Which is Better: Retinoids or Peptides?



Philosophy Miracle Worker Miraculous Anti-agin...
Philosophy Miracle Worker Miraculous Anti-aging Retinoid Pads and Solution contain retinol. (Photo credit: L’Adamant Fille)

Submitted via the FutureDerm.com Facebook page:

Would you recommend Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Remover [retinol] over Hydroxatone [peptides]? Please advise!


Dear Maria,

Research supports retinoids over peptides right now.  Here’s the lowdown:


Boots No7 Protect and Perfect 30ml BNIB
Boots No7 Protect and Perfect has retinyl palmitate, which is 20 times weaker than retinol. (Photo credit: msdm)

Retinol is still the gold standard for anti-aging, recommended second most by dermatologists, bested by only sunscreen.  As Dr. Ranella Hirsch, former president-elect of the American Society of Dermatologic Surgeons, once said: “We have beautiful, profound data that shows if you use [retinoids] for 20 years, you’re going to look a lot better than someone who doesn’t.”

Retinoids work in three different ways:

Better as Prescription or Better Over-the-Counter?

Pharmacy Rx symbol
Prescription retinoids are more potent, but over-the-counter retinol penetrates the skin better. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The short answer is prescription retinoids are more potent, but over-the-counter retinoids penetrate the skin better.  At least one study shows that prescription tretinoin is 20 times stronger than over-the-counter retinol, which in turn is another 20 times stronger than retinyl palmitate (Clinics in Dermatology, 2001).

The reason?  Retinol must be converted to tretinoin with the skin in order to be effective.  And retinyl palmitate requires even more reactions:  breaking the palmitic acid bonds, then being converted to tretinoin.

However, over-the-counter retinol also penetrates the skin better than prescription tretinoin or retinyl palmitate when each are put into equivalent delivery systems (Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 1997).  This raises the obvious question:  Which, then, has greater effect:  prescription tretinoin or retinol?  To be completely honest, prescription tretinoin is probably still more potent.  I prefer it in microencapsulated, time-release, concentrated gel form, as in Retin-A.  (And if you are able to wait until August 16, I’m debuting the FutureDerm Time Release Retinol 0.5 that day – it has microencapsulated, time-release 0.5% retinol in a lightweight gel formula that lays well under any other moisturizer.  I’m really excited about it, and I don’t want to advertise it too much, but I am really proud of it and felt it was relevant here!)

What about Peptides?

Peptides have an array of findings of benefits for the skin, including fighting inflammation and stimulating collagen production. But some experts say they are too large and unstable to have real benefits.

Peptides have a plethora of research findings of their own.  For instance, palmitoyl tetrapeptide-7 has been touted for its anti-inflammatory abilities (Clinics in Dermatology, 1999), while palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3, a staple of Olay products, is lauded because it stimulates collagen production (International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 2005; Cosmeceutical Peptides, 2007).

Yet some dermatologists and scientists are still skeptical about the efficacy of peptides.  “Peptides are unable to penetrate the skin, and are unstable in the formulations,” according to Dr. Leslie Baumann, M.D., author of The Skin Type Solution and founder of The Baumann Cosmetic Research Institute.  And still others show that peptides are able to penetrate the skin and exhibit peak efficacy only when they are combined with delivery systems like copper (Journal of Cosmetic Science, 2008).

Still, I would not give up on peptides just yet.  Given that they are available in many formulations with other beneficial ingredients, like ~4% niacinamide in Olay Pro X products or antioxidants like vitamin E and coenzyme Q10 in the MLA Skin Care Line, I would continue to use them – just not instead of retinoids, potent antioxidants, niacinamide/nicotinic acid, or alpha hydroxy acids.

Bottom Line

The big 5 in anti-aging skin care is still arguably:

  • Sunscreen
  • Retinoids
  • Antioxidants
  • Alpha hydroxy acids
  • Niacinamide or nicotinic acid

At this time, I personally feel peptides may very well stimulate collagen production and reduce inflammation as-is.  But given the level of skepticism of some experts, until we have more definitive proof of their efficacy, I can only say to use peptides in addition to the 5 ingredients above –  not instead of them.

Hope this helps,


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  • Shelley

    I’m confused about which products cancel out other products in a chemical reaction. Currently during the day, I’m using C F E serum with Matrixyl 3000. At night retin A and niacinamide. Is this alright and are shy of these less stable than my C serum?

  • Dana

    Hi Thanks for this article. Would you mind writing an article about what we can or can not mix with what? I am always disappointed at the fact that no cosmetic manufacturer states in their labels what ingredients not to mix with their products. To this moment I have asked directly or indirectly to each of the most popular drugstore brands ” can I use your product X with a product Y that contains Z ingredient” I get either no answer or a sales pitch that doesn’t respond to my question. It seems as though they are afraid to say you can’t use my product with such and such from the competition. I get it they want to sell their products but I don’t always like everything from a particular line or can afford to buy an entire skin care line even if it’s a drugstore brand and so I must mix brands. Hope you can write about this. Thanks!

  • diane

    In the past you have commented to put on peptides after retinoids, but what is the peptide product says to put on first and the retinoid is a cream? Also, I use Skinceuticals CE in the morning, is it ok to put a peptide after that?

    Finally, can you recommend a niacinamide day cream for dry skin that I can put on after the Skinceuticals CE?


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