If you’re even a little bit interested in skincare, you likely have a basic working knowledge of collagen: It’s a substance that keeps skin looking young and plump, and is therefore a definite Must Have. Now more than ever, beauty enthusiasts are ingesting collagen powder and applying collagen cream for a daily dose of the good stuff — but do ingestible and topical collagen supplements actually work? It turns out, the answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no.
Before exploring how collagen products affect the skin, it’s essential to understand what collagen really is. “Collagen is the structural protein in our skin that gives it shape,” Dr. Joshua Zeichner of Zeichner Dermatology in New York City tells The Zoe Report. 75 to 80 percent of skin is made up of collagen. “Think of it like the frame of your mattress: Without it, the mattress would be clumpy and wrinkly," he says.
While collagen is naturally produced by the body, this process begins to decline around age 30. “When skin ages, it produces less collagen because of a decrease in epidermal growth factor (EGF) within our body,” Dr. Ronald Foy, a dermatologist and consultant for the brand DNAEDF Renewal, tells us. In addition to this inevitable slow-down, collagen is also impacted by sun exposure and environmental pollution, which “damage the collagen proteins,” Dr. Foy says, resulting in wrinkles and sagging skin. And contrary to what many of the buzzy collagen supplements on the market would have you believe, increasing your body’s natural collagen production isn’t as simple as swallowing a pill — it all comes down to what's known as bioavailability.
“Bioavailability is a measure of absorption — it describes the portion of a substance that enters the circulation when introduced into the body,” Louise Marchesin, global head of marketing for liquid collagen supplement Skinade, tells The Zoe Report. “For a substance to enter the circulation, its molecular weight must be very small.” This presents a bit of a problem, as pure collagen molecules are too large to actually be absorbed by the body as-is; instead, they get broken down to their component amino acids in the GI tract, according to Dr. Zeichner. “It is unclear how effective ingestible collagen truly is,” he says.
To counteract this problem, a slew of new “inner beauty” brands are creating collagen supplements with smaller, more bioavailable particles. “With supplements, making sure that you can absorb them ‘pre-digestion’ — meaning that most of the ingredients enter the circulation before the digestive process kicks in — is key to the efficacy of the product,” Marchesin says. Skinade utilizes collagen peptides (aka, broken down collagen protein particles) with a low molecular weight in a liquid formula for this reason. “This way, the ingredients can pass the stomach lining intact, triggering the body’s natural production of collagen, hyaluronic acid, and elastin,” she says.
Another key word to look out for is hydrolyzed. “Hydrolyzed collagen means that the collagen is broken into smaller, easier to process particles,” Dr. Foy tells us. Kalumi BEAUTYfood, a brand that makes meal replacement bars packed with collagen and other skin-healthy ingredients, uses hydrolyzed collagen to increase the efficacy of absorption — specifically, they use hydrolyzed marine collagen from wild-caught cod fish.
“Marine collagen is the most bioavailable source of collagen due to its lower molecular weight and size, allowing it to be absorbed at a higher level through the intestinal barrier into the bloodstream,” Jayla Harnwell and Chrissy Blair, the co-founders of Kalumi BEAUTYfood, tell The Zoe Report. Whereas popular bovine collagen (from cows) or porcine collagen (from pigs) can be difficult for the human body to break down, marine collagen is “absorbed up to 1.5 times more efficiently,” the co-founders say, a statistic that's widely cited in the industry and confirmed by a 2015 study.
The most effective collagen supplements will combine actual collagen with additional ingredients that increase the body’s own production of the protein. To this end, Skinade includes MSM (a type of organic sulphur that supports the formation of collagen) and L-lysine (an amino acid that helps skin cells rebuild collagen), and Kalumi BEAUTYfood bars rely on an extra dose of antioxidants via sweet potatoes. “Antioxidants from sweet potatoes, vitamins C and A, are known to support collagen production in the body naturally,” Harnwell and Blair tell us, a point which Dr. Zeichner confirms.
This is the thinking behind vegan-friendly “collagen” supplements, as well, like The Beauty Chef COLLAGEN Inner Beauty Boost. “We don’t use collagen as an ingredient, instead we employ ingredients that help to both boost collagen synthesis and protect collagen from degradation,” says Carla Oates, the founder of Beauty Chef. The plant-based, vegan liquid supplement has been scientifically proven to boost the body’s own collagen production with the use of maqui berries (rich in antioxidants to prevent collagen damage), blueberries (a source of vitamins A and C, which both increase collagen production and prevent collagen breakdown), and grape seed extract (high in proanthocyanidins to protect elastin and collagen).
In fact, this method of supporting the body’s natural processes is the way to go with topical skincare, too. “Collagen does not penetrate skin — if it did, you would be able to slap on a cream and instantly have thicker skin but unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that,” Dr. Dennis Gross tells The Zoe Report. Instead, Dr. Zeichner recommends using "products that help stimulate new collagen production, like retinol, vitamin C, and hydroxy acids," he says.
Dr. Dennis Gross' C+ Collagen Deep Cream fits the bill — it eschews the major protein in favor of vitamin C and amino acids (the building blocks of collagen): “When you combine these two ingredients, you are simultaneously protecting against free radicals that damage collagen and jumpstarting your skin’s production of the protein,” he says. “It’s a two-for-one.”
For a vegan-friendly topical option, Algenists GENIUS Liquid Collagen contains plant-derived "collagen" — which, it should be noted, is not actual collagen; the real stuff only comes from the cartilage and connective tissue of mammals and fish. Algenists' plant-based version offers “a highly functional equivalent to animal-derived collagen,” Tammy Yaiser, the brand's Vice President of Product Development, tells TZR; thanks to a healthy dose of microalgae extracts and amino acids. "Minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, copper, calcium are found in algae, which function along with amino acids to improve skin barrier repair and regeneration," Dr. Aanand Geria of Geria Dermatology tells The Zoe Report — meaning that products heavy in algae, like Algenists' GENIUS Liquid Collagen and ELEMIS' Pro-Collagen Marine Cream, are powerful collagen substitutes.
You should begin noticing thicker, firmer skin from topical products within a matter of weeks, but “any effect that you are going to see from ingestible collagen will take at least several months to start kicking in,” Dr. Zeichner says. Skinade’s independent studies confirm this; in a placebo controlled, double-blind case study, participants saw a 25.5 percent increase in collagen density on average after 90 days of daily consumption — which, in the grand scheme of things, is pretty impressive.
The moral of the story? Collagen supplements can work — just look for the words “bioavailable,” “hydrolyzed,” and “marine collagen” when determining the best ingestible supplement for you; and opt for food- or liquid-based supplements (including powders that can be mixed into smoothies and lattes, like Vital Proteins Marine Collagen) in lieu of capsules and tablets. "The Physician's Desk Reference [an esteemed medical guide for doctors] puts the absorption rate of tablets at between 10-20 percent, as opposed to liquids, which are listed at a much higher absorption rate of over 95 percent," Marchesin explains. Medicare Europe quotes this same Physician's Desk Reference on their site when explaining why hospitals prefer liquid delivery of medication, rather than pills, when possible.
As far as topicals, reach for skincare products formulated with ingredients “that are proven to rev up collagen production,” like rather than actual collagen, per Dr. Zeichner. He recommends vitamin C, vitamin A, and hyroxy acids; while Dr. Geria notes that some natural ingredients can deliver similar results, like algae and broccoli seed oil.
Ahead, 12 bioavailable collagen supplements to give you better skin from the inside out — and the outside in.
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"Think of your skin cell like a battery — as time goes on, energy is drained and the cell slows down," Dr. Gross tells us. "The C + Collagen Deep Cream moisturizer uses a proprietary energy complex featuring CoQ10, superoxide dismutase, carnitine, and niacinamide to recharge skin, so that it can maximize vitamin C for accelerated repair to help build collagen."