How collagen supplements and skincare work

Robert Hundley

Collagen: it crops up in everything from smoothies to serums and interest in the squishy stuff has been soaring. The Holland & Barrett 2022 Wellness Report revealed a recent 94% rise in sales of ingestible collagen, while a 1,570% increase in searches for ‘collagen’ on the Boots website prompted the development of an entire collagen-based skincare range. But, far from being a buzzy new skincare and wellness ingredient, we’re all born with an abundance of collagen. So why might we need a collagen boost?

The benefits of collagen

Collagen is the body’s main structural protein, providing tissues with cushioning, bulk and support. It makes up 30% of the body’s protein and up to 80% of the skin’s, but internal production of collagen slows down from our mid-20s, with skin losing at least 1% a year and a whopping 30% in the first five years post-menopause. Little wonder, then, that skin becomes increasingly slack and lined as the years go by. Joints get creakier, too, so maintaining our collagen stores is also important for an agile old age. How that is best undertaken, however, is a matter of debate, especially when it comes to skin.

how collagen supplements skincare work

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While collagen levels in men and women naturally decline with age, hormonal changes around the time of the menopause mean that women are especially vulnerable to collagen loss. Dermatologist Dr Ne Win explains that “as menopause progresses, loss of oestrogen results in a rapid decrease of collagen in your skin.”

Other collagen-stealers include sun exposure, pollution and smoking (‘tobacco prevents the formation of collagen in the skin’ according to health directory Patient.info). An unhealthy diet can also cause collagen to diminish, as excess alcohol and sugar cause juicy grape-like collagen cells to stiffen and cease to function through a process called glycation.

What foods are high in collagen?

Bone broth is an increasingly well-known collagen booster thanks to the fact that it’s rich in the amino acids that form the building blocks that your body needs to create its own proteins, including collagen. You needn’t boil up a vat of pig’s trotters to get your daily collagen fix, however. Foods high in collagen include meat, fish, dairy products and eggs, with plant-based protein such as soy, beans, nuts, seeds and fungi also helping your body to produce its own collagen.

how collagen supplements skincare work

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Certain vitamins and minerals also play a key role in collagen production. Vitamin C boosts collagen levels, as does silica (found in oats, cereals and bananas), copper (found in mushrooms and cocoa) and sulphur (eat lots of garlic). Essentially, a collagen-boosting diet should include a varied mix of proteins, vegetables and grains that are high in fibre.

Do collagen supplements really work?

Collagen supplements and powders have been endorsed by everyone from Jennifer Aniston to Khloé Kardashian to Andy Murray. The theory behind them is that a sudden influx of hydrolysed collagen (collagen proteins broken down into smaller molecules called collagen peptides, which are more ‘available’ to be used by the body) tricks the body into believing that tissue damage has occurred, kickstarting new collagen production.

how collagen supplements skincare work

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But for this process to happen, the peptides must pass through the stomach without being broken down by stomach acid into their composite amino acids, a process deemed by some to be virtually impossible. Even if collagen peptides did make it into the bloodstream intact, there is no guarantee they will precision-target the skin, says nutritionist and author Ian Marber. He believes that other sources of ingestible amino acids (such as protein shakes or jelly made with gelatin) work just as well . Again, they won’t necessarily favour the skin over any other tissues that the body needs to repair, but they will be ‘just as effective’ at doing that as the collagen peptides and ‘probably at a more reasonable price.’

How to choose a collagen supplement for skin

There are ways, some insist, to get collagen peptides through the stomach in one piece. Ingenious Beauty Ultimate Collagen, £60 for a 30-day supply, comes in special ‘enteric’ capsules: acid-proof vessels that have been shown can make it safely through the digestive juices.

Another skin-plumping strategy is to ramp up the amount of hydrolysed collagen in your supplement. Look for ‘hydrolysed collagen’, ‘collagen peptides’ or ‘collagen hydrolysate’ on the label – the most effective sources are from fish offal, known as marine collagen, and bovine collagen, made from cow bones that have been boiled down (in essence, concentrated bone broth).

The thinking behind them is that if you flood the system with collagen peptides, enough will survive to reach the bloodstream. There’s no standardised dosage when it comes to hydrolysed collagen supplements but studies indicate amounts over 2500mg a day are beneficial for skin health.

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Look out for a supplement containing vitamin C, which particularly enhances the effectiveness of collagen. Other collagen ‘enablers’ to know include hyaluronic acid, MSM (methylsulfonylmethane, a sulphur-rich mineral found in certain raw fruit and vegetables, milk, wholegrains, coffee, tea and beer) and CoQ10. You’ll find these in Kansha Alchemy Advanced Super Skin Nutrition Collagen, £32.99 for 60 tablets, or try ZENii Skin Fusion, £85 for a month’s supply, which contains a whopping 10,000mg of marine collagen per daily serving alongside MSM, hyaluronic acid and vitamins A, C, D and E. Dr Sophie Shotter, medical director at Illuminate Skin Clinic says that ‘it’s a dose backed up by clinical evidence and it supplies other micronutrients that are key for enabling the body to produce its own collagen. I notice real results for my patients.’

What age should you start taking collagen?

You could top up your natural collagen supplies from your mid 20s onwards, when collagen levels naturally start to fall, but the greatest benefit will be seen pre- and post-menopause.

Is it good to take collagen every day?

Taking collagen everyday will help you to reap maximum rewards, but make sure that your collagen supplement contains hydrolysed collagen in a high enough amount with a balance of other vitamins and nutrients to support collagen production.

how collagen supplements skincare work

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Do collagen supplements have any side effects?

Collagen is present in many of the foods that we eat, and supplements are generally considered safe, although always check the label for any potential allergens and never exceed the stated dose. If in doubt, consult your GP.

What does collagen do in skincare?

Collagen is ‘a useful moisturising agent’ in skincare according to cosmetic scientist Jen Novakovich, of investigative beauty podcast The Eco Well, and while it can improve skin health, it can’t directly boost collagen production when applied topically.

how collagen supplements skincare work

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To stimulate collagen synthesis, you need skincare containing lab-engineered peptides and amino acids that have been specifically created to reach the deeper dermal layers and collaborate to improve cell regeneration. It’s an established strategy in wrinkle-fighting skincare, whether it has the word ‘collagen’ in its name or not. ‘There are a few peptides with compelling data; chief among them is Matrixyl 3000,’ says Jen.

As well as peptides, retinoids (vitamin A derivatives) are proven collagen boosters, while the botanical ingredient bakuchiol is increasingly prized for its ‘retinol-like’ cell-regenerating effects. Vitamin C shields cells from environmental damage and helps to create new ones, while algae extracts support collagen renewal in many ways, including suppressing collagen-degrading enzymes.

Can I use retinol and collagen together?

Yes, because collagen itself is a moisturising skincare ingredient that could help to counteract the potentially drying effect of retinol.

Does collagen make your hair grow?

‘For optimum strength and growth, hair needs protein more than anything else in terms of what’s in your diet and what’s in your hair products’, says trichologist Eva Proudman.

Clinical studies carried out by Proudman and her team showed promising results after using Absolute Collagen Hair Thickening Shampoo and Conditioner, £34 for the duo, five times a week for eight weeks. The shampoo and conditioner are formulated with collagen amino acids that penetrate the cortex of the hair to build strength alongside larger soluble collagen molecules that wrap the hair shaft in moisture, and participants’ hair density increased by as much as 20% over the course of the study (the ‘worst’ result was a 5% increase, which is still a win). Whether results are replicated in larger sample sizes remains to be seen but collagen-infused haircare could help to put the brakes on hair thinning, although more conclusive evidence is needed.


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