Peptides vs Retinol: Which Anti-Aging Ingredient is Better for Wrinkles & Skin Tightening?

In the topical anti-aging products market, ingredients come and go. What doesn’t change is the desire for beautiful, soft, and hydrated skin with no wrinkles or other signs of aging. For the past few years, a showdown has been raging between two categories of ingredients that can fulfill this perennial desire. They are peptides and retinoids.

Which active ingredient gets the job done best? Is one better for your skin type? What side effects do you need to worry about? We’ll start with explaining how collagen works, as both peptides and retinoids increase collagen in your skin to keep you looking young. 

What is Collagen?

Most of your skin is collagen, a protein made of long chains of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. It’s the stuff that keeps your skin firm, thick, tight, and smooth. As you age, your collagen breaks down. Under normal conditions, your body doesn’t fully replace the collagen you lose because it produces it at a slower rate as you get older. Your skin becomes thinner and drier, leading to wrinkles.1  

What are Peptides?

When amino acids link together and form chains, these chains are called amino peptides. Amino peptides link together to form proteins. When your collagen breaks down, the resulting amino acid chains belong to the peptide category. Keep in mind that collagen is made of peptides. Many anti-aging creams and serums contain peptides because they help your skin remain soft, tight, and youthful.2 

Are Peptides Effective Wrinkle-Reducers?

In 2017, researchers published an in-depth review of existing studies of peptides in Cosmetics – An Open Access Journal from MDPI. It summarizes placebo studies using real human subjects, and the results look very good for skincare peptides.3 

Keep in mind that a human placebo study can show that a peptide works, and how well it works, but it doesn’t necessarily demonstrate HOW it works. Some skincare peptides penetrate the skin more easily than others. However, the ones that don’t may mimic communication between cells, providing benefits without needing to penetrate the skin.3 This is only speculation, but enzymes in the skin may break down the peptides into smaller ones that can enter the skin’s protective barrier more easily.4 

How Peptides Reduce Wrinkles & Tighten Skin

“Trick” the Body into Producing More Collagen

One common effect of peptides used in beauty products is that they trigger the production of collagen. Dermatologists and researchers typically agree that the peptides fool your body into “thinking” the peptides are decomposed collagen, so it produces more collagen.5 

Smooth Your Face Like Botox Does Without Injections

Botox reduces wrinkles near the eyes, mouth, cheeks, and forehead by inhibiting nerve signals in the face. It prevents damaging repetitive muscle movements and also gives your body a chance to repair existing wrinkles over time. Some peptides in topical products produce similar effects. One is called acetyl hexapeptide-8.6 No needles or appointments are required. It works quickly with immediate and noticeable effects. It’s also far less toxic than Botox.7 

Reduce Inflammation

Some peptides act as antioxidants, which are substances that prevent and repair skin damage from the sun, stress, smoking, air pollution, and normal aging processes. One is palmitoyl tetrapeptide-7. It reduces the production of interleukin. Your body produces interleukin as an inflammatory response to skin damage.8

What are Retinoids?

The two main retinoids are retinol and tretinoin, the latter of which is available only by prescription.9 Retinol appears in many over the counter skin serums, gels, lotions, and creams. Like peptides, retinol smooths wrinkles and tightens skin. It is considered more of a long-term solution in case you’re looking for quick results.10

How Does Retinol Beautify Your Skin?

Retinol is a form of vitamin A. It has no effects on the skin until enzymes transform it into retinaldehyde and then retinoic acid. The process can take a few weeks or more. The retinoic acid penetrates deeply into the skin and triggers collagen production. This smooths wrinkles and other blemishes over time.11 

Side Effects of Peptides

Side effects depend on which peptides you use. 

Acetyl Hexapeptide-8: It’s generally considered safe and nontoxic. A small percentage of people may experience mild itching.12 

Like Botox, it also blocks nerve impulses to facial muscles, which is fine if you don’t already have an impairment that limits muscle activity in your face. 

Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-7: This peptide is considered safe for all skin types. A 2016 study published in Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine followed 20 subjects who had no adverse reactions.13  

Other peptides in beauty products are typically safe as well, but you’ll need to research the possible side effects and contraindications of each one individually to be sure. 

Side Effects of Retinoids

Retinol can cause peeling, rashes, itching, and burning, especially during the first few applications, but it is rare.14 Besides, retinol can make your skin more sensitive to the damaging rays of the sun.14 Vitamin A and retinol decrease human life span, damage biological membranes, and impair the functioning of mitochondria. A 2015 review of studies published in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity noted that severe cases involved vitamin A supplement users. The researchers recommend caution for all vitamin A and retinoid products and call for further studies to investigate damage to cells and organs.15 In high enough doses, they can cause liver problems as well.16 On the other hand, the US National Institutes of Health do not believe that the retinoids in your beauty products will store themselves in your liver and cause liver problems like other vitamin A therapies would. However, they do recommend close monitoring and liver testing for retinoid patients who show possible adverse side effects.17 

Which Skincare Ingredient Should You Choose?

  • Both retinoids and peptides can beautify your skin. Though retinoids are great exfoliators, they require you to be more cautious about sun protection. In addition, retinol acts very slowly, as well.
  • Peptides require you to do a little more research because each one is different. But, if you want fast and lasting results, using a product containing peptides that are compatible with your skin type can help you achieve your goals. 

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