Collagen has long been a sought-after ingredient in skincare products for its beautifying effects on skin. But more recently, collagen has made its way into nutritional products ranging from supplement powders to bottled water. As a plastic surgeon, I’m naturally wary of “too good to be true” health claims—which is why this month, I’m taking a medical approach to examining dietary collagen supplements.
What is collagen?
Collagen is a naturally occurring protein that supports skin’s overall structure, keeping it firm and elastic. However, once we reach our 20s, our body’s collagen production begins to decrease by 1 to 2% per year, causing skin to gradually lose volume and sag. To combat this collagen loss, companies are now advertising dietary supplements as a way to boost collagen in the body.
How are collagen supplements thought to work?
The body can’t absorb collagen molecules in their whole form; instead, the body breaks the molecules down into their component amino acids during the digestive process in order to synthesize them into usable collagen. Collagen supplements seek to mimic the body’s digestive effects by breaking collagen down into peptides that are more easily absorbed in the intestines—a process called hydrolyzation.
Do collagen supplements work?
Research on dietary collagen supplements is still in its infancy, but there has been some promising research:
- In 2019, researchers published a systematic review examining the effects of oral collagen supplementation on wound healing and skin aging. After reviewing 11 different studies, they noted that preliminary results were “promising,” and that oral collagen supplements can increase skin elasticity, hydration, and skin density. They concluded that collagen supplements are generally safe, but further studies are needed to be sure there are no negative side effects.
- A 2012 Dermato-Endocrinology study reported taking collagen supplements may promote the production of other proteins that help support skin, including elastin and fibrillin.
Collagen supplements vs. real food
It’s well known that what you put into your body has a major impact on your skin, but does the same logic apply to collagen? While it’s true that the collagen in supplements has already been broken down in order to be easily absorbed by the body, there is more to achieving better skin than simply consuming collagen peptides.
- Consuming amino acids in their whole form (protein) may be superior to consuming amino acids that have already been broken down. Because amino acids in collagen supplements are digested and processed quickly in the body, if your body is not ready for them, they may be excreted without being fully used. Whole proteins, on the other hand, are absorbed gradually, allowing the body to use their nutrients over a longer period of time.
- Vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C, zinc, sulfur, and copper all help the body produce collagen. When you eat foods rich in these nutrients, your body is able to more effectively produce collagen; therefore, eating a diet rich in a variety of whole foods may be the best way to help your body synthesize collagen. Plus, it’s long been established that fruits and vegetables are one of the best approaches to maintaining optimal skin health.
- Eating a collagen-rich diet can help you avoid excess sugars and refined carbohydrates, which have been linked to premature skin aging. A collagen-rich diet can also provide the following benefits:
- Strengthen the immune system
- Increase heart health
- Increase antioxidant levels and promote natural detoxification
- Help maintain a healthy body weight
Eating a diet rich in a variety of whole foods may be the best way to help your body synthesize collagen.
Collagen supplements aren’t regulated
Because the herbal supplement industry is not federally regulated in the U.S., it can be very difficult to determine the quality, absorption, and efficacy of dietary collagen supplements. Instead of having any formal verification process, it is the supplement manufacturers that are responsible for verifying the safety, efficacy, and claims of their products.
Additionally, many dietary supplements, including collagen supplements, contain heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, and mercury. Therefore, if you do purchase collagen supplements, make sure they are from a reputable company. (I recommend Aethern’s® collagen beverages.)
There’s a lack of data on dietary collagen supplements
While some preliminary results of dietary collagen supplementation have been promising, it’s important to note that the studies reviewed were all short-term, and more long-term data is needed to prove their safety and efficacy. Many of these studies have also been sponsored by supplement manufacturers. Until more research is published, it may be safer to stick with a dietary approach to boosting collagen.
6 foods that may boost collagen production
Due to their high nutrient content and amino acid profiles, these 6 foods may help increase collagen production in the body:
- Leafy greens
- Vitamin C
- Bone broth
- Animal meats
While animal-derived proteins are a naturally rich source of protein, your body can still get all the amino acids it needs to make collagen from a variety of plant-based proteins, including lentils, beans, soy, and quinoa.
Our takeaway on collagen supplements
Even though some studies have shown benefits to taking dietary collagen supplements, consuming adequate protein and other essential nutrients via healthy, whole foods will likely result in greater and more bioavailable collagen in the body. Remember: unadulterated foods are always better for your body than processed foods.
Another factor to keep in mind is that we can’t direct where our bodies prioritize collagen production. So while consuming collagen can increase collagen in the body, there is no direct evidence that taking a collagen supplement increases collagen in the skin specifically.
If you feel you’re not getting enough collagen in your diet and want to begin taking a dietary collagen supplement, consult with your doctor first. While collagen is generally considered to be safe and there are no upper limits set on its consumption, your doctor may advise you not to exceed a certain total amount of collagen per day.
Cosmetic treatments can increase collagen in the skin
As I mentioned earlier, our body’s ability to produce collagen declines as we age, but did you know that your body can also lose its ability to absorb the nutrients needed to synthesize collagen? For this reason, dermal fillers like Juvéderm® and Sculptra® Aesthetic can be effective treatments for stimulating natural collagen production in our skin, in addition to following a healthy diet and lifestyle.
Dermal fillers can be an effective treatment for stimulating natural collagen production in our skin, in addition to following a healthy diet and lifestyle.
While dermal fillers won’t provide all of the collagen your body needs, they can help volumize your skin and improve its overall structure. Plus, Juvéderm and Sculptra have been proven to gradually increase collagen over time, making these fillers an effective treatment for those wanting long-term skin improvements.
Dermal filler injections in Denver
Gregory A. Buford, MD, FACS, PCEO is a board certified plastic surgeon in Denver, Colorado and a nationally recognized expert on cosmetic injectables. Dr. Buford offers dermal filler injections at his Lone Tree practice, BEAUTY by BUFORD. He is assisted by Lauren Mitschrich, PA-C, a board certified dermatology physician assistant with over 7 years of experience performing cosmetic injections. To schedule a dermal filler consultation with Dr. Buford or Lauren, contact our practice online or call 303-951-5829.