No longer am I the carefree twenty-something who wore SPF 15 (when I remembered to wear sunscreen at all) so I could “get a good base.” Now that I’m in my early—okay, mid—thirties, I apply lotions, creams, and serums constantly. I’ll try just about anything that promises to reduce the number of fine lines and (dare I put it in writing?) wrinkles that are slowly appearing on my face.
Which is why I am so interested in the current collagen craze. There are a host of collagen supplements that promise to restore and rejuvenate the skin, but do they really work?
I spoke with Paul Dean, MD, a San Diego-based dermatologist (and creator of Skin Resource.MD cosmeceuticals) to find out if collagen supplements really can give you better skin or if it’s just wishful thinking. Here’s what he had to say.
What is collagen?
“Collagen is the most abundant protein in our bodies,” Dean explains. “It’s found in muscles, bones, skin, blood vessels, the digestive system, and tendons.”
Collagen is what helps give our skin strength and elasticity, and it’s what replaces dead skin cells. Unfortunately, our body’s collagen production decreases as we age, often starting as early as a woman’s twenties and peaking around menopause.
And collagen depletion doesn’t just mean more fine lines. It can also affect bone and joint health, which is why it is so important to not only protect the collagen stores your body currently has but to stimulate collagen production, too.
Though collagen does naturally decrease over time, certain activities can speed up collagen depletion. “Eating high amounts of sugar, excessive sun exposure, and smoking decreases our collagen production,” says Dean. “So as we age we need to increase our [collagen] levels to slow down the aging process from the inside out.”
A Quick Guide to Collagen Supplements
According to research done by the Nutrition Business Journal, Americans spent almost $100 million on collagen supplements in 2017. That must mean they work, right? Don’t hold your breath.
According to Dean, “Collagen supplements simply won’t replace or stimulate new collagen growth in the skin.”
Still, some research suggests that collagen supplements may improve wrinkles and skin elasticity. According to one study, significant improvement in skin elasticity was shown in participants who took a daily blend of collagen peptides and antioxidants. However, the study was conducted over a short period with a small number of participants and relied heavily on participant questionnaires. So the results, while promising, are in no way definitive proof that collagen supplements actually work.
There is some evidence that collagen drinks and other ingestible supplements actually do improve skin elasticity and moisture.
If you still want to try a collagen supplement, it helps to know a little bit about how collagen supplements—especially powders, drinks, and pills—are made before you buy. And vegetarians and vegans, I’ll warn you now: You’re not going to like it.
These types of collagen supplements are made from animal proteins that are often derived from the hides and bones of cows, chickens, and other animals. This is actually the same way that gelatin (yes, the stuff that makes your Jell-O jiggle) is made. When the meat cuts that contain the most collagen (bones, tendons, fatty connective tissue) are cooked slowly to a certain temperature, the collagen begins to melt and eventually forms a thick gelatin, which is what most collagen supplements (and gelled snacks) are made of. The more you know, right?
There are hundreds of collagen supplements on the market. Some are focused on collagen as a dietary supplement, but most are found in the skincare aisle, promising more youthful-looking skin by improving elasticity and moisture. Here’s a quick, research-backed guide to help determine if various collagen supplements are worth the cost.
Collagen Powders, Vitamins, and Drinks
Collagen powders are a popular collagen supplement because they are usually tasteless and can be added to everything from your morning oatmeal and coffee to your evening meal. Because they can be added to just about anything—and because one scoop usually provides the recommended supplemental amount of collagen—collagen powders are often pricier than supplements in pill form.
Collagen drinks are similar oral supplements and are often marketed as collagen water or collagen juice. These are most often derived from fish (still not vegan, but if you’re a pescatarian, collagen drinks are usually okay to imbibe) and are usually mixed with other flavors to nix the fishy aftertaste. There is some evidence that collagen drinks and other ingestible supplements actually do improve skin elasticity and moisture, but Dean says oral collagen supplements, including powders and drinks, won’t replace or stimulate new collagen growth in your skin.
“In fact,” Dean continues, “your body won’t absorb the collagen [from supplements and drinks] as a replacement, and it will just pass through your system as a protein.”
Even if you’re not a vegan, there are other issues to consider when taking oral collagen supplements derived from animals. Some doctors and scientists are concerned that there’s a risk that collagen supplements may contain high levels of heavy metals, which are often found in processed meats. Supplements are not regulated by the FDA, so it is up to the consumer (that’s you) to fact-check a supplement brand’s claims. Some supplement brands, like Vital Proteins, do use grass-fed, hormone-free beef and wild-caught fish to reduce the risk of harmful chemicals in their supplements.
Plus, Dean warns, “Many supplements can cause allergic reactions since the supplements are usually derived from animal sources and your body may become sensitive to the foreign substance.”
While some studies have shown promise that collagen powder supplements may improve skin’s elasticity and texture, Dean doesn’t put much stock in these claims and says, “If you want to stimulate collagen production and protect the collagen you have, stick to using products with hyaluronic acid, peptides, and retinol while wearing sunscreen and eating healthy on a daily basis.”
Collagen Creams and Serums
I don’t like being the bearer of bad news, but that expensive collagen cream you’ve been slathering on your face day and night is probably nothing more than a fancy moisturizer.
According to Dean,“Collagen applied topically to the skin will not replace missing collagen in the skin because the collagen molecule is simply too large to penetrate into the deep layers of the skin.”
“Collagen proteins are made up of long chains of amino acids (smaller organic compounds that combine to form proteins),” Dean continues. “When this long strand is broken down into short segments of three to five amino acids, these small bundles are called peptides and have been shown to stimulate collagen production.”
Some research does show that peptides added to certain skincare products may possibly help boost the production of collagen to help restore skin tone and texture, reduce the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines, and increase skin’s moisture and elasticity due to their small nature.
Almost 42 percent of dermal filler treatments administered from 2002 to 2010 were collagen injections.
Still, the best “anti-aging” products to use on your skin are those containing hyaluronic acid (a hydrating substance found naturally in the body), peptides, and retinol (a compound derived from vitamin A), Dean tells HealthyWay. Hyaluronic acid actually boosts collagen synthesis and helps skin retain moisture.
“When retinol and other retinoids come into contact with skin, the enzymes in the body convert it into retinoic acid. Retinoic acid then works to increase cell turnover, which stimulates collagen and elastin production,” says Dean. “Because [it encourages] healthy skin cell turnover, retinol can treat and prevent multiple skin conditions from acne and eczema to dark spots and wrinkles”
Collagen injections were all the rage 15 years ago. In fact, almost 42 percent of dermal filler treatments administered from 2002 to 2010 were collagen injections. But Dean says that most dermatologists no longer use collagen injections. Instead they favor proven dermal fillers containing—surprise!—hyaluronic acid.
“There are also laser treatments that can be used to stimulate collagen on the surface, but laser treatments are extremely expensive and really should be used in conjunction with lifestyle changes to promote collagen naturally,” says Dean.
How to Naturally Preserve Collagen Production
If you don’t want to spend a fortune on collagen supplements that may or may not improve your skin’s elasticity, there are a few things you can do to reduce collagen depletion without spending a dime (and some will even save you money!).
First of all, we’re in what I like to call the judgment-free tree. If you’re a smoker, I’m not here to make you feel bad about it. After all, you likely know all the health risks associated with smoking already. But you can add one more to the list: collagen depletion.
Smoking depletes collagen production and directly contributes to premature aging. So one of the best things you can do for your skin is to stop smoking. And hey, I know it’s tough to quit, so if you need help to quit smoking, contact Freedom From Smoking, a program sponsored by the American Lung Association, for more information.
Reduce sun exposure.
As you may have guessed, I am a sun goddess. I love to be bronzed more than just about anything. But repeated sun exposure can seriously break down your body’s natural collagen stores, aging skin much more quickly.
Luckily, this an easy one to fix! Wear sunscreen daily, even if it’s cloudy out. Not sure what kind of sunscreen you should get? Here’s a handy video on the ABCs of SPF. In addition to wearing your daily SPF, stay indoors when UV rays are at their most damaging, and opt instead to head outside early in the morning or late in the evening to minimize sun damage.
Improve your diet.
Finally, some good news: “Certain foods can increase collagen in our bodies,” says Dean.
Dean recommends eating fish, like salmon, that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Additionally, avocados are high in omega-3s and vitamin E, which also has a positive effect on skin aging. Red vegetables such as red bell peppers and citrus fruits are high in vitamin C, which promotes collagen production. Because dark green vegetables and sweet potatoes contain high levels of vitamin A (which is where retinol comes from), they’re also an excellent addition to an anti-aging diet.
“Not only are these favorable vitamins to consume,” says Dean, “but any of them are also are good to apply topically to promote healthy skin.” Seriously, try this moisturizing (and probably delicious) recipe for a sweet potato face mask.
Get more exercise.
Exercise can minimize your risk for heart disease and diabetes, and now a new study shows that when combined with certain dietary supplements, exercise may even boost the body’s natural collagen production. In the study, participants who ate a vitamin C–enriched gelatin supplement prior to intermittent exercise doubled the amount of collagen protein in their blood, unlike participants who took the placebo.
The Bottom Line on Collagen Supplements
Ultimately, more research needs to be done to determine whether collagen supplements really work. Personally, I’d rather save my hard-earned cash for skincare products that are proven to be 100 percent effective.
Still, most derms agree that most collagen creams and serums aren’t bad for your skin, and they can prove to be great moisturizers even if they don’t do a whole lot for collagen production.
The best thing you can do for your skin? Take care of it the way you take care of the rest of your body: by eating well, using sunscreen, and getting regular exercise.