Collagen supplements for skin: do they actually work?

Collagen is one of the most abundant proteins found in the body. In the dermis layer of the skin, it has a key role in making it strong and able to withstand stress like stretching. Being found in large quantities in the skin, roughly 70-80% of its dry weight, collagen makes it full and loss of this fundamental component equates to loss of skin volume and to sagging, wrinkling and other characteristics of aging and damaged skin. 

In our 20s, we start losing about 1% of our skin collagen per year due to the physiologic aging process; in women, this loss escalates during menopause with as much as 30% of total collagen loss happening in the first 5 years due to the decreased production of estrogens.

Finding a way to replenish skin collagen is seen as a key to fight the signs of aging and many companies in the aesthetic field have been researching ways to boost collagen production and minimize its loss.

While there are evidence-based methods to stimulate the fibroblasts, the cells responsible for the production of the extracellular matrix which includes collagen, elastin and hyaluronic acid, such as HIFU (High-Intensity Focused Ultrasound like Ultherapy), Radiofrequency (RF, like Vanquish), Platelet-Rich Plasma (PRP), and more, when it comes to nutraceuticals and collagen supplementation there is a lot of controversy surrounding the topic.

collagen supplement for skin health

What are the benefits of collagen supplements for the skin?

Collagen supplementation seems to improve the look of skin and hair and to improve several skin parameters such as elasticity, hydration, and density (amount of collagen in the skin), while reducing skin roughness and wrinkling. In in-vitro (cell cultures) and in-vivo (animal and human) studies, collagen supplementation was found effective in delivering such collagen into the dermis layer of the skin, which would then stay there for at least 14 days following the ingestion; moreover, collagen supplements appeared to increase collagen and hyaluronic acid synthesis by directly stimulating the fibroblasts.

Collagen supplementation seems to be beneficial not only in the aesthetic medicine field, but also in wound healing and skin healing following traumas, burns and surgery. It is also being investigated in the field of orthopedics for possible benefits in the management of osteoarthritis (OA) and joint pain.

According to anecdotal evidence, collagen-rich foods are also found to be beneficial in keeping the skin young, full, plump and elastic and this is especially believed in Asia where broths and soups with high collagen content are widespread and loved in many different cultures.

What is the optimal dosing of collagen supplements to improve the skin?

In most studies, collagen supplementation is in the 2.5 to 10 g per day range and the supplementation is carried out for 4 to 24 weeks in order to see the benefits. Due to the lack of high-quality research and the use of different forms of collagen (eg. Peptides, type II, type I, ..) as well as different formulations containing also other minerals, vitamins and bioactive molecules it is hard to define what the appropriate dose should be, but most authors seem to be oriented in the 5 to 10 grams per day range to be taken for at least 6 weeks in order to see the initial results.

What types of collagen supplements do exist?

There are 28 different types of collagen found in our bodies and five of them, type I to type V, are the most common. In the skin, 80% of collagen is type I while about 15% is constituted by collagen type III.

Collagen supplements can derive from many different natural sources including:

  • Marine collagen, from marine animals like fishes, sponges or jellyfish.
  • Porcine collagen, from pigs.
  • Bovine collagen, from cows.
  • Chicken collagen

Vegan collagen does not exist: when you hear about vegan collagen it is generally a mix of ingredients that promote or aid natural collagen synthesis such as vitamin C and amino acids, but there’s no actual collagen in it. In the lab, it has been possible to engineer yeast and bacteria so that they produce collagen, but to my knowledge there is no company that makes collagen supplements this way although vegan collagen may become available in the future.

Collagen peptides or hydrolyzed collagen are a popular form of collagen supplement and refer to the same product. Instead of being a large and heavy-weight collagen molecule, companies use heat, acids, alkali or enzymes to break it down to smaller pieces known as peptides.

What is the best type of collagen supplement for skin health?

To choose the most appropriate collagen supplement for you, you may want to avoid those that derive from sources that may potentially cause an allergic reaction (if you are allergic to seafood it is better to avoid marine collagen); if you suffer from allergies, bovine and in particular porcine collagen seem to have the lowest immunogenicity. Being derived from pigs or cows, porcine or bovine collagen may go against your faith and this may be a reason to choose a different brand or source of collagen.

Marine collagen seems to be the one richer in type I collagen, hence if you’re taking it to improve the look of your skin, this may be the best choice. When it comes to joint health, with joints being mainly composed of type II collagen, mammal-derived collagen or the ones derived from fish cartilage may be best.

Hydrolyzed collagen, also known as collagen peptides, is collagen that went through a process that makes it highly bioavailable compared to native collagen; collagen peptides not only are more easily absorbed, but also more easily digested and distributed in the body making it a better choice as a supplement. According to some studies, hydrolyzed collagen is absorbed more than 90% following oral intake with a peak absorption in plasma after 2 hours and with peptides detectable and peaking in the skin after 12 hours. Collagen peptides are also more easily dissolved in water.

What’s wrong with the research showing the benefits of collagen supplements?

The collagen supplements industry is estimated to be worth around 4-10 Billion USD, growing year by year. Companies are often funding research and providing the supplements, and this may cause bias as positive findings would benefit their sales.

Most published research is not high quality, there’s no double-blind, or placebo control, nor there are objective factors being scrutinized (eg. The investigator instead of using an instrument to take a measure of some objective skin parameter may just look at a picture and subjectively say if there’s an improvement, sometimes even knowing in advance whether the subject took the supplement or not). The groups investigated are often small and there may be plenty of other confounding factors.

Being funded by the industry does not necessarily mean the findings are wrong, but we definitely need more high quality, independent, large sample studies before saying with absolute certainty that collagen supplements have positive effects on skin’s health.

What are the risks and side effects of collagen supplements?

Collagen supplements although considered safe, still carry some risks and may cause side effects.

Marine collagen may cause allergic reactions in those allergic to seafood. Bovine collagen in rare cases may also cause allergic reactions. Porcine and bovine collagen carry the risk of transmitting diseases like the Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis (BSE) or other prion diseases.

This said, when it comes to animal diseases the risk is just potential and there are surveillance systems to prevent outbreaks and infections; the risk posed by collagen supplements should be very low especially if manufactured in countries with such surveillance systems in place like the EU or USA.

Supplements generally don’t go through the thorough approval process of regulatory agencies like the FDA, hence they are not tested for pesticides, heavy metals, bacteria, toxins or even for what they claim they contain such as the right amount and type of collagen as stated on the label. Only a test report from an independent lab can confirm that. Some of the collagen supplements on the market have been indeed found to be contaminated with heavy metals such as cadmium and lead or with other toxins such as arsenic. Although the companies with financial interests in the supplements industry claim that in the large majority of cases heavy metals were not found or found at trace levels and in accordance with current regulations, it is also important to note that heavy metals accumulate in our bodies and that stricter standards and independent and random quality checks would be best for the safety of consumers.

So does collagen supplementation actually work?

The research on collagen supplementation is booming with an increasing number of papers on the subject being published every year. Current findings are promising and show positive results, with collagen supplements being effective at reducing the signs of aging skin as well as other parameters like skin hydration. Specialists warn about the exaggerated claims often made by supplement producers and by media companies. More research is needed to validate the findings, but collagen supplementation is generally seen as safe and effective at least to some extent. Pairing it with a healthy lifestyle, skincare and avoidance of risk factors such as sun exposure or smoking, collagen supplementation may help in maintaining a young- and healthy-looking skin.



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