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Collagen for Your Skin: Healthy or Hype?

The makers of collagen supplements and creams happily tout the amazing results their products promise us: plump, dewy, youthful skin, strong, smooth nails and hair and even healthier, stronger bones and joints. All of this can be yours if you eat, drink or apply this amazing collagen powder, pill or cream. Can it be true, though? It seems a little too good to be true, but what if it's not? Let's dive in.

Collagen is an important part of our bodies. It's the most abundant protein our bodies produce. It's insoluble, fibrous and hard, serving as a framework for our bones, tendons and muscles. There are 16+ different collagen types, but the vast majority, as many as 90 percent, belong to three types: 1, 2 or 3. Measure for measure, type 1 collagen is stronger than steel. Collagens are stretchy and flexible. Our kidneys are wrapped in protective collagen. 

From a cosmetic perspective, collagen is what makes our skin look plump and smooth when we're young, and its absence is a big part of why we wrinkle and droop as we age. Think collagen in our skin as being similar to a supportive woven frame, or the coils in a mattress. When our collagen production decreases, the framework under our skin becomes less dense, strong and uniform. Some coils weaken, causing parts of the mattress to sag. 

Post-menopausal women see a dramatic reduction in production. Gaps in the structure allow skin layers to become irregular. We begin to wrinkle. Other factors that can diminish our collagen stores include the usual suspects: smoking, drinking and UV light exposure, AKA sun damage.It is a rare soul who truly enjoys the wrinkling and sagging that come with aging. Most of us would like to slow it down. Some of us would like to halt the aging process altogether. Marketers know this, and they work very hard to sell us on the idea that, if we would just buy and use their magical products, we could turn back the clock. Before you jump on the collagen bandwagon, here are some things to know. Pro-tip: plant-based collagen is not a thing. Collagen comes from animals. 

Topical Creams Containing Collagen

The idea of giving your skin more collagen to work with by applying it topically and allowing it to absorb in strategic places, like the face, seems logical.  Great. So do collagen creams work? Probably not. In fact, no. It's a bummer, but here's why topical collagen creams and potions probably really don't work.

Collagen molecules are huge, as far as molecules go. They're also complex, and they don't hang out on the surface of the skin. Collagen is produced in our skin's second layer, the dermis. The dermis is a layer deeper than the epidermis or outer layer, and that's also where most of it is found. The molecules are like braids or ropes made up of chains of amino acids, which bundle together into strands and are twisted into triple helices. 

It turns out that these complex, gigantic molecules are simply too large to sink through the epidermis into the dermis. So while your skin might feel smoother or softer, and your wrinkles may look a little less pronounced, what you're seeing is happening on the skin's surface. It's not a result of more collagen. 

Many creams use smaller collagen peptides, or hydrolyzed collagen, which is technically a form of collagen. Another form of hydrolyzed collagen you're probably familiar with? Gelatin. Like the stuff in Jello. Even though these peptides are small enough to penetrate the dermis, use of topical collagen peptides isn't proven to do anything. It's possible, but certainly not known to be true. Further, because collagen-containing creams are not classified and drugs, the claims they may make don't have to be scientifically proven. On the other hand, the collagen found in creams or serums probably isn't harmful, so if you like how they make your skin feel, more power to you.   

Collagen supplements

Whether powdered, encapsulated or sold in premixed bottles of collagen water, ingestible collagen faces the same challenge that topical collagen does: huge molecules. They're simply too large to be absorbed. There is a greater probability of absorption in the digestive tract in peptide form, but there is no large-scale, scientific study to indicate those little molecules will find their way to your dermis.

But back to the molecule-size issue. Like many creams and serums, ingestible collagen supplements often contain collagen peptides, those smaller strands of collagen. There are a handful of really small, short-duration studies (think 60 people studied for three months or less) that associate better skin elasticity, increased skin hydration and improved wrinkles with oral collagen peptides. 

Another tricky variable? Collagen supplements (like most supplements) are not well regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which means claims are likely unverified. It also means that you really can't verify what's in the supplement.

Pro-tip: If you eat a healthy, well-rounded diet including high-protein foods like eggs, legumes, dairy and animal protein, the odds are good you're already ingesting all the collagen you need.  It is better to preserve your own collagen by wearing sunscreen, stopping smoking, and cutting back on drinking alcohol.

 

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