An Expert Guide to Collagen

To many, collagen is a mystery supplement. Some suppose that it doesn’t have much effect on the body, while others rave about its skin-firming, hair-growing and joint-repairing powers. Nowadays, you can find this supplement in more places than you might think: pills, peptides, topical creams and even food. You can even find vegan collagen products, which contain all the good-for-you benefits without having a bovine source.

While we all know of collagen and have heard incredible things about its benefits, not many really know what collagen truly is. As with any ingredient, it’s important to understand what collagen is and how it works before you dive into the world of supplements, treatments and more. Ahead, experts explain how to kick start your collagen journey.

What Is Collagen?

“Collagen is a protein naturally found in skin, bones, muscles, connective tissues and hair,” explains Deborah S. Sarnoff, MD, president of The Skin Cancer Foundation, “It’s the most abundant protein in the body, and it is composed of various amino acids including glycine, proline and vitamin C.” While it’s the most abundant protein in the body, what many people don’t realize, however, is that after the age of 20, we lose about one percent of our collagen production each year. According to Delray Beach, FL dermatologist Janet Allenby, MD, this is when ingesting collagen supplements becomes even more essential. “Types one and three collagen are the protein building blocks essential for growing skin, hair and nails,” she says. “Currently, the only effective form of collagen is taken orally, and the best supplements to ingest are low molecular weight versions so they’re absorbed into the bloodstream.”

Why Is Collagen Production Important?

As medical aesthetician and founder of Skincare by Amy Peterson Medspa, Amy Peterson, explains, “As we age, the body’s natural collagen production decreases, which leads to signs of aging like wrinkles and skin laxity. Collagen plays a crucial role in joint health, as well, and can aid in the recovery of injuries by providing structural support to tissues. It can be derived through diet or through supplements like powders, capsules and topical skincare. The goal of collagen intake is to improve skin health, joint function and overall wellness.

While decrease in collagen production is natural, Dr. Sarnoff adds that “certain behaviors can slow down collagen production, including smoking, unprotected sun exposure and excess alcohol consumption. Avoiding these behaviors and maintaining a healthy lifestyle with enough sleep, exercise and nutrient-rich foods is an important first step to maximizing your body’s collagen production.”

Why Is Collagen Good for the Skin?

As our experts have noted, collagen production contributes to healthy, radiant, plump skin as a result of the fact that the protein helps support the structure of our body tissues throughout the body. In the skin, collagen helps maintain elasticity and resilience,” says Dr. Sarnoff, “With healthy collagen production, skin will appear more youthful and hydrated, while the degradation of collagen in the skin is associated with the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.” Peterson adds that “collagen enhances the moisture content of the skin—reducing wrinkling and roughness—and aids in wound healing and tissue repair. Additionally, collagen production decreases with age, making the use of supplements or stimulation of collagen production through skincare products or treatments important for maintaining healthy and more youthful-looking skin.”

Do Collagen Supplements Work?

While the before and after photos across social media can prove that collagen and collagen supplements work, Monroe, LA dermatologist Janine Hopkins, MD says scientific studies on efficacy are more important than these pics. “The main risk of taking collagen supplements is that you may be taking a product that has never been studied and proven to be effective with no active ingredients. Just because a product is endorsed by a celebrity or influencer does not mean it has been shown by scientific studies to be actively absorbed and effective in the body. Unfortunately, there is poor regulation of nutraceuticals, so companies can make claims without having to prove them. Do your homework before purchasing a collagen supplement.” Dr. Hopkins also says that supplements “should not be used as a substitute for a healthy diet with good sources of protein and nutrients and a healthy lifestyle.”

While the results can be amazing, Dr. Sarnoff reiterates that “the jury is still out on how effective oral collagen supplements are. There has been some research that shows collagen supplements can improve skin and hair health, but many of these studies were funded by related industries. The Food and Drug Administration is not required to review or provide safety standards for dietary supplements, so it can be hard for consumers to know which products to trust. That said, there is no evidence that collagen supplements are harmful. Basically, they probably won’t hurt you, but they might not be effective either.”

How Can You Improve Your Collagen Production?

While there are plenty of collagen supplements, skin-care products and treatments available on the market today, our experts all agree that the best thing you can do to promote collagen production is maintain a balanced, healthy lifestyle. Eating foods rich in vitamin C, like bell peppers and oranges, is especially important,” says Dr. Sarnoff. “Without the amino acid building blocks, collagen production would be impossible. This goes for foods containing proline and glycine as well: egg whites, mushrooms, chicken skin and other protein-rich foods are good choices.”

Since the efficacy of collagen supplements has not yet been fully confirmed, many experts recommend opting for in-office treatments to stimulate collagen production. According to Houston, TX dermatologist Jennifer Segal, MD, “A variety of in-office procedures that include controlled cellular injury are wonderful collagen builders. Certain fillers such as Sculptra and Radiesse also stimulate collagen production.”

A balanced lifestyle, in-office procedures and even supplements can do wonders for your collagen production, but the benefit of topical skin-care ingredients is not to be overlooked. As Peterson explains, “incorporating skin-care products containing retinoids, peptides and antioxidants and skincare treatments that can stimulate collagen and promote skin renewal are essential to improving collagen production. Minimizing sun exposure and protecting the skin with SPF can help prevent collagen loss caused by UV rays and help preserve skin elasticity and youthfulness, too.”

Celebrities Who Love Collagen Products

Unsurprisingly, celebrities are also big supporters of collagen. Kourtney Kardashian loves the Vital Proteins supplements so much that her lifestyle brand, Poosh, collaborated with Vital Proteins in order to create Vital Proteins x Poosh Blueberry & Lemon Collagen Vibes and Vital Proteins x Poosh Pink Moon Milk Collagen Latte, two flavors out of many in their range of collagen powders, waters and shots.

Kourtney uses the product in a warm cup of water in the morning as it kickstarts her day and “it has vitamin C and zinc, so it’s immunity-boosting especially, and everyone’s getting sick,” Kardashian said to Shape. It also has hyaluronic acid, which is essential for optimal skin health, “and of course, it has collagen, which is great for skin, hair, nails—so many benefits. I drink this every morning.”

Another member of the family, Khloé Kardashian, is such a lover of the supplement that she partnered with collagen-focused brand Dose & Co. to get the word out on the benefits of the ingredient. When you’re pregnant, you start thinking about ways to better the world and yourself, which is why I became so interested in collagen in the first place, and I’m fortunate that I have a platform where I can share the things that have helped me and enrich my life with others,” she told NewBeauty.

Does Collagen Make You Bloat?

One thing to note: not all collagen powders are created equal. According to Jen Smiley, founder of Wake Up & Read the Labels, “Studies show that taking too much collagen may lead you into indigestion, bloating and gas. Here’s the thing, there’s a study that shows the good scenario and the bad scenario of every single thing. So, every individual is different when it comes to supplements. We often turn to collagen in hopes of improving the health of skin, hair and nails. This is why collagen could potentially make you bloated if you are not reading the labels.” On the other hand, Smiley says there are studies that say collagen supports gut health, too. If taken in the right amounts with clean ingredients, “It can sooth, repair and strengthen the gut lining by rebuilding the lining of one’s digestive tract because it contains the amino acids—particularly glycine and glutamine—that are essential for its repair.” One that ticks all of her boxes (and ours) is Bruno MD Royal Collagen Peptides ($59), an all-natural solution to brittle hair and nails.

So, what ingredients should you be looking out for in your collagen supplements? “Some collagen has weird ingredients like ethylcellulose (a binder to keep the food together) and hydrozypropylcellulose (a food additive) and tons of more ingredients we cannot pronounce,” Smiley continues. “This type of collagen is not high quality and the additives—think synthetic flavors and polysorbate 80—can definitely lead to bloating. You want to make sure that you’re getting high-quality collagen from properly fed cows (the best is grass-fed) and ensure there are no other added ingredients.”

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