternates it with retinol in her skin cycling routine. Other standout ingredients include hyaluronic acid, licorice root extract and rosehip seed oil.

The Ordinary Multi-Peptide + HA Serum

Peptides and hyaluronic acid work side by side in this serum from The Ordinary. According to the brand, benefits include reduced appearance of crow's-feet, noticeably smoother skin and improved skin elasticity. One Sephora reviewer called it their "new most cherished staple."

Neutrogena Rapid Firming Peptide Contour Lift Cream

After 16 weeks of using this cream, more than 90 percent of subjects in a clinical study conducted by the brand saw visibly plumper skin and a more contoured jawline appearance. It has more than 3,300 verified five-star ratings on Amazon.

Cocokind Resurrection Poplypeptide Cream

One of the brand's newest launches, this polypeptide cream is already a hit amongst shoppers with a near-perfect five-star rating on the brand's site. Its description touts benefits like "improving radiance, supporting the skin's natural collagen and helping reduce the look of fine lines and wrinkles."

Tula Skincare 24-7 Moisture Intense Ultra Hydrating Day & Night Cream

Another brand a new launch that features peptides as one of its key ingredients, this cream from Tula is also formulated with hyaluronic acid, squalane and collagen. "The ingredients were right on point for my super sensitive rosacea-prone skin," one Ulta reviewer raved.

Paula's Choice Boost Peptide Booster Serum

Chock-full of eight peptides, this serum boasts the ability to make your skin feel firmer and reduce the appearance of lines. Reviewers say it makes their skin feel "velvety soft," adding that they saw the most success when using it combined with a moisturizer.

Olay Collagen Peptides Wrinkle Correction Serum

Made with a formula of niacinamide and dual peptides, this unscented wrinkle correction serum is designed to absorb quickly into the skin for rejuvenation and a lifted look.

Eva Naturals Peptide Complex Serum

You'll find hyaluronic acid alongside peptides in this serum that claims to heal and repair skin while improving tone and texture. It's highly-rated on Amazon and has almost 9,000 verified five-star ratings. Reviewers like using it in conjunction with other products like vitamin C or retinols.

The Inkey List Collagen Booster Firming Peptide Serum

This serum is formulated to help address firmness and elasticity concerns, as well as fine lines and wrinkles. A key ingredient is the Matrixyl 3000 peptide complex, which is meant to mimic the effect of natural collagen on the skin, making it appear plumper and firmer, according to the brand. One Sephora reviewer called it "absolutely a staple!"

Bliss Bright Idea Vitamin C & Tri-Peptide Collagen-Protecting & Brightening Moisturizer

Deliver hydration for soft, supple skin with this moisturizer from Bliss that is vegan, paraben-, phthalate- and formaldehyde-free. Almost 2,000 verified shoppers on Amazon have given it a perfect five-star rating. According to brand highlights, it allegedly defends from future free radical damage.

First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Firming Collagen Cream with Peptides and Niacinamide

Most known for their popular Intense Hydration cream, First Aid Beauty also has this firming collagen version in their Ultra Repair line. According to a clinical study conducted by the brand with 30 participants, 100 percent of them said their skin felt and looked instantly hydrated and nourished after four weeks.

Skinfix Barrier+ Triple Lipid-Peptide Cream

Keeping an intact skin barrier is vital for things like protecting from excess water loss and external threats like allergens and chemicals. A multi-award winner, this cream has a triple lipid peptide complex (as implied by the name), a peptide protein blend, a seaweed hyaluronate blend and lily root extract. It has 1,000 five-star reviews on Sephora's website, with one shopper admitting they're on their third repurchase.

DRMTLGY Peptide Night Cream

Sporting nearly a perfect five-star average rating on the brand's site, this cream is created with a blend of five peptides and three ceramides and is designed to help restore skin to a strong, healthy state. "It truly feels like a luxurious product I get to put on my face every night," one shopper raved.

Mario Badescu Super Peptide Serum

This serum is made with a slew of powerhouse ingredients like green tea, Saint John's Wort extract, sage and willow bark extracts, aloe vera, chamomile extract and more. A midweight formula, it touts benefits like supporting skin renewal to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, improving moisture retention and restoring softness to the skin.

Drunk Elephant Protini Polypeptide Moisturizer

This highly-rated moisturizer contains nine signal peptides as a key ingredient to plump, firm and restore bounce to the skin, according to the brand. Ulta reviewers also raved about how lightweight it is, along with the lack of stickiness or greasiness they experienced after using it.