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You are here: Anti-Aging Skin Treatments > Topical Actives >

Copper peptides: Can you 'repair' a wrinkle?

If aging, as some say, is a disease, then wrinkles can be viewed as small, improperly healed wounds. Indeed wrinkles are characterized by incorrect deposition of collagen and imperfect skin cell layering, which is also seen in healed wounds albeit on a much larger scale. If so, could the agents that modify the process of wound healing (by minimizing scar formation and improving skin remodeling) have a potential to prevent or even reduce wrinkles? Well, possibly. A good example of a wound-healing agent that appears to also have anti-wrinkle potential is the class of compounds called copper peptides.

What exactly are copper peptides and how can they boost skin rejuvenation? Generally speaking, peptides are small fragments of proteins. (And the proteins are the key building blocks of most living tissues.) Certain kinds of peptides have an avid affinity for copper, to which they bind very tightly. The resulting compound consisting of a peptide and a copper atom has become known as a copper peptide.

The benefits of copper peptides for tissue regeneration were discovered by Dr. Loren Pickart in the 1970s. He found and patented a number of specific copper peptides (in particular, GHK copper peptides or GHK-Cu) that were particularly effective in healing wounds and skin lesions as well as some gastrointestinal conditions. One of the end results of this research was Iamin gel approved by the FDA for the treatment of acute and chronic wounds and ulcers.

A lot of substances can have a positive effect on wound healing. A distinctive feature of GHK copper peptides is that they reduce scar tissue formation while stimulating normal skin remodeling. In other words, they help better restore the damaged area to its original look.

The mechanism of copper peptide action is relatively complex. GHK-Cu induces the degradation of "extra-large" collagen aggregates found in scars and promotes the synthesis of smaller more regular collagen found in normal skin. It also promotes the synthesis of elastin, proteoglycans, glycosaminoglycans and other components of skin matrix. Other important effects of GHK-Cu include the ability to regulate the growth rate and migration of different types of cells; significant anti-inflammatory action; and the ability to prevent the release of oxidation-promoting iron into the tissues. The net result is a faster, better and "cleaner" healing.

You might say it's nice to have cleanly healed wounds, but what about people who do not have any wounds or ulcerations to heal? Can copper peptides be useful for regular skin protection and rejuvenation? It appears that they can. However, while the wound healing effects of copper peptide have been investigated and documented in many studies, much less research has been done so far on their cosmetic and anti-aging use. The available evidence indicated the following potential skin benefits:

  • Many existing skin care treatments are based on the concept of removing the outermost or even deeper layers of the skin. The resulting healing process stimulates skin remodeling leading to smoother, younger looking skin. Since copper peptides optimize healing and improve skin remodeling, then can augment the effect of treatments based on various forms of controlled skin injury. In particular, copper peptides can be useful after various forms of laser resurfacing, dermabrasion, and chemical peels. IMPORTANT: If you are considering using copper peptides after a particular procedure, make sure to discuss it with your physician.

  • Copper peptides are effective against various forms of skin irritation, mainly due to their anti-inflammatory effects. Skin irritation, even in the absence of open lesions, dramatically accelerates skin aging by promoting the formation of free radicals and other toxic byproducts. Some common skin rejuvenation treatments, such as tretinoin (Retin A, Renova) and alpha hydroxy acids, can cause irritation. If during treatment you experience skin irritation for an extended period of time, your skin will likely end up in a worse shape than when you started. In many cases, copper peptides can reduce or eliminate the irritation and help maximize treatment benefits.

  • It is always easier to prevent the damage than to fix it later. To a significant degree, skin aging is caused by the accumulation of minor day-to-day damage from sun, wind, detergents, acne, abrasions and so forth. As these minute lesions heal, they leave microscopic imperfections, which, eventually, accumulate to become visible signs of aging. While it remain to be further researched, it appears that copper peptide can help minimize the damage from daily wear and tear of the skin. For instance, one study demonstrated that copper peptides helped recover skin integrity after exposure to SLS, a common detergent found in many shampoos, cleansers, and dishwashing/laundry products.

  • It remains unclear whether copper peptides can reverse wrinkles and other signs of aging in the intact skin. Theoretically, it is possible since copper peptides promote the degradation of abnormally large cross-linked collagen (the one found in scars and, to a lesser degree, in wrinkles). They also stimulate the production of "regular" collagen found in normal skin. In one small study, copper peptides stimulated collagen production in the intact skin. In fact, in that study copper peptides produced a stronger stimulation of collagen sysnthesis than tretinoin (Retin A, Renova) or ascorbate (vitamin C).

At present, several skin care companies offer a range of copper peptide products. However, to the best of my knowledge, all copper peptides in these products are based on Dr. Pickart's patents.

Caution: While moderate use of copper peptides stimulates collagen synthesis and has antioxidant effect (by stimulating the antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase), excessive use can have an opposite effect by increasing the levels of free copper and/or by triggering excessive production of metalloproteinases. Free copper promotes free radical damage and collagen breakdown leading to accelerated skin aging. Metalloproteinases can digest collagen and elastin, weakening the skin and causing sag. These problems do not seem to occur among the majority of copper peptide users. However, there are anecdotal reports indicating that such side-effects might happen with overuse, incorrect use, or even normal use in sensitive individuals. Ideally, a sufficiently large study is needed to better quiantify these risk.

The bottom line

Copper peptides are a promising skin treatment. Their ability to improve the healing of various types of skin lesions is well established. It is likely that copper peptides may slow down the development of the signs of skin aging by limiting the consequences of daily wear and tear. Also, copper peptides may augment the results of the skin rejuvenation treatments based on controlled skin injury, such as laser resurfacing, dermabrasion and peels. There are also indications that copper peptides have the potential to improve wrinkles and skin texture on their own. However, more extensive and prolonged studies are required to definitively prove it. Also, it appears that copper peptides may cause rare but significant/noticeable skin damage in some cases of overuse, incorrect use or unusual sensitivity. Further practical details of optimal selection, precautions and prudent use of copper peptides products are discussed in Skin Rejuvenation Infopack.


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