The perks of peptides have long been debated, but Paula Begoun reckons that the ingredient shows impressive promise for skincare of the future. Here’s how peptides work, and why she’s so psyched…

We had the privilege of interviewing ‘Cosmetics Cop’, Beautypedia  creator and  Paula’s Choice Skincare  founder Paula Begoun recently, and when we put the question to her of what was the most exciting ingredient in skincare currently, she came back like a flash:

“New peptides. These are just wildly significant for skin as they are performance-specific. Each one is designed to communicate a different skincare task such as improving skin colour, hydration, firming skin or making new fibroblasts. Unbelievable, and they’re compatible with all of the other brilliant anti-ageing ingredients currently in use so the consumer gets even greater benefit.”

Before we move on to the peptide novelty, here’s a peptide précis as to what they can do, what they can’t and how to spot them…

Peptides in a nutshell

Unlike with the likes of other restorative skincare ingredients such as the much lauded retinol  and hyaluronic acid , peptides can seem a bit mind boggling and mysterious, and the fact that there are hundreds of them out there doesn’t help. Dermatologists at skincare brand DCL  sum up the conundrum neatly:

“In the skincare world, peptides are the beauty equivalent of ‘gluten-free’ in the food realm: Everybody looks for it on packaging, but many aren’t sure why it makes a difference. Yet peptides are not simply marketing jargon.”

As Paula would concur in her clear-cut explanation of what they actually do:

“Peptides are fragments of proteins. On their own, peptides are made up of amino acids. When amino acids are combined in certain formations they create specific peptides, and when peptides are formed in a certain way, they make specific proteins.

“Proteins are the fundamental building blocks of skin. Without peptides, skin doesn’t remain intact and the result is loss of firmness, appearance of wrinkles, texture changes, and skin that doesn’t bounce back as it once did.”

DCL present collagen as a peptide-in-action case study:

“Think of them as air-traffic controllers for your skin. One of our skin’s most important proteins is collagen, which gives our skin its thickness. Collagen breaks down in the skin due to age, environmental factors, UV rays and stress, causing wrinkles to form. The good news is that peptides, when applied topically to the skin, can then send a signal to produce new collagen, leading to the appearance of younger, more supple skin.”

In addition to revving up collagen synthesis, peptides are thought to strengthen other proteins in our skin such as keratin and elastin, and the abundance of different peptides out there work in different ways towards different aims, as Paula explains:

“Some peptides have demonstrated a remarkable skin-soothing effect, while others can improve the appearance of wrinkles, loss of firmness, and even help to soften the look of expression lines.”

We’re about ready to throw a party for peptides, but how does one go about locating them?

What to look for on the label

Given that there can be numerous peptides in one product alone, going on a specific peptide safari might seem complicated, but clearly the word ‘peptide’ is a giveaway, as is the term ‘palmitoyl’. Matrixyl  is one of the most well-known collagen-stimulating peptides on the skincare scene, while DCL highlights a synthetic peptide called Syn-ake, “which claims to reduce the depth of wrinkles while increasing smoothness.”

Paula recommends not getting too bogged down in the detective work:

“There are dozens of peptides a cosmetic company can use in a formula and it would take quite a bit of research to know which ones do what and how well they work in comparison to others. In general a peptide would be specifically listed as a peptide within a long technical name.”

A product loaded with peptides might be starting to sound a bit holy grail-ish, however, hold that thought…

The problem with peptide pushing

Given the wide scope of skin issues that peptides can address, they may look to be the answer to all of your skincare woes on paper, but don’t be seduced by peptide spin. Paula puts it plainly:

“In terms of the fuss over peptides, although there are intriguing reasons to consider them, the hype is mostly about the cosmetic industry’s perpetuation that there’s one magic ingredient or group of ingredients that’s finally, at long last, the anti-ageing answer. It's simply not true. There’s no single solution for all the signs of ageing- we admit it would be great if it were really that simple.

“Just like there isn’t one healthy food to eat or supplement to take, there isn’t one best, does-it-all ingredient or group of ingredients for your skin. Skin is the most complex organ of the human body so as you can imagine, its needs cannot possible come down to what a single peptide or blend of peptides can provide.”

As with diet, it’s all about balance…

“Any skincare formula worthy of your hard earned cash must include the specialized ingredients  we talk about all the time such as antioxidants, skin-replenishing ingredients, and skin-restoring ingredients (which includes peptides). Peptides on their own aren’t capable of doing it all if your goal is to achieve long-lasting smooth, soft, hydrated, radiant, firmer-appearing and younger-looking skin.”

Also, if you see a peptide-rich product purporting to mimic the effects of botox and the like, back away this instant. Paula’s not down with that:

“Despite claims to the contrary, peptides cannot plump lips (at least not to a noticeable extent), stop sagging skin, work just like cosmetic corrective procedures, or eliminate dark circles or puffy eyes. You’ll see all of these claims and more on products with peptides, but such claims are not supported by published, peer-reviewed research.”

Some scientists and skincare experts argue that peptide molecules cannot have an effect on skin as they are technically too large to penetrate, and they’re also not the most stable of skincare ingredients- they can easily become inactive in water-based formulas and need to be packaged in a way that prevents exposure to light and air (as is the case with vitamin C  and pretty much every beneficial skincare ingredient). Paula is firmly anti-jars for precisely this reason. Another issue that Begoun raises re: peptide stability is their enzyme clash:

“Because peptides are vulnerable to enzymes, the abundant enzymes present in skin can break the peptides down the the point where they have no effect at all.”

At present you might be thinking that peptides are edging towards towards the pointless, but it is possible to skirt the above issues…

Pioneering peptides

There’s no getting around bad packaging, but synthetic peptides (read: created in a lab) show greater potential than ever for addressing skin’s more niche needs according to Paula:

“New peptides are a group of specialised cell communicating ingredients where each one can address a very specific need such as skin discolouration, hydration, firmness and skin support.

“I think that they present an exciting future opportunity in skincare because they’re very sophisticated in how they work: other cell communicating ingredients such as retinol are brilliant but more generalized in how they function. The latest peptides are helpful for all skin types, but particularly if the concern the peptide addresses is the one relevant to you.”

Just what are the scientists up to make such peptide power happen?

“The latest research is examining how different types of synthesized peptides can enter the living membranes of cells and, more interestingly, transport biologically active ingredients to these cells without them breaking down en route. Some peptides have demonstrated a remarkable anti-inflammatory effect. Creating specific peptide chains in the lab and then attaching a fatty acid component to them allows peptides to overcome their inherent limitations when it comes to being absorbed and remaining stable. Lab-engineered peptides appear to have the kind of efficacy and benefit that go beyond the skin’s surface, which is exciting, but there’s still more to learn.”

In short, watch this space, but for current peptide-rich products, see below, and Paula urges you not to be shy when you apply:

“They can and should be used every day, the need for cells to behave as healthy young cells require daily attention.”

Why Paula Begoun never touches products with fragrance

Read more about the benefits of peptides, and just about every other skincare ingredient under the sun, in  The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here , £11.99, by Paula Begoun, Bryan Barron and Desiree Stordahl