“The cynic in me notes that brands always want to find something ‘new’ to talk about, and after milking the hell out of hyaluronic acid and Vitamin C, it’s now the turn of the humble amino acid,” says Georgie Cleeve, Founder of Oskia skincare.
“However, it also makes sense. There’s been a huge industry focus on the function of skin and the ingredients it actually needs to work properly, and amino acids are absolutely vital for skin health, its functioning and its regeneration. They are involved in everything.”
Basically, nothing happens without amino acids: to lay the foundations for great skin, it’s only wise to learn how to harness their powers.
Amino what?Like hyaluronic acid, amino acids are not exfoliating acids (like AHA’s or salicylic acid) but organic compounds that won’t irritate and will chime with every skin type. They are the fundamental building blocks of the proteins most of our body is made up of – think collagen, elastin and keratin.
They aid metabolism, help provide cellular energy and work as natural moisturising factors alongside ceramides and fatty acids to strengthen skin’s lipid barrier and keep it hydrated. They also function as antioxidants and immune boosters, suppress inflammation, mitigate stress and promote wound healing – the list goes on.
There are 20 important amino acids, nine of which are ‘essential’ and cannot be made by the body, so must be ingested as food or supplements (animal proteins are the richest and most complete sources, but plant proteins such as soy and pea protein can work as well), or applied topically as synthesised or plant-derived amino acids.
The 11 non-essential amino acids are produced internally but can be supplemented as well. All have their own specific functions and can be cherry-picked, for example for their skin-focused benefits: Paula Begoun of Paula’s Choice singles out proline, lysine, glycine, leucine and arginine for their ability to counteract visible signs of ageing, and histidine and methionine as powerful skin protectants.
But some brands maintain that the way forward is a balanced blend of all 20 amino acids, the idea being that collectively, they are the secret to maintaining dermal health and resilience, leading to skin that defies signs of fatigue, stress and ageing long into the future.
How to benefit from amino acidsSo when it comes to skin, what is the most efficient way to supplement it with these micro but mighty nutrients? And with so many magical benefits claimed, what can you realistically expect from an amino-rich health and beauty routine?
Moisture surgeAmino acids unquestionably contribute to better moisture distribution and retention in every skin layer, including the stratum corneum and epidermis, which is as far as most topical skincare can travel.
“Some amino’s work with aquaporins (the water transport system of your body) to diffuse moisture through the skin,” says Begoun.
Andre Condit, Co-Founder of Spectacle skincare, adds that others “work incredibly well with fellow beneficial compounds that make up the skin’s ‘natural moisturising factor’ (NMF), a cocktail of ingredients that the skin produces to keep the stratum corneum supple and hydrated.”
They include glycerides, ceramides and hyaluronic acid, which together don’t just help hydrate but improve skin’s ability to hold on to moisture all day by strengthening the moisture barrier.
Dr Linda Ellison, a Harvard PhD and authority on amino acids for cellular health, agrees that topical amino acids “can help hydrate skin to a certain extent, which is beneficial for its appearance.” But she cautions that skincare can only penetrate skin’s top layer, “so the impact will be temporary.”
Peace treaty“Research shows that whether ingested internally or applied topically, amino acids work as antioxidants to help to strengthen the immune system, inhibit cortisol (the stress hormone that makes skin vulnerable to irritation) and suppress inflammation in the skin and body,” says Condit.
It’s no wonder, then, that they are used in skincare and supplements to help calm upset skin and quell redness. According to Cleeve, they do this topically “by improving skin barrier function which in turn leads to less inflammation and makes skin more resistant to cortisol spikes. I would not say they have a direct anti-inflammatory effect in the way that, for example, calming agents like allantoin and oat kernel extract have.”
Dr Ellison, who is creator of a medical-grade amino acid supplement called Kaü Life, maintains that to get cortisol and inflammation-suppressing benefits from amino’s, you have to consume them. “Nothing topical can have that level of internal impact,” she says. Ingesting a balanced complex of all 20 amino acids, however, “will have your cells, including your skin’s, functioning at youthful ‘factory settings’, keeping ageing inflammation at bay and delaying and reversing cellular decline.”
Youth dewApplied topically, can amino acids actually boost the production of collagen and elastin, the proteins responsible for skin’s plumpness and springiness? “Without the presence of amino acids you simply would not have collagen,” says Condit. “They are the building blocks that create the fibres. By topically applying key amino acids that make up collagen, elastin, and fibroblasts, you’re providing the skin with the fundamentals for production.”
Cleeve is more circumspect: “Amino acids are multi-tasking ingredients that contribute to many different bodily functions and tissues,” she says. “Unfortunately, you can’t tell an amino acid to go to exactly where you want it to; it’ll be employed where it’s most needed. Peptides, which are chains of two or more amino acids designed to trigger a specific action in the skin, are much more targeted.
"Their molecular size, however, is so large that they cannot penetrate through the skin to the dermis, where they can do their work. Amino acids are smaller and more likely to penetrate, but only in degrees of success. Those that do certainly improve skin condition, even if you cannot determine exactly how.”
Skin deeperOne way to guarantee amino acids get absorbed into the deeper skin layers is by resorting to the needle. This is the principle of mesotherapy, which “involves delivering a series of tiny injections of a nutrient-rich solution to the skin. It allows a broad treatment area to be covered with minimal product,” says Dr Barbara Kubicka of ClinicBe, who adds that the physical act of injecting the skin is just as important as the substances delivered: “It stimulates skin tightening and delivers a soft and natural ‘freshening’.”
Alternatively, a microneedling roller or pen can be used to open channels in the stratum corneum, followed by the application of a mesotherapy solution which then travels deep into the skin.
“But this is less effective than injections, which ensure the actives remain under the skin and disperse over the space of a few days,” says skin therapist Debbie Thomas of D.Thomas Clinic, whose NanoBio Revive treatment employs ‘nano’ syringes to inject delicate areas like under eyes with 24 amino acids and other skin revitalisers. “That’s how you guarantee a deep, sustained activity that makes a visible difference.”
Mesotherapy solutions are proprietary cocktails that can include amino acids, vitamins, minerals, growth factors, co-enzymes, plant extracts and/or peptides, working together to furnish skin with everything it needs to function optimally.
Kubicka, whose Aminotherapy mesotherapy delivers a solution made solely of amino acids and hydrating hyaluronic acid, alongside an amino acid supplement that patients are advised to take between quarterly sessions, recommends it for wiping the fatigue off your face at any age: “Skin texture improves, fine lines diminish, and skin is noticeably more luminous.”
The case for supplementsThe other fail-safe way to impact the body and skin on a cellular level is to eat your aminos. “When all 20 vital amino acids are in harmonious balance, you 'bio-allow' your system to operate at a baseline of health,” says Dr Ellison. “It is from this baseline your body rapidly produces new cells, rebuilding your tissues cell by cell so your body looks, feels, and moves better.”
She argues a high-quality amino acid supplement is infinitely superior to the collagen supplements that have flooded the market recently. “Collagen is a structural protein made up of several amino acids with around 120 protein combinations. It means collagen supplements provide about 120 protein signals, triggering an increase of your body’s production of poor-quality collagen cells that correlate to your biological age,” says Ellison.
“A 20/20 amino acid supplement like Kaü Life provides 1,048,575 protein signals in an optimally functional balance. It ensures the new collagen your body produces is coded as youthful – strong, healthy, and integrated into your skin’s existing collagen network in just the right amounts to guarantee long-term, visible results.”
These benefits affect your entire body. It is the holistic, and to scientists like Ellison, the only way to achieve structural and sustained improvements in your skin.
Amino-rich skin boostersFilorga NCEF-Shot Supreme Polyrevitalising Concentrate, £62 (feelunique.com)
A cosmetic, topical version of the amino acid-rich mesotherapy cocktail that’s used for professional meso injections
Spectacle Skincare Performance Crème, £76 (spectacleskincare.com)
Dozens upon dozens of micronutrients, vitamins, antioxidants, lipids, peptides and amino acids to bolster skin
The Ordinary Amino Acids + B5, £5.95 (deciem.com)
A host of amino’s plus soothing panthenol to reinforce your skin barrier
Oskia Reset Day Comfort Cream, £58 (oskiaskincare.com)
Give besieged skin a break with this nourishing, inflammation-quelling blend of amino acids, humectants, lipids and probiotics
Ole Henriksen Strength Trainer Peptide Boost Moisturiser, £40 (boots.com)
8 amino acids, 8 peptides, 3 ceramides and a host of other healing, calming agents to help build stronger skin
Kaü Life 20/20 Amino Acid Powder, £300 for 40 servings (kauhealth.com)
100% digestible, high purity amino acids from animal sources, promising to not only improve skin but muscle mass, immunity, hair growth, sleep, energy and gut health
Monat Vegan Protein, £79 for 30 servings (monatglobal.com/uk)
An essential combo of powdered aminos from plant sources including pea, pumpkin, chia and rice.
Aguulp for Sleep liquid supplement, £40 for 30 sachets (aguulp.com)
A blend of calm-inducing plant extracts including two amino acids (l-tryptophan and l-theanine) for relaxation and one (l-methionine) to help repair tissues and boost elasticity.