How collagen supplements stack up in science: Do they work?

Close-up image of hands holding some supplement pills

For anyone seeking the elixir of eternal youth, collagen supplements can seem like a quick fix. The supplements claim to promote healthy skin, prevent bone loss and relieve joint pain. But do collagen supplements work?

Let’s explore the science behind collagen supplements – what they are, how they work and if they help with skin health

What is collagen?

Collagen is a fibrous protein made up of amino acids. There are 28 collagen subtypes in the skin, bones and connective tissues. In the skin, collagen provides strength and support. Your body’s collagen production naturally decreases with age – leading to wrinkles, sagging skin and other signs of aging.

Many people consider taking a daily collagen supplement from animal sources like cowhide or fish scales to reduce signs of aging. 

There’s still debate over how well these products work when taken orally. Many of their components are destroyed during digestion before reaching target areas in the body. 

For example, when you eat a steak, protein gets broken down into peptides. Your body absorbs some of it to use in muscles, tendons, bones and skin. For your body to absorb animal collagen supplements, it has to be broken down into peptides. This has to be absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract and then reassembled as it’s directed back to the skin. 

What's the science behind collagen supplements?

If you’re looking to stave off the signs of aging, it’s not clear that collagen supplements are the answer. Because collagen is a large molecular weight protein, it can’t be absorbed by the skin as an additive to lotion. Instead, there are many supplement products that consumers take by mouth. Others regularly eat bone broth in hopes that ingesting animal collagen will prevent the natural effects of aging.  

The goal of collagen supplements is to boost the body's natural collagen to keep skin hydrated and supple. In a meta-analysis of 19 studies, researchers looked at effects of collagen supplements.

Among them was a double-blind randomized controlled study that showed some improvement among participants taking these supplements: Participants who took a hydrolyzed collagen supplement for 90 days experienced enhanced production of filaggrin, one of the skin's building block proteins. They improved the elasticity and hydration of the skin, as well as reduced the appearance of fine lines. There were no adverse effects reported. 

This study didn’t address whether benefits were sustained after discontinuing use or if they reversed any signs of aging caused by natural processes. It also doesn’t specify which products work best. Further research is needed before any definitive conclusions can be drawn about the efficacy of supplements in promoting healthier skin.

Types of collagen supplements

Collagen supplements are available to suit individual needs, including tablets, capsules, powder and liquid forms. They’re derived from animal sources such as cow hides, fish scales or chicken feet.

While scientists work on finding a vegan alternative to animal-based collagen supplements, there’s currently no plant-based source of collagen.

Supplements lack FDA regulation, which means there’s no guarantee that claims or ingredients on the label are accurate. Speak to your doctor before taking any supplements.

Four clinically proven ways to prevent loss of collagen

Research has identified some clinically proven ways to prevent collagen loss and maintain a youthful glow.

Eat a healthy Mediterranean diet: A diet rich in antioxidants like vitamins C and E promotes collagen production while protecting existing collagen from damage. For maximum benefit, try incorporating foods like spinach, kale, oranges, tomatoes, olive oil and fish into your meals.

Wear sunscreen and limit UV exposure: Wearing sunscreen and a hat while avoiding peak hours of UV rays help protect your skin from damage that can cause wrinkles and other signs of aging. Wear sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30 daily if outdoors for more than 15 minutes. Avoid tanning beds, because they emit UVA rays that can further break down existing collagen.

Retin-A: This topical treatment is clinically proven to boost collagen production in the skin. Retin-A stimulates cell turnover in the top layer of the skin, resulting in increased production of new cells and more collagen formation below the surface layer. Speak to a dermatologist for guidance on proper usage.

Healthy lifestyle habits: Stress, alcohol consumption and smoking all speed up the body’s natural loss of collagen from aging. Reducing them can help limit your body's natural decline in collagen production. 

While taking a collagen supplement might seem like a quick and easy fix to aging when compared to changing your diet or reducing stress, more evidence is needed to support the effectiveness of supplementation.

How to know if a collagen supplement is right for you

There is some evidence that taking a collagen supplement may help improve your skin health and reduce the signs of aging. While more research is needed, one study shows benefits without adverse effects. Still, recommending supplements is not the standard of care among most dermatologists.

What we do know is that poor diet, lifestyle choices and sun exposure can all counterbalance any possible benefits from collagen supplements. 

If you’re concerned about signs of aging in your skin, speak to your dermatologist about what regimen is right for you.

Worried about your skin?

Ohio State's dermatology team provides comprehensive care backed by one of the nation's leading academic health centers.

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