Collagen supplements for the skin – Worth your money? | Ask Doctor Anne

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It is no secret that I am not a fan of supplements, at least not the ones you take without having a diagnosed deficiency that needs treatment. But how about oral collagen supplements? What about the powder you stir into your morning brew to reverse skin aging, the liquids you chuck down to keep your skin well hydrated?

 

Woman in a red shirt looking at a glass with a collagen supplement inside
Can you drink your way to healthy skin?

 

There have been some interesting new studies that made me reconsider the decision I made around eight years ago when I decided they weren’t worth my money, so I figured it was about time we talked about them.

 

 

What is collagen and why should it help?

Before we understand why collagen might be beneficial when taken as a supplement, we need to understand what it actually is. Collagen is a molecule made up of different amino acids and is the main structural protein in our connective tissue, which includes our skin but also cartilage, tendons and multiple other places in the body like the eye ball.

There are several different types of collagen that vary in concentration throughout the body, with types I, II and III being the main ones present in the skin. (More info: The main risks for well aging)

As we age, we lose collagen for two main reasons: It gets broken down by sun damage, oxidative stress and other factors and the cells that produce it work slower than they used to, leading to loss of elasticity, wrinkles and dryer skin – collagen also plays a part in Hyaluronic Acid synthesis. (More info: The benefits of Hyaluronic Acid in your skincare)

The collagen molecule is too big to penetrate the skin, meaning that in creams it does act as a humectant, but has no effect on collagen levels in the skin. But if we ingest it, that might be different.

 

Newborn baby sleeping in a basket
A babies skin has maximum collagen levels
Image by esudroff from Pixabay

 

What oral collagen does in the body

What we eat gets broken down in our digestive tract, meaning collagen isn’t absorbed as collagen molecule, but rather as individual fragments made of collagen amino acids. As collagen has a quite specific selection of amino acids, namely hydroxyproline, glycine and proline, that is still a good thing as it provides our body with the building blocks needed for collagen synthesis.

To assume that collagen works by providing building blocks though, with the equation more building blocks equal more collagen, is too mechanistic though. The fact that collagen fragments, both the ones from ingested collagen and the ones from your own broken down collagen, stimulate the cells to create new one, seems to be more important. It is a similar thought you will find with several skincare devices: you damage your collagen to stimulate production of new stuff. (More info: How radiofrequency works in the skin)

Truth is though that you don’t have any control over where in the body these molecules go after you have eaten them, it isn’t as if you could will your body into sending them to the face. They might go to your face, they might go to your knee joints, they might even go to your eye balls, you don’t get a say in that.

 

Woman jogging
Healthy joints are as important as healthy skin Image by roxanawilliams1920 from Pixabay

 

Is there data on collagen supplements?

Over the years, several studies have been done on the effect of oral collagen supplements on different skin parameters, both in actual people, but also in animals and in vitro, and what we do know quite certain by now is that after being ingested, the fragments can be found in the blood stream and, when marked, show up in different tissues collagen is present in including the skin.

Two new studies, randomized, double-blinded and placebo controlled, released in 2023 and early 2024 also demonstrated in human volunteers that oral supplementation has a beneficial effect on wrinkle depth, skin hydration and – that one the smallest – on skin elasticity. Both had limitations though as they focused on a certain age group, on people with dry skin and existing wrinkles and for example excluded people already using a topical retinoid, which means that you can’t say that the benefit would have been there for you as individual as well. If your skin is combination, your wrinkles barely noticeable due to young age and you already use a retinoid, things might have worked out completely different for you.

When you do a meta analysis, meaning you pool the data from different existing studies and see if the results are still significant when you get larger numbers – studies done on humans are costly, so you don’t usually include 1000 – you will notice that the studies done aren’t easily comparable as they use different forms of collagen – from bovine sources, from marine sources, from chicken – as well as different doses, ranging from 0.5 to 10 g a day, different additional potentially beneficial nutrients, different forms of administration and different molecular weights.

The consensus seems to be though that even if more data with more comparable parameters is needed, oral collagen supplements seem to have a positive effect on skin aging, with long-term use yielding more benefits than short term.

 

One of the newer papers on collagen supplements
One of the newer papers on collagen supplements

 

Are there side effects of collagen?

Another thing we know is that collagen is largely without adverse effects over all studies done on humans, with the exception being mild gastrointestinal symptoms when you take high doses or your stomach is easily upset. The main thing you need to consider are potential allergies – if you do have a fish allergy, collagen made from fish is probably not a good choice.

 

Some people experience stomach issues
Some people experience stomach issues
Image by Darko Djurin from Pixabay

 

How much and which collagen is best?

As I can’t even tell you for sure that you will see benefits in your skin from taking collagen supplements in general, I for sure can’t tell you which form of collagen and which amount is best. The most recent study was done on low molecular weight collagen sourced from fish and taken as 2 g per day over the course of 12 weeks, but as I said before, between 0.5 and 10 g per day were used and showed effects in their individual study population.

A word on vegan collagen supplements: They don’t exist.

I know you can buy them, with vegan collagen supplement written on the label, but that isn’t the truth. Plants do not produce collagen, so you can’t take their collagen and splice it up. What you can do and what happens there is that you take proteins and amino acids sourced from plants that resemble the ones from collagen and pack them as a supplement. If that has the same effect though, I simply can’t say as the data we have was made with collagen from animal sources.
Oh, and for the question if you can’t just get the collagen from your nutrition when eating a balanced diet – in theory you could if you would eat the collagen rich parts of the animal. Skin, which might happen, but also tendons, and cartilage. Not the things I tend to put on my plate.

 

Vegetarian Collagen Peptides
That you can buy them doesn’t mean they are real

 

Is collagen worth your money?

So for the question if collagen supplements are worth your money, I don’t have a definite answer to that.

There is data suggesting that there are benefits on skin aging, but not near as much as there is on sunscreen and retinoids. I personally would put it in the same category as devices: If you have the money to spend and want to give it a go, go see if it works for you. But only after you established a good baseline routine and only if money is not an issue – it is certainly not a must have in your routine, especially as we don’t know yet which one and how much will give the most benefits. (More info: Are there benefits of microcurrent for the skin?, Are there benefits of radiofrequency for the skin? and Are there benefits of LED therapy for the skin?)

I decided after looking at the recent data that I would order some and see how it works for me, but then again I am 45 and spend way more time obsessing over my skin than others. If you are interested, I will update you in a few months on how it worked for me.

 

TL;DR

With recent data on the potential benefits of collagen supplements on skin aging being published, I wanted to give you an overview if these supplements are worth your money. It isn’t a simple yes or no though. Collagen molecules ingested get broken down into smaller fragments that are absorbed into the bloodstream and can signal human fibroblasts to start producing more of their own. That can take place either in the skin, usually your goal, or in any other tissue collagen is present in, you have no control over that. The results from studies done are promising, but don’t answer the question which type, which dose and which person will actually see benefits – benefits found in people not using a retinoid might not appear in people already using one for example. There seem to be no safety concerns though, so it is an individual choice. If you have the money to spend and already a good base routine, they might support your journey. If money is tight or you are not comfortable with the thought of eating shredded fish, pass and wait for more data.

 

Are collagen supplements really working?
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Sources:

Jadach, B., Mielcarek, Z., & Osmałek, T. (2024). Use of Collagen in Cosmetic Products. Cosmetic Products. Curr. Issues Mol. Biol, 46, 2043–2070. https://doi.org/10.3390/cimb46030132

Pu, S.-Y. ;, Huang, Y.-L. ;, Pu, C.-M. ;, Kang, Y.-N. ;, Hoang, K. D. ;, Pu, S.-Y., Huang, Y.-L., Pu, C.-M., Kang, Y.-N., Hoang, K. D., Chen, K.-H., & Chen, C. (2023). Citation: Effects of Oral Collagen for Skin Anti-Aging: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15092080

Seong, S. H., Lee, Y. I., Lee, J., Choi, S., Kim, I. A., Suk, J., Jung, I., Baeg, C., Kim, J., Oh, D., & Lee, J. H. (2024). Low-molecular-weight collagen peptides supplement promotes a healthy skin: A randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled study. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 23(2), 554–562. https://doi.org/10.1111/jocd.16026

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