Do Collagen Supplements Really Work?
Jul 09, 2023
Tanja Ivanova / Getty Images
In a skincare-obsessed culture, it can be challenging to know what supplements, serums and creams are genuinely worth the money and which ones are useless.
Oral collagen supplements are a prime example of a popular product that companies often claim can have miraculous anti-aging benefits. But there’s plenty of debate about whether consuming these supplements is the best way to improve collagen quality, increase production, and slow degradation.
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body, and it provides structure to the skin, cartilage, bone, and connective tissue, according to Kristina Collins, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Austin, TX. It’s vital to the processes of wound healing, scar formation, musculoskeletal function, blood flow, and vision, she said.
“As we age, our collagen production decreases and the quality of our collagen declines as well,” Collins told Verywell. “That overall reduction of the collagen inside our bodies is experienced as a decline in physical function, but the reduction of the collagen of our skin happens right before our eyes with the appearance of wrinkles in sagging skin.”
During the process of aging, a gradual reduction of collagen can result in volume loss around the eyes or face and musculoskeletal difficulties like mobility issues or joint pain, she explained.
Manufacturers often advertise collagen supplements as capable of restoring skin firmness, boosting bone health, and strengthening hair and nails. But experts are conflicted on whether these supplements can, in fact, deliver these results.
“Many people question how effectively we are able to actually absorb any useful form of collagen or its peptide components through the digestive process,” Collins said.
There is no conclusive evidence about the ideal format for collagen supplementation yet, she added. Many collagen supplements include hydrolyzed collagen—which is partially broken down and easier to absorb—and peptides, which are smaller chains of amino acids that may turn out to be even more effective.
There is some scientific evidence to back up the effectiveness of collagen supplementation. A meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Dermatology in 2021 concluded that 90 days of collagen supplementation can decrease wrinkles and improve skin hydration and elasticity.
And a 2022 study with 100 participants showed that the oral supplementation of low-molecular-weight collagen could improve wrinkles, elasticity, hydration, and barrier integrity of photoaged facial skin without adverse effects.
While these studies support the use of oral collagen, claims made by collagen supplement manufacturers often surpass the evidence currently supported by the literature, said Kunal Malik, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City.
Other than supplements, there are ways to experience similar benefits offered by increased collagen production. When it comes to skin care, Malik recommends using topical vitamin C in the form of l-ascorbic acid, combined with ferulic acid and alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E).
“These three ingredients have a synergistic antioxidant effect and protect against UV irradiation, which causes not only photoaging but also skin cancer,” he said. “The effect is even stronger when Vitamin C+E and ferulic are combined with SPF.”
Sun protection is particularly important, Malik explained, because UV damage generates free radicals that increase the number of enzymes that break down collagen. UV damage causes collagen to break down a lot faster than the normal aging process, he said, so wearing a minimum of SPF 30 daily is great protection against collagen degradation.
Collins, meanwhile, said any antiaging skin care routine should include several types of ingredients that promote the creation of collagen, including vitamin A derivatives, as in retinol, retinoate, and anything with “retin”; peptides, which are shorter amino acid chains that serve as building blocks for collagen; and hyaluronic acid, which acts as the “glue” between the amino acid building blocks.
Collagen cream, though, is “completely useless” because the molecule of collagen is too large to make it past the skin carrier, Collins added.
“We can’t absorb collagen through the skin, but we can absorb many types of molecules that both support collagen synthesis and downregulate collagen degradation,” she said.
Niacinamide and coenzyme Q10, for example, are great collagen-boosting minerals that can be absorbed topically, according to Collins.
Taking oral supplements containing vitamin C, zinc, manganese, coenzyme Q10, glycine, proline, and copper can also help create new collagen, she said. These ingredients—called “cofactors”—are molecules that need to be present for collagen production to occur. Plus, these simpler molecules can be absorbed through the GI tract more easily, she said.
And there are some lifestyle habits that can help with collagen levels, too. Smoking and consuming excessive sugar or processed foods can cause a decline in collagen levels, Collins said, which is why she recommends drinking lots of water and eating a well-balanced diet with an emphasis on plant-based, whole foods.
“Good sleep hygiene and stress reduction are also helpful for maintaining the cellular processes that regulate our collagen synthesis or breakdown,” she said.
While oral collagen supplements might work to improve collagen levels, there are a number of skincare products, alternative supplements, and lifestyle practices that may be even more effective when it comes to improving collagen quality, increasing production, and slowing degradation.
de Miranda RB, Weimer P, Rossi RC. Effects of hydrolyzed collagen supplementation on skin aging: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Dermatol. 2021;60(12):1449-1461. doi:10.1111/ijd.15518
Kim J, Lee SG, Lee J, et al. Oral supplementation of low-molecular-weight collagen peptides reduces skin wrinkles and improves biophysical properties of skin: a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled study. J Med Food. 2022;25(12):1146-1154. doi:10.1089/jmf.2022.K.0097
By Mira MillerMira Miller is a freelance writer specializing in mental health, women's health, and culture.