The Collagen Myth

Collagen supplements are being touted as the Holy Grail of ‘good-skin-from-within’. We asked the experts whether the scientific claims behind them are as impressive as they seem on the packaging, and if these supplements are really worth the hefty price tag

By Amelia Jean Hershman-Jones

Women taking collagen supplements

The booming skincare-supplement industry is putting the adage ‘beauty is only skin deep’ to the test with the US oral collagen market set to double in value to a staggering $8 billion by 2027.

‘Collagen makes up roughly 80% of our skin and, as we age, our ability to produce it naturally, gradually reduces,’ explains Dr Bernadetta Brazzini, Harley Street Dermatologist and founder of Kivu Skincare. The collagen layer can be thought of as skin’s scaffolding that plumps the epidermis and its structure from within. ‘As we get older and collagen production depletes, we begin to see signs of ageing including dry skin and wrinkles.’

What actually are collagen supplements

So what are consumers actually investing in when they buy these pricey ‘nutraceuticals’? Available as drinks, powders, gels and pills, the science behind these often-patented products suggests that the ingestibles can do everything from increasing skin hydration, elasticity and density to reducing roughness, wrinkles and skin-fold depth. But the jury is still out on whether these studies actually stand up to scientific scrutiny.

‘While there is evidence to suggest that chains of amino acids can make it to the bloodstream after ingesting collagen (providing the ingredient is in a form that can be broken down and absorbed by your body), that doesn't mean all the amino acids will then make it from there to your skin,’ explains Daniel Clarke, registered nutritionist and lead sustainable nutrition executive at Huel.

Clarke advises that consumers exercise caution around these types of studies and points out some red flags to look for when looking at the data. ‘Some of these studies have been funded, sponsored or backed by the company behind the collagen supplement being tested, which is an obvious conflict of interest,’ he explains.

‘Another thing to look out for is when people use a very small sample size and give their subjects questionnaires. There may be 20 questions in this questionnaire, 19 of them don't give them the answer they want, but that one question that does is the one that they put into the advert or on the packaging.

‘They may look at as many as 30 different outcomes for wrinkles, for example, and if the results of one don't work but the results of another do, they'll just publish the successful ones - and that’s publication bias.’

Collagen supplements: is there truth behind the science?

So is there truth behind the science? A systematic (read: repeatable) review of 11 studies looking at the effects of collagen supplements concluded that ‘there is currently limited data available in the literature and much regarding its possible effects on the skin has yet to be fully elucidated and understood.’

Clarke goes further: ‘The data is even more limited for studies that are independent of the collagen supplement industry.’

Another review of the scientific research explained that ‘although some studies have demonstrated that collagen supplementation can enhance skin qualities such as elasticity and hydration, dermatologic claims in the media surpass any evidence currently supported by the literature.’

So is your skin benefitting from the collagen you’re ingesting? Brazzini explains: ‘Despite recent research showing that your body may absorb hydrolysed collagen best, when taken as a supplement, these collagen molecules don’t directly replace collagen molecules in the skin.’

She continues: ‘These molecules are then broken down into amino acids during digestion and then absorbed and used to build collagen or other proteins your body needs, wherever it needs it.

‘But really you don’t need to take collagen supplements to produce collagen. Your body does this naturally using amino acids from whichever proteins you eat, so long as you're eating a diverse diet of healthy foods, your body will be able to create the collagen it needs from those amino acids.’

And, while unique, targeted and not doing you any harm - they certainly aren’t doing what you’re paying for. ‘Supplement manufacturers put collagen alongside other compounds so that they can patent and market their own unique formula that “targets” one specific thing. This likely contains proteins you wouldn’t find in, say, a piece of beef, for example,’ begins Clarke.

‘But as an actual protein source it’s actually a very low amount - maybe three to five grams, which is about the same as a serving of nuts.’

The most effective route to healthier-looking skin is far more cost effective. ‘I recommend a more general inside-out approach for my patients,’ Brazzini says.

‘This involves regular exercise, alcohol in moderation and infrequently, a balanced diet, avoiding smoking and beginning a simple and effective topical skincare routine with dermatologist maintenance appointments to complement it.’

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