Do collagen supplements work? Here's what the experts say about this skin-strengthening additive
Talk about dietary supplements under the "rewinding the effects of time on the skin" list and you definitely can't miss out on collagen. Just last year, collagen supplements boasted sales of up to USD$46.6 million—a 34% hike compared to the previous year. Unsurprisingly, dietary supplement brands peddling collagen supplements have been mushrooming on social media, soliciting key opinion leaders (KOLs) to advocate for their products.
But collagen isn't the latest discovery in the scene—Chinese women have been incorporating this ingredient to their dietary routines for centuries, ingesting pig trotters and donkey skin (eek!) as an attempt to preserve their skin's youthful glow. In the United States, collagen lip and cheek fillers were all the rage back in the '80s as well.
While collagen is known to be an essential building block in our body—from our skin and cartilage to muscle tissue and tendons—the real question is: do collagen supplements actually help with our skin and joint health as purported by these brands?
Is collagen powder the same as collagen found in our human bodies?
First things first—collagen is a complex structural protein found in connective tissues in the body, and is what fuels our skin and gives it elasticity along with replacing dead skin cells. The most important type of collagen (yes, there are a whopping 16) to take note of when it comes to giving you younger-looking skin is Type 1 and 3.
Type 1 is the most abundant collagen in the body and is what makes your hair, skin and nails gleam in health. It also helps with collagen production within the cells in connective tissues (fibroblasts). Type 3 is the second most abundant collagen in the body, and is what strengthen's the skin elasticity and firmness.
The bad news...
You may already know this, but the collagen production in our body decreases with age, which explains all the "signs of ageing" i.e. loss of elasticity and wrinkles. If your lifestyle is made up of copious sun exposure, smoking, drinking, and a diet that's high in sugar (and low in collagen), don't be surprised if your body's collagen levels plummet drastically—and your skin health reflecting just that.
The science says:
According to consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar, the body has to digest and synthesise collagen the same way it does food.
"There is a growing body of research indicating that collagen supplements support skin and joint health, as well as muscle recovery and even stress relief," she says. "While the latter two are still being studied, there is more indication that collagen supplements are beneficial for skin elasticity and hydration."
A study published this January found that short and long-term use of oral collagen supplements have been found to show promising results in "increasing skin elasticity, hydration and dermal collagen density." Another study in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology found that collagen could potentially be a "therapeutic target" for hair loss and skin-related diseases.
Some doctors have pointed out collagen supplement's efficacy on our skin health, pointing out that the stomach's digestive juices will break down the collagen before it reaches the intended destination; while some professionals believe that many studies done on collagen so far are small and comes with conflict of interest.
Here's what you should look out for
But before you start on this Fountain of Youth, know that many collagen supplements are usually made from made from animal parts i.e. cowhide, chicken sternum, fish scales and bones.
"I think the elephant in the room here is safety,” says Mark Moyad, MD and author. “We are talking about ground-up fish, chicken, pig, and cow parts, and these parts tend to act as sponges for contaminants and heavy metals."
A 2018 study by non-profit organisation Clean Label Project found that many top-selling protein powders and drinks contain "detectable levels of at least one heavy metal and 55 percent tested positive for BPA", while many supplements manufactured from companies across Asia are loosely regulated and do not need to prove that they're safe or work as advertised on the labels.
Before hopping too quickly on the collagen powder bandwagon, opt for supplements that are certified by third-party quality-testing companies such as NSF, Consumer Labs, the non-GMO Project and BioChecked. Also, go for collagen supplements that have hydrolysed collagen, collagen peptides, amino acids and vitamin C to ensure it absorbs quickly into the body.
Another way to turn back time on your skin
Embark on a protein-rich diet that's packed with natural collagen sources. Bone broth, meat, egg whites, and fish are on top of our list, along with foods that help with the formation and use of collagen in the body, including blueberries, cherries, blackberries. For vegans/vegetarians, add amino-acid-rich foods such as seeds, nuts, soy products (tempeh, tofu), black beans, kidney beans and other legumes to your diet.
"Apart from eating collagen-rich foods, you can maximise the absorption. Certain nutrients can kickstart the body’s production of natural collagen and optimise the effects of food and supplements," says Datuk Dr Mokhtar. "Nutrients like vitamin C and iron are both essential for collagen production, and omega-3 fatty acids will protect the body’s collagen stores from damage."
If you're already embarking on your new and improved diet, reconsider your lifestyle factors to ensure it's in line with your eating habits. Cutting smoking, drinking and late nights work wonders for your skin—not to mention, the sun's harmful UVA and UVB rays have never been skin's best friend.