The ancient ingredient is making a major resurgence, with creams and serums promising anti-aging results. We spoke to a derm and cosmetic chemist to get the scoop.

By By Alina Dizik
October 18, 2017
Photo: Shutterstock

Copper is a trendy skin-care ingredient, but it's not actually anything new. Ancient Egyptians (including Cleopatra) used the metal to sterilize wounds and drinking water, and the Aztecs gargled with copper to treat sore throats. Fast forward thousands of years and the ingredient is making a major resurgence, with creams, serums, and even fabrics popping up with promising anti-aging results.

Today's creams feature a natural form of copper called copper tripeptide-1, says Stephen Alain Ko, a Toronto-based cosmetic chemist who has studied copper. Also called copper peptide GHK-Cu, the copper complex was first uncovered in human plasma (but it's also found in urine and saliva), and is a type of peptide that seeps into skin easily. Many of the newer products use these types of naturally occurring peptides or copper complexes, he adds.

Previous forms of copper were often less concentrated or irritating or unstable. Copper peptides, however, rarely irritate the skin, which makes them a popular ingredient when combined with other so-called cosmeceuticals (cosmetic ingredients said to have medical properties), says Murad Alam, M.D., professor of dermatology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine and a dermatologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. "The argument for copper peptides is that they are small molecules important for various body functions, and if they are applied to the skin as topicals, they can enter the skin and improve its functioning," he explains. This translates to anti-aging perks. "Copper peptides may reduce inflammation and speed up wound healing, which may help the skin look and feel younger and fresher." (Related: The Best Anti-Aging Night Creams, According to Dermatologists)

Before you stock up, it's worth noting that there's no conclusive evidence of its efficacy yet. Studies are often commissioned by the manufacturers or done on a small scale, without peer review. But "there have been a few human studies on copper tripeptide-1 on skin aging, and most of them have found positive effects," Dr. Alam says. Specifically, a handful of studies showed that copper may make skin more dense and firm, he says.

Dr. Alam recommends trying out a copper peptide for one to three months without changing other parts of your beauty routine. Keeping the other products to a minimum can better help you track skin results to gauge whether "you like what you see," he says.

Here's what to try:

1. NIOD Copper Amino Isolate Serum ($60; The scientifically focused beauty brand touts a 1 percent concentration of pure copper tripeptide-1 in its serum and is concentrated enough that you'll notice real skin changes, the company says. The cult product (which needs to be mixed with an "activator" prior to the first application) has a watery blue texture. Fans say it improves skin texture, decreases redness, and helps diminish fine lines.

2. IT Cosmetics Bye Bye Under Eye ($48; Makers of the eye cream use copper, caffeine, vitamin C, and cucumber extract to create that instantly awake feeling even if you've just rolled out of bed. The cream's blue tint-partially from the copper-helps to minimize dark circles, according to the brand.

3. Aesop Elemental Facial Barrier Cream ($60; The face cream uses copper PCA (a soothing ingredient that uses the copper salt pyrrolidone carboxylic acid) to get rid of redness and promote moisture. The cream can be especially useful when temps start to drop.

4. Iluminage Skin Rejuvenating Pillowcase with Copper Oxide ($60; You may also be able to reap the anti-aging benefits from copper without using a cream or serum with copper peptides. This copper oxide-infused pillowcase helps to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by transferring copper ions to the upper layers of your skin while you sleep.