Can collagen supplements really help you look younger?
Victoria Beckham swears by them. Kourtney Kardashian is evangelical. And this month, Amanda Holden has called them “life saving”. Collagen supplements are, clearly, the celebrity bandwagon de jour.
But how sincere are these endorsements and how scientific are their claims? Holden, if you’ll pardon the pun, has skin in the game. She is a brand ambassador for the supplement company Revive. So, what’s the truth behind the hype? Can collagen products really reverse the signs of ageing?
“Collagen is one of the most abundant proteins in the body,” explains Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist at Self London. “It forms a scaffold that gives strength, rigidity and support to the skin – gram for gram, it is stronger than steel.”
This steel, however, sags over time. “Collagen levels start to fall by approximately one per cent per year after our mid-20s,” says Mahto. This is especially true if you’re a sun-worshipper: “UV light has been shown to activate enzymes known as matrix metalloproteinases [MMP]. These break down collagen and damage the skin’s support structure, making it sag or deepening wrinkles, and also have the ability to prevent new collagen production.”
It was perhaps inevitable that an industry promising to fix this issue would flourish. The global collagen market was estimated at $4.7 billion last year, and is projected to reach $7.2 billion by 2030. “There are two types touted as being able to have an effect on your own collagen: supplements, including drinks, and topical applications,” explains Mahto. “The theory behind them is that they can help “replenish” your skin’s own collagen stores.”
Does either work? “At present, there is no concrete evidence showing that it will survive digestion, travel into your bloodstream and make it to your skin,” says Mahto.
Robust evidence to support the claims of collagen supplement brands is, she says, scarce, and even where it exists: “most studies have been carried out by those marketing the products... Personally, I wouldn’t recommend buying collagen drinks. The same goes for topically applied collagen. The evidence isn’t there to suggest it has any effect.”
Other experts are more optimistic. “To be honest, I was really sceptical for a long time,” says Dr Geoff Mullan, cosmetic medicine expert and chief medical officer for Humanpeople, a personalised supplement company that – yes – does produce a collagen powder.
“Over the years there’s been lots of double-blind randomised control trials – the highest level of scientific evidence,” he says. In 2021, all those were brought together in a systematic review: “and much to my surprise, it found that it does make a difference”. The review, published in the International Journal of Dermatology, concluded that: “Ingestion of hydrolysed collagen for 90 days is effective in reducing skin ageing, as it reduces wrinkles and improves skin elasticity and hydration.”
How do collagen supplements work?
Once swallowed, Mullan explains, collagen supplements do not magically resurface as collagen in your skin.
He says that natural collagen “is an enormously long chain of amino-acids. There’s absolutely no way a full collagen molecule could be absorbed, it would end up excreted.” Instead, supplements use something called hydrolysed collagen: “Basically, it has been chopped up into shorter fragments – or peptides – that do get absorbed into the bloodstream.”
In great enough numbers, these then have an effect on the MMP enzymes that Mahto mentioned – the ones that destroy our collagen reserves as we age: “Imagine little Pac-Men that gobble up collagen,” suggests Mullan. “When you flood your body with collagen peptides your body produces less of these destructive ‘Pac-Men’ enzymes, specifically MMP1 (which breaks down collagen) and MMP3 which breaks down elastin.
There is also some evidence that, in the presence of antioxidants like vitamin E, these peptides can also lead to an increase in skin cell proliferation, actually helping to increase the production of collagen.
But the main benefit of taking collagen powder, Mullan suggests, is that it will slow the deterioration of your collagen. This, he says, is why taking collagen makes particular sense at specific points in life: pre-perimenopause, for example, as a preventative action against the drop-off in skin quality that accompanies declines in oestrogen.
If you buy supplements which are best?
“On the label, look out for a patented type of marine collagen,” says Mullan. That’s because fish skin (from which this type is made) contains lots of type one collagen – the most abundant and important sort in human skin. A supplement that also contains Vitamin C is ideal since: “to make collagen, you absolutely have to have Vitamin C”.
Dosage matters too. “The clinical trials show an effect on skin from around seven grams a day. I tell patients to take at least 10 grams,” explains Mullan. “That’s why capsules are a no go, they’re way too low a dose, so you’re wasting your money. Powder is definitely preferable. Stick a scoop in a smoothie for breakfast.”
And you really must commit, he says: “If you’re taking it once a week, it’s probably not going to get up to levels where you’ll get those beneficial effects. The clinical trials reported significant differences over the period of four weeks, taken daily.”
How to boost the collagen in your skin?
“A diet that is good for your general health will be good for your skin, but eating more collagen-rich foods is highly unlikely to have any effect on your own collagen production or levels,” says Mahto. Instead: “Introducing a retinoid into your routine is a good place to start, as they help to increase the production of collagen and elastin. Ensuring you’re using a broad-spectrum sunscreen every day is another way to help prevent the breakdown of collage in your skin.”
Tamara Griffiths, of the British Association of Dermatologists, agrees: “Although some studies demonstrate modest improvement in skin elasticity and hydration with oral collagen supplementation, more research is required to better understand the effects and underlying mechanisms of action of these products, as well as to sense-check unsubstantiated claims.
“Meanwhile, there is incontrovertible evidence that topical retinoid treatment, such as tretinoin, improves both epidermal and dermal parameters associated with skin ageing and sun damage, such as wrinkles, skin hydration and some types of pigmentation. Furthermore, sun screens alone will also go some way to not only repair, but also prevent further damage.” So slap on the sunscreen, before slurping anything else.