I have been offered collagen in the form of a cappuccino, gummy candies, and $200 moisturizer. There are innumerable collagen supplements on the market, plus plenty of skin-care products and white-coat treatments that promise to boost natural collagen production. But can any of these things really “give” you more collagen? And is it worth spending money to try?
On a cellular level, collagen is a protein that is inextricably linked with youth, plump skin, and a radiant complexion. “Collagen is the most prevalent component of the extracellular matrix, which makes up the scaffolding that gives our skin structure and volume,” explains dermatologist Dr. Shereene Idriss. “Hence the obsession with trying to get more of it into our bodies.”
Collagen lives in the deeper layers of the skin, where it interweaves with another protein called elastin to create a sort of springy web, explains Boston-based dermatologist Dr. Ranella Hirsch. “These together are responsible for giving the skin tensile strength, which is that bounce-back quality.” Collagen production declines with age, which explains why older skin loses volume and gets wrinkly. So naturally, many people spend a lot of time and effort trying to keep their collagen around.
Sadly, there’s no evidence that taking collagen orally does anything for your skin. Some studies done in mice show evidence of more collagen peptides in the skin after it is ingested, but the human digestive system is a lot more robust than that of a rodent and breaks down collagen into simple amino acids (i.e. not the same kind of protein) before it can reach the dermis, Dr. Hirsch explains. Some brands have tried to circumvent this breakdown process by using hydrolyzed collagen, which is more readily absorbed by the gut, but it doesn’t seem to help. “In humans, there is zero data to show that collagen peptides actually reach the skin,” says Dr. Hirsch.
Of course, if you’re shopping for a collagen supplement, you’re likely to see some impressive figures or claims as to how they work. “Some people believe that hydrolyzed collagen can still trigger your body into believing it needs to produce more,” says Dr. Idriss. “It’s an interesting theory but one that I would like to see backed by independent, large-scale clinical trials.” The results that are often cited on the labels of collagen supplements come from studies backed by the manufacturers — not exactly reliable sources, she says. “This creates a lot of conflict of interest, and more independent studies are needed.”
What’s more, collagen supplements, like all supplements, are not regulated by the FDA, so it’s impossible to be sure what exactly is in them. Still, they have ardent fans. “People do often rave about them, but I always think, If you’ve committed $90 to something, you’re very motivated to see it work,” said Dr. Hirsch.
So, if supplements don’t boost collagen, is there anything else that does? Yes, but most require a trip to the dermatologist. Thermage, a kind of radiofrequency treatment, can help boost overall collagen. It works by essentially heating a deeper layer of the skin to help kick-start collagen production. As it’s relatively new, there have only been a few small studies of its efficacy, but those results do point to success.
A topical retinoid can also help, “as it increases cell turnover,” says Dr. Hirsch. Retinoids, especially the prescription-strength version known as Tretinoin, are one the most studied skin-care ingredients, with robust evidence supporting collagen-boosting claims.
Dr. Hirsch also points out that other in-clinic treatments such as microneedling, light peels, and some types of lasers are effective because they stimulate the body to create new collagen. “With all of these procedures, we’re causing some form of a controlled injury in a very specific way, and part of the wound-healing process is the production and development of new collagen,” she explains.
While you can purchase microneedling kits (often called “dermarollers”) and super-strong peels online, these treatments can cause serious damage to the skin when done incorrectly. If you want a treatment, always choose a board-certified dermatologist, and ensure that they give you a full, in-depth explanation of any risks and downtime.
Of course, an even easier (and cheaper) option is to preserve the collagen you already have. Good skin care, adequate protein and vitamin C in your diet, and regular sunscreen use will all help prevent the natural destruction of collagen stores that happens with age, Dr. Hirsch says. Sometimes the most boring solution really is the best.