Collagen is a darling of the beauty and fitness industry. This very important protein for our skin and connective tissue is found naturally in the body, but selling it to us is big business – supplements have brought in almost two billion dollars in profits in 2021 alone. Indeed, collagen helps our skin, muscles, tendons, cartilage and bones to maintain their structure and function.
Found in high-end skin creams like La Mer, collagen-containing products have become ubiquitous, with collagen being touted as a miracle ingredient in creams, supplements and protein powder. Claims of collagen’s powers range from “younger looking skin” to joint pain relief. But does science support these claims? Reverse spoke with experts from the fields of orthopedics, nutrition, sports and dermatology to separate collagen fact from fiction.
What is collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body, making up about 30% of all protein in our body. Like all proteins, collagen is made up of several smaller units called amino acids. It is a fundamental element of our skin, essential for its structure, hydration and elasticity. More generally, collagen strengthens tissues and allows parts of the body to resist stretching.
“Collagen is the scaffold on which the rest of the tissues and organ systems are formed,” says Vedant Vaksha, an orthopedic and arthroscopic surgeon in New York City. Reverse. “It’s a very important part of the connective tissues that we have in every part of our body, whether it’s bones, skin, tissues or blood vessels. Even the brain has collagen.
There are five main types of collagen:
- Type I: Most of the collagen in your body is type I. This collagen is densely packed and provides structure for skin, bones, tendons, and ligaments.
- Type II: Found in elastic cartilage, the second variety of collagen supports your joints.
- Type III: This collagen is found in muscles, arteries and organs.
- Type IV: The fourth type of collagen is found in certain layers of your skin.
- Type V: This variety of collagen is found in the cornea, hair, placenta, and in certain layers of your skin.
The link between collagen and aging
As we age, we produce less collagen. Because skin is more visible than bones or tendons, loss of collagen in the skin may be the first clue that collagen production is decreasing. Some people may see a more visible change in their skin sooner than others; a 2015 study published in the journal Biomolecules found that collagen production drops most rapidly in people who have experienced “excessive sun exposure, smoking, excess alcohol, and lack of sleep and exercise.”
“Typically, we lose about 1 percent collagen per year starting in our 20s,” says Jeffery Hsu, a dermatologist in Illinois. Reverse. “As this loss continues, we lose the structural integrity of the skin, which manifests as lines, wrinkles and sagging.
When collagen production slows during aging, skin layers change from a “tightly organized network of fibers to an unorganized maze,” the study authors found. Environmental exposures such as sun and smoking reduce the thickness and strength of collagen fibers in the skin, resulting in wrinkles on the surface of the skin.
Skin collagen is not the only collagen affected by the aging process. Conditions such as arthritis and osteoporosis occur more frequently in older age groups, in part due to decreased collagen production.
This is precisely what the beauty and wellness industry capitalizes on: if we lack collagen, what can we do to strengthen it?
Collagen supplements: Skin deep?
There are two types of collagen products typically sold under the skincare banner: topical collagen products and oral supplements.
Topical collagen creams and gels probably don’t work the way you think – or even the way they’re marketed.
“Just because you apply collagen topically to the skin does not mean that it will be absorbed and integrated into the skin. This is because collagen molecules are very large, too large to bypass the epidermal protective layer of your skin” , explains Hsu.
But if you’ve spent your hard-earned cash on a collagen-infused moisturizer, don’t despair.
“Topical collagen is known to be an excellent moisturizer,” says Hsu. “Reports of immediate improvement in fine lines and wrinkles following topical collagen application are most likely due to the moisturizing effect, not the instant addition of collagen to the skin.”
The benefits are real, he says, but temporary.
There are other topical products that may help boost the body’s collagen production, says Juliya Fisher, a dermatologist and skin surgeon in New York City. Reverse.
“In some skincare products [collagen] has been combined with ingredients like vitamin C or retinols and these are known as ‘collagen boosters,’” says Fisher.
“These ingredients are probably the ones that do the heavy lifting in terms of improving the skin.”
Smaller fragments of collagen called collagen peptides can penetrate the skin better, Fisher adds, but this has yet to be conclusively established in research.
Hsu and Fisher agree that oral collagen supplements sell as part of a skincare routine.
“The data on oral supplements isn’t the strongest,” Fisher says, noting that a few studies show some skincare benefits, but need to be replicated before she definitively recommends supplements.
“There’s no clear scientific evidence anyway,” Hsu acknowledges, but he adds an additional caveat:
“Most experts believe that oral collagen supplements are unlikely to have a significant impact on skin quality.
“Collagen supplements are large molecules that, once ingested, will be broken down into protein fragments and their amino acid components. In other words, the collagen supplement you eat or drink will no longer be in the form of collagen.
Furthermore, he points out that there is no way to direct the protein fragments to the skin; they may end up in your muscles, joints, or other organs.
“Unless you have a severe protein deficiency, taking collagen supplements is unlikely to improve your skin,” he says.
Collagen for bone and muscle health
As an orthopedic and arthroscopic surgeon, Vaksha knows that collagen is essential for healthy muscles, joints and bones, but says the jury is still out on collagen supplements. Again, lack of research is part of the problem.
“There have been smaller studies in rats and even humans that have shown collagen supplements to have some benefit, but we really need large, randomized, placebo-controlled studies to be sure,” says- he.
Carmen Young, assistant professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Arizona and sports dietitian tells Reverse there are clues to the effectiveness of collagen supplements for bone and muscle health.
“There have been studies on collagen that have shown it increases muscle mass and helps with arthritis-related joint protection,” she says.
“Many of the studies done so far on collagen, athletic performance, and muscle health have been smaller trials and have shown short-term benefits, so be sure to remain skeptical and consult a registered dietitian.”
“Collagen supplements” typically don’t contain collagen itself, Vaksha explains, but instead contain amino acids, which are the building blocks of collagen and collagen peptides. Collagen peptides are made from amino acids, but instead of continually building up to become a protein, peptides are just a string of amino acids.
For example, a 2021 study published in the journal Nutrients evaluated the effect of collagen supplements in 180 active men and women between the ages of 18 and 30. Participants had “exercise-related knee pain but no diagnosed joint disease” and took 5 milligrams of “bioactive oral collagen peptides for 12 weeks.
Researchers found that there was some improvement in activity-related knee pain in participants who took collagen peptides, but there was no improvement in knee joint mobility. knee (although the authors note that most participants had “unremarkable” knee joint mobility at baseline, so there was not much room for improvement).
If you decide to try collagen supplements, Young recommends using a third-party tested supplement.
“Supplements are not regulated by the FDA, so these third-party tests help ensure quality and safety standards for supplement products.”
Is it worth taking collagen?
Vaksha doesn’t necessarily see any harm in trying a collagen supplement for a joint or muscle problem, but he points out that most of the building blocks of collagen are amino acids typically found in a balanced diet.
“Essential amino acids are important in our diet to make any protein and there are several types of diets that provide us with amino acids, whether it is a meat-based diet or a diet vegan,” he says.
For collagen in particular, the most important amino acids are glycine, lysine, proline and arginine. Vitamin C is also essential for the formation of collagen.
“A meat-based diet is one of the best ways to get these amino acids, but there are also vegan sources rich in these amino acids, such as legumes, nuts, beans and cabbage,” says Vaksha. .
A diet rich in vitamins and nutrients may be the most effective and economical approach to building collagen.
Young and Hsu agree.
“I like to take a ‘food first’ approach, so I would always recommend food sources of collagen first. These foods also provide nutrients other than collagen,” says Young.
“For most of us, taking collagen supplements offers little benefit over eating protein-rich foods like nuts, eggs, or meat,” Hsu adds.