An effective anti-aging ingredient is the holy grail of skincare, and some experts say collagen could be the key to unlocking a more youthful appearance. But is collagen good for skin, or is it just another trend in beauty and wellness with little evidence to back it up?
One of the essential proteins naturally present in the body, collagen helps to give skin a glowing, youthful and plump appearance. But, sadly, it depletes as we age, causing wrinkles and sagging skin.
As a supplement or a cream, collagen is becoming big business, with experts predicting a $16.7 billion (opens in new tab) boom in the global collagen market over the next five years. The promise that collagen supplements can be an effective tool in the fight against aging is a significant driver. So what if taking a collagen supplement or applying a topical collagen cream could turn back time for your epidermis?
We take a deeper dive into the research and consult a board-certified dermatologist to better understand how collagen can improve the skin, how the research supports collagen supplements, and whether there are other ways of increasing collagen in our diet.
How can collagen improve your skin?
Collagen is essential for giving the skin elasticity. It makes the skin look fuller, plumper and smoother. Unfortunately, according to the journal Plastic and Aesthetic Research (opens in new tab), our collagen levels deplete by an average of 1% to 1.5% from early adulthood. Upping our collagen levels may delay this natural depletion, giving us fuller, plumper skin.
However, how topical creams or supplements do this is still up for debate. According to the National Eczema Association (opens in new tab), there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that collagen supplements improve the skin’s appearance, despite their increasing popularity with celebrities and influencers.
More research is emerging, however. Live Science spoke to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Alison Ehrlich (opens in new tab) to find out more. She pointed us to a 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis (opens in new tab), in which researchers found hydrolyzed collagen supplements increased skin hydration and elasticity in over a thousand participants, with improvements lasting around four weeks after supplementation.
Dr. Alison Ehrlich is a board-certified dermatologist and former founding Chair and Director of Clinical Research in the Department of Dermatology at The George Washington University. She is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for The Asthma and Allergy Foundation, vice-president of The American Contact Dermatitis Society and on the board of directors of the Noah Worchester Society.
In 2019, a paper in the Nutrients (opens in new tab) journal described a study in which researchers gave participants a collagen supplement or a placebo. The study’s authors used a series of scientific tests to check the skin’s hydration, elasticity, roughness and density. They found that the collagen supplements group had significantly better results after 16 weeks.
“Collagen peptides exert an anti-oxidant effect on the skin,” says Ehrlich. Research backs this up with a 2020 study into collagen and gelatin (opens in new tab) extracted from tuna skin waste. Researchers found that the collagen and gelatin extracted were an “excellent source of antioxidant peptides.” These can help to protect the skin from free radicals, which are responsible for breaking down collagen in the skin.
Collagen also has a powerful effect on wound healing, and as a result, collagen powder is an important treatment in advanced wound healing therapies (opens in new tab). “Collagen seems to exert an effect on the wound by increasing dermal fibroblast activity, leading to increased collagen synthesis,” says Ehrlich. In simpler terms, it becomes an essential building block in the healing process.
However, Ehrlich points out that there are some drawbacks to certain collagen studies that should raise some questions:
- Some studies use collagen paired with several other ingredients, each of which has the potential to improve the skin.
- Many collagen supplement studies use small sample sizes, or animal subjects, which can affect the strength and reliability of the data.
- Improvements are sometimes self-reported, meaning that participants judge how their skin appears rather than accurate measurements being taken.
- Small improvements in a study may not reflect visible changes in the skin.
How to get more collagen
It may be possible to boost your collagen levels by eating collagen-rich foods or taking a collagen supplement.
The following foods are rich in collagen or contain amino acids that help the body to create collagen:
- Bone broth
- Meat, poultry and fish
- Foods that are high in vitamin C, including citrus fruits, bell peppers, berries and tomatoes
- Dark leafy green vegetables
- Foods rich in zinc, including oysters, beans, legumes and nuts
While it’s also possible to boost collagen levels by taking a daily collagen supplement, it’s important to remember that the US Food and Drug Administration (opens in new tab) does not regulate these supplements. While it may be good news to hear that there should be no side effects to taking collagen supplements, there have been some issues with heavy metal contamination in collagen supplements in recent years. It’s worth checking the FDA website (opens in new tab) in case a particular product has had any recalls.
Topical collagen vs ingested collagen
When it comes to the best way to take collagen, the jury is still out. A 2022 review (opens in new tab) in Saudi Arabia compared oral and topical collagen and found that both can contribute to reducing or delaying skin aging. However, the same review called for more large-scale studies with thorough follow-ups to comprehensively understand their benefits, suggesting that current research doesn’t yet go far enough in supporting either topical or oral collagen.
Similarly, Ehrlich is reluctant to say which may work better because of the lack of large-scale clinical research. “It’s difficult to answer the oral vs topical question without robust clinical trials comparing the two methods.”
She does, however, highlight an important point about topical collagen creams. “Collagen is a large molecule and must be in the form of small bioactive collagen peptides to be absorbed through the skin or be effective when taken orally.”
Harvard Health (opens in new tab) casts doubt on whether collagen peptides are even small enough to pass through the skin, querying research that suggests they can penetrate the skin’s deeper layers.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (opens in new tab) and the Mayo Clinic (opens in new tab), using a product that contains a retinoid, such as retinol, is a better choice to help the body make more collagen.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to offer medical advice.