You might see someone stirring it into their coffee. Or sipping on a brownish liquid midday (and nope, it isn’t coffee). Or taking capsules along with other morning vitamins. It’s collagen — and it’s one of the buzziest ingredients in skin care.
“Collagen is an abundant protein occurring naturally in the body, and can be found in the bones, muscles, organs, and skin,” says Marisa Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City and an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medical Center.
When it comes to your skin, collagen is what makes it smooth, plump, and springy. The more collagen in your face, the fewer wrinkles you have. There are at least 28 different types of collagen, with collagen type 1 and 3 found in skin, as an article published in April 2020 in Marine Drugs noted.
“Your skin starts to lose collagen starting in your twenties,” says Dr. Garshick. The visible effects of that loss may show up when fine lines begin to appear later in your thirties, but it’s happening. UV exposure from the sun and free radical damage, which happens as a result of environmental exposures such as air pollution, are two primary factors that weaken collagen and lead to its breakdown.
There are several ways to promote collagen growth in the skin, including by protecting your skin from environmental exposures like UV rays and air pollution, and eating a balanced, healthy diet full of antioxidants, noted an article published in May 2018 in Cell Transplant.
A greater awareness of the importance of collagen for health has led to a spike in the popularity of supplements, powders, and topical creams. “When collagen supplements and powders first came out, there was a lot of healthy skepticism,” says Whitney Bowe, MD, a board-certified celebrity dermatologist in New York City. “The collagen molecule itself is large,” she explains, which can make it tricky for collagen to make it into skin regardless of application mode.
Is Ingestible Collagen Effective?
For collagen to have any chance at making it into the skin where it could have any measurable effect, it would need to be absorbed through the intestine into the bloodstream. So, does it then actually smooth over wrinkles?
The evidence is that the process isn’t so streamlined where the collagen you eat now shows up in your skin later, says Dr. Bowe, who is passionate about educating her patients on collagen in person as well as on social media such as her TikTok (@drwhitneybowe).
After consuming collagen, the molecule is broken down into di- and tri-peptides, which are made of amino acids. Bowe says these peptides are then absorbed through the intestine and enter the bloodstream, where they move into blood vessels in skin. “Once these tiny pieces of collagen get to the skin, they act like signals to collagen-making cells called fibroblasts that tell your skin that there’s been a wound that’s in need of repair,” explains Bowe, something that aligns with researchers’ conclusions in an article published in March 2020 Nutrients.
Think about when you get a scrape on your skin. The gash now has damaged collagen, which triggers more collagen production during the healing process. Except in this instance of taking collagen powder you haven’t caused a wound to your skin — but the presence of these tiny collagen pieces has flipped a switch on your body’s wound-healing mechanisms to “on,” explains Bowe.
The catch? Collagen is everywhere in your body. So you can’t tell a collagen supplement where you want the collagen to do the work. Some may be directed to joints, for example. “Your body makes this decision for you,” says Bowe.
What’s more, the data is still emerging, and there are still questions about how much oral collagen is absorbed into the bloodstream, says Garshick. Some evidence is promising, including one study that looked the effect of taking an oral hydrolyzed collagen supplement for 90 days and found that it did lead to improvements in skin hydration, elasticity, and wrinkles better than a placebo, concluded a review and meta-analysis published in March 2021 in the International Journal of Dermatology. (Hydrolyzed collagen is basically collagen that is already broken down, which may make it more easily absorbed.)
These supplements don’t carry serious health risks for most people, but check with your doctor if you’re on any medications to be safe. Also, keep on mind that these products can be expensive, says Garshick. Therefore, they may not be worth it given the lack of research behind them.
Best: Collagen Supplements
As mentioned, some skepticism around collagen supplements remain, but of the external ways to boost collagen, they may be the most effective.
Collagen capsules may be formulated as collagen in powder form, though some brands will also include other skin-supportive ingredients, such as hyaluronic acid and vitamin C. Powder requires that you enjoy drinking it in a liquid or mixed into a smoothie.
Collagen may also be made into a gummy, which then adds sugar, as well as other ingredients to bind it all into gummy form. If you don’t like gummies, capsules are an alternative option.
However, scan the label and look at the dose of collagen peptides in the recommended serving of capsules and compare that with what you’d get in the powder. A dose of 2.5 to 10 gram (g) of collagen peptides per day was used in recent quality clinical studies to see a boost in collagen production that led to better skin hydration and elasticity and an improvement in skin aging, per a review published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology in January 2019.
Collagen Powder vs. Collagen Capsules
Collagen can be taken in both powder or capsule form, and these include collagen peptides, which are broken down into collagen. One of the major differences between the two is the dose per serving.
For example, a scoop of one popular powder brand called Vital Proteins contains 20 g of collagen peptides, whereas the brand’s own collagen capsule (which contains collagen peptide powder within the capsule) contains only 3.3 g of collagen peptides per dose, which is six capsules. (These require a commitment to swallowing several pills on a regular basis: They recommend taking six capsules twice a day for 6.6 g of collagen peptides daily.)
Provided collagen powder fits in your budget, look for a bovine or marine collagen supplement, which contain collagen type 1 and 3 needed for skin health, from a reputable brand. (Trusted supplement brands will use independent third-party lab testing to validate that their products contain what they say they do and are free of contaminants.) Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides ($25, VitalProteins.com), Great Lakes Gelatin Collagen Hydrolysate ($25.99, GreatLakesGelatin.com), and Live Conscious Collagen Peptides ($28.99, WeLiveConscious.com) are three options that fit the bill. It’s also helpful if the formula (or your diet) contains vitamin C, which is important in collagen production.
If you’re more interested in capsules, Hum ($40, Hum.com) sells collagen capsules that contain a mix of collagen peptides, as well as other skin-friendly ingredients like hyaluronic acid. A serving of three capsules provides 600 milligrams (mg) of collagen peptides (equivalent to 0.6 g). Olly Glowing Skin ($13.99, Olly.com) gummies have 120 mg of collagen peptides per a two-gummy serving (equivalent to 0.12 g). Therefore, you will have to take many capsules to get close to the same amount as powder.
Some collagen capsules are also geared toward joint health and contain type 2 collagen, so make sure that yours has type 1 or 3 (or both), or says it specifically targets skin health. Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides Capsules is one brand that provides what you need.
So-So: Collagen Foods
“While a healthy, well-rounded diet with protein sources from chicken, bone broth, fish and beef likely contain peptides that can support skin health and likely contain other vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that support skin health, they often don’t have studies demonstrating proven effects,” says Bowe.
Yet consuming protein can provide the building blocks for your body to make the collagen it needs, says Bowe. And that includes things like incorporating lean protein, eggs, and fish into your diet. Dietary protein, as a study published in March 2020 in Nutrients pointed out, is crucial for skin structure and repair.
A healthy eating pattern is so important for overall skin health, and that means also eating fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and those lean proteins, says Bowe. Consuming this type of whole food, plant-based diet (which can include animal and fish proteins, but centers around antioxidant-rich foods like vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, and legumes) has been found to slow down skin aging and support the appearance of younger looking skin, concluded a study published in May 2020 Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology.
Lacks Evidence: Topical Collagen
Topical collagen as an ingredient added to creams or serums my not provide the best results. Because collagen is a big molecule, it’s unlikely to be absorbed effectively in order to stimulate collagen production, says Garshick. A topical collagen cream might provide a temporary plumping effect on skin, but isn’t the best use of your skin-care budget.
“Retinoids, vitamin C, or exfoliating acids like glycolic have been proven ways to boost collagen production in skin and are accepted ways that we can improve collagen production,” she says. Retinoids, and retinol (a type of retinoid found in over-the-counter topical products) in particular help drive collagen production by targeting collagen type 1 and 3 genes, according to a study published in March 2016 in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. People who used a retinol for 12 weeks saw their collagen levels improve — and thus wrinkles diminish.
A Final Word on Collagen Sources
If you want to increase production of collagen in your body, hydrolyzed collagen supplements may be your best bet despite a lack of comprehensive research on their efficacy and side effects. That said, experts are cautious about its promises. “We’re in yellow-light territory. We still don’t have enough data to recommend oral collagen supplements across the board. It’s hard to tell everyone they need to be taking it without knowing exactly how it’ll translate into the skin,” says Garshick. But so far, initial research appears promising. A healthy diet is important for general health, so this is worth following regardless. Meanwhile, topical products may be least worthwhile.
Before splurging on a collagen supplement, consult a board-certified dermatologist who can help you develop a holistic approach that includes nutritious foods and habits that help shield your skin from environmental damage.