Article by: Perry Romanowski

There are a number of types of ingredients offered to formulators as “active ingredients.” You can find peptides-cosmeticsmolecules claimed to boost collagen production, turn off melanocytes, and even grow hair. In reality, if these ingredients actually worked as they were marketed your cosmetic would be a drug (at least in the USA) and would technically be illegal to sell. However, if you word your claims properly you can incorporate some of these ‘active ingredients’ in a proper way and your marketers can use them to compel consumers to buy. One of the most popular of these “active ingredients” are peptides. In this post we’ll look at peptides a little more in-depth.

Cosmetic peptides

If you’ve taken any biology or biochemistry you’ve heard the word peptide. Most cosmetic consumers have also heard the word peptide as they’ve been included in marketing stories for decades. The term peptide is the generic name given to a short string of amino acids. Recall that amino acids are the basic monomers used to create all proteins.

Peptides are different from proteins in that they are much shorter and don’t have the same type of secondary folding structures. As a rule of thumb, if there are 50 or fewer amino acids hooked together the chain is called peptide. If there are more than 50 it’s called a protein. Proteins can be VERY large and are organized in such a way that they have biological properties (for example proteins are components of hair and skin.) Some peptides occur naturally in your body and others are made synthetically to mimic the function of natural peptides.

Why are peptides used?

Peptides are used in cosmetics for a variety of reasons depending on the type of peptide used. We’ll dive deeper into the different types but the primary reasons for including peptides in formulas include anti-aging effects, anti-irritation effects, and marketing. The most effective of these reasons is the marketing story that the peptides allow you to tell. But there is at least some evidence that peptides in cosmetics have some effect.

Types of peptides

There are four types of peptides including signal peptides, carrier peptides, neurotransmitter inhibitor peptides, and enzyme inhibitor peptides.

Neurotransmitter inhibitors
These peptides are added to cosmetics to reduce wrinkles because they inhibit acetylcholine release by a variety of chemical interactions. The most extreme neurotransmitter include the poison Curare and the Botulism toxin (Botox). Less invasive versions have been developed for use on skin and the hypothesis is that they relax the muscles of facial expression so they don’t contract as much which causes wrinkles to relax. These neurotransmitter inhibitor peptides have been shown to reduce certain types of wrinkles by approximately 30% (in in vivo studies.)

Signal peptides
These peptides are added to skin cosmetics because they can stimulate skin fibroblasts to produce more collagen, elastin, and other proteins in the matrix of the dermis. Boosting these structure proteins makes skin look firmer and fuller. GHK is an example of a signal peptide and it was one of the first peptides discovered – it was originally isolated from human plasma in the early 1970s and it’s wound healing properties were first observed in mid 80s- which goes to show that this technology is relatively new. These days the ingredient is synthetically engineered.

Carrier peptides
These peptides deliver trace elements, like copper and magnesium, which help with wound repair and enzymatic processes. These trace elements have been shown to improve pro collagen synthesis, the elasticity of skin, and overall skin appearance. For example, a copper complex is made of amino acids glycine, histamine, and lysine and is used in the treatment of diabetic neuropathic ulcers. These are sometimes called “penetrating peptides” or “membrane transduction peptides.” GHK-Cu which is a copper carrier has been used for firming skin.

Enzyme inhibitor peptides
Enzyme inhibitor peptides can reduce the breakdown of collagen and other proteins by interfering with processes that break down those proteins. For example, some enzymes (such as MMP or Matrix Metalloprotease) degrade structural proteins like collagen. A peptide derived from rice proteins can inhibit the activity of the MMP enzyme and thus keep more collagen around. Peptides derived from soy proteins can also work to inhibit enzymes, specifically proteases. They may have some potential for inhibiting hair growth and reducing pigmentation.

Do peptides in cosmetics work?

Well, this really depends on what you mean by “work”. From a marketing standpoint they definitely work to sell products.

From a cosmetic standpoint, they really aren’t allowed to work. If the mechanism by which these ingredients are said to work is actually true, then these products would be considered drugs not cosmetics. It’s a case where if the products work as they say then they would be misbranded drugs. But if they are cosmetics, they don’t work.

You still may be wondering what the scientific evidence says about the effectiveness of these ingredients. This is a little more difficult to discover as there are so many different compounds.

There is some evidence that GHK-Cu can have a firming effect on skin when topically applied.
There is also evidence that Palmitoyl Pentapeptide helps with collagen synthesis, Pentapeptide 3 can work like Botox and Rice & Soy Peptides can work to reduce pigmentation, hair growth and other things. But whether they really work when delivered from cosmetics is debatable. Perhaps this is an area where formulators can have some real impact.

But remember, if your product works it’s probably an illegal drug.


  1. Avatar

    When buying these peptides dry and in sealed vials, are they for injecting into the skin like botox or are they to be mixed in cream and applied? I inject tb-500 and bpc-157 into my skin and they helped heal an injury. I have no idea what to do with “cosmetic peptides”. I have had great results with retin-a topically applied (which is not a peptide).

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      This article is about topical products, not injected products.

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  3. Avatar

    Hi, I have a couple of questions about those peptides:
    1. As they are built on amino acid blocks, would they be deteriorated as in protein?
    2. What would classify a substance as drug?
    3. Is botox a drug?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      1. Yes, they can deteriorate like most any other protein.
      2. No, they are not drugs because in cosmetics they are not really effective
      3. Yes, botox is a drug. That is why it can only be prescribed by a doctor.

      1. Avatar
        Karl Lintner

        I just hit on this article and the exchanges there.
        SORRY, but this is all wrong! A product (whatever it contains) is NOT a drug because it has biological efficacy, but only because the CLAIM of such activity associated with the product is considered a drug claim by the FDA! It is the INTENT (presentation, wording of the claim) but not the composition and not the physiological activity of a marketed formulation that decides between a drug and a cosmetic. If a cosmetic product were an illegal drug just because it has bioactivity (reducing wrinkles, firming, toning, all measurable and indeed documented activitie’s), the 90% of all products on the market would be illegal drugs. Absurd.
        Look at the Warning Letters the FDA has sent out. They challenge the claims, NOT the activity. FDA KNOWS that retinol has collagen stimulating activity when put on the skin, and thus some measurable wrinkle reducing potency. But if the claim by Neutrogena or anybody else is soft enough (“helps reducing the appearance of wrinkles” instead of “reduces wrinkles by 30%), then retinol can be legally used in a cosmetic product. The same is of course true for peptides! They have been shown in numerous vehicle controlled studies (not all of them published for evident reasons of competition) to reduce wrinkles visibly. But the CLAIMS in the advertisement are written in ways to avoid the warning from FDA.
        Even European jurisprudence acknowledges that cosmetic products may possess physiological potency without being classified as a drug, as long as they are not CLAIMED to prevent or treat disease or having systemic effects.
        So please, stop saying that bioactivity of a cosmetic is incompatible with the law. And stop denigrating cosmetic efficacy wholesale; yes, there are some outrageous claims out there, from some cowboy companies; but serious brands to have the clinical evidence of skin improvement based on bioactivity. Consumers expect too much, read too much into the ads, and are not patient enough to wait and measure their improvement over 4-6 months.
        Best regards

        1. Avatar
          Perry Romanowski

          Thanks so much for commenting Karl. It’s good to have an expert in this particular subject weigh in.

          I’m sure there is much on which we agree. I agree that the Claim is of upmost important. That is what I was trying to convey when I wrote “if you word your claims properly you can incorporate some of these ‘active ingredients’ in a proper way.” Perhaps I wasn’t clear.

          I also agree that cosmetic products can have physiological effects. Your example of retinol is a good one. There’s evidence Niacinamide has an effect and even petrolatum could be argued to have a physiological effect.

          There are two areas in which our positions might diverge.

          1. You suggest it is the Claim which makes something a drug or cosmetic. I believe that the composition can also make something a drug. And this position is supported by the FDA who recently gave a presentation on this exact topic & shared the following slide.

          Now, whether peptides fall in the category of “have a well-known therapeutic effect” is debatable. They may not now, but at any point the FDA could decide that they do. We also disagree about whether “90% of all products on the market…” are illegal drugs. I believe technically they are and you haven’t provided any convincing evidence to the contrary. Clearly, the FDA is OK to ignore those violations but that doesn’t make it any less technically illegal. Is there a place where the FDA has said something to the contrary?

          2. Another area where we may disagree is the extent to which products are proven to work. In the last section of this post I listed some of the compounds that had published evidence behind their efficacy. But as far as unpublished work, unless a company is willing to publish their work I think it is prudent to be skeptical of any claim they make. This makes scientific sense to me. I’ve also seen first-hand the quality (or lack thereof) of unpublished work used to support cosmetic claims.

          I wrote this post three years ago and while I likely would’ve written it a bit differently, I don’t disagree with the overall conclusions. There is still limited evidence of the effectiveness of these ingredient. Also, we shouldn’t be encouraging formulators to create products that work like drugs.

          I do appreciate your perspective and welcome any additional information you could provide that would change my view. I wish neither to believe wrong information nor to misinform people.

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  6. Avatar

    I have a liquid form of 99% neurolinum which has a trademark next to the name. This is called peptides type A. It includes 50% syncoll
    19% Acetyl Octapeptide – 3
    12% acetyl hexapeptide – 8
    12% pentapeptide – 3
    5% matrixyl 3000
    1% eyeseryl
    1% Hyaluronic Acid

    I am not sure what it is used for because the company name generica Pharmaceuticals I cannot seem to locate the product can anyone help me?

  7. Avatar

    Cosmetics often state that their peptide source is silk. This sounds like a marketing statement. ‘Hunan Plasma Peptides’ doesn’t have the right sound for sales I guess! Are any peptides mentioned above as even remotely having skin repairing effects found in silk?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      No, they probably do not repair skin when delivered from cosmetics.

  8. Avatar
    Breck Lewis

    I really like how you explained the differences between peptides and proteins. I believe these two are often mistaken and people just don’t realize the difference. I just started taking peptides and noticed a huge difference with anti-irritation effects. How often is it safe to be taking these peptides?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      If you’re referring to ingesting them, I don’t know. If you are referring to applying them topically, then I don’t think there is a limit.

  9. Avatar
    Jason Scott

    I have recently been researching a ton about peptides. I find it so interesting has to how they were discovered and continue to help us today. I know that they have many cosmetic uses but I wonder what their medical use potential. Are you aware of any medical uses of peptides?

  10. Avatar
    Bill Barnett

    I have been using peptides for a very long time. I feel like they help my body and I have never had any complaints. I didn’t really know where they came from and why they work, so your info was very useful.

  11. Avatar
    Joel Sampson

    Neuropeptides are fascinating. It never occurred to me that inhibiting the neurons could affect how your skin wrinkles. I’m definitely going to look into this industry a little more. Thanks for the great article.

  12. Avatar
    Raylin Sutter

    I love to make my own makeup and am curious to know whether or not I should buy research peptides that I could put with the ingredients? Normally I use all natural ingredients that I can easily find around my home. I am just really interested in the anti-irritation effects. I deal with a lot of skin irritation and that’s why I make my own product.

  13. Avatar
    Emily Smith

    Thank you so much for the information about types of peptides in cosmetics. I have been studying chemistry for a while now and I just received an assignment from my professor to research something that we use every day and their chemical makeup. Since I am a woman, I use make up so that is perfect. Personally, it is fascinating how peptides are used in cosmetics. I need to do even more research on this.

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      Great! Hope it helps.

  14. Avatar
    Jeff Bridges

    I briefly remember hearing the word peptide in chemistry class. I didn’t know that they were used in cosmetics. It’s interesting that they can have effects such as reducing itchiness and even anti-aging.

  15. Avatar
    Vivian Peazer

    Thanks for all the information, especially about GHK-Cu having a firming affect on the skin. I’ve been looking for something to be able to do that to my skin, and this might be the answer. Who knew that peptides could be used like this!

  16. Avatar
    Mia Boyd

    I didn’t know that they use peptides in cosmetics; does that mean the makeup I’m wearing right now contains some? I also didn’t know that there are different kinds of peptides. Are there any that are better than others? What do you think about neurotransmitter inhibitor peptides?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      Unless it is called out on the label you probably aren’t wearing makeup with peptides. Right now they are simply claims ingredients so there is not much reason to seek out peptides in cosmetics.

  17. Avatar
    Kevin Ewell

    What are your opinions on the delivery of these peptides transdermally (via liposome or micelle)? Also, what if no claim is made, yet results are seen. Peptides aside ingredients such as Retinol, Alpha Arbutin, and Growth Factors all show significant performance in “beautifying skin”.

    Do you believe that the current distinction in the US for Drug to cosmetic is a fair line to draw given the time constrains of the NDA process. Should we adopt the “quasi drug” systems other countries have in place?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      Some peptides can penetrate the skin but using liposomes as delivery systems hasn’t been shown to work on a large scale. Liposomes are just too sensitive to large scale production if you ask me.

      If these products are working, they are drugs and the FDA could ask manufacturers to stop selling them. I’ve not seen evidence that things like Alpha Arbutin and Growth factors show any significant performance benefits when compared in a placebo controlled study.

      I’m not sure if we should adopt a quasi drug system. Perhaps we could just require companies to conduct placebo controlled studies if they want to make specific claims. Do “quasi drug” products work demonstrably better than products sold in the US?

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