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Last updated April 17, 2020. 5 minute read

Collagen for skin: how does it keep your skin looking young?

Several studies show that taking hydrolyzed collagen supplements by mouth improved skin elasticity, decreased the number of fine lines and wrinkles, caused smoother skin, increased skin hydration, and reduced the signs of skin aging in the face.

Dr Chimene Richa Md Written by Dr. Chimene Richa, MD
Reviewed by Dr. Mike Bohl, MD, MPH

What is collagen?

Collagen is an essential protein that is part of your connective tissues, like skin, joints, tendons, and more. It is the most abundant protein in the body. Collagen provides the support structure for many of your body’s tissues. Because of this, using collagen supplements to help with skin, bone, hair, and joint health is increasing in popularity. Collagen supplements are often from animal sources, like bovine, porcine, or marine animal tissues. Scientists have developed techniques to enable yeast and plant cells to create collagen. Still, due to cost and other factors, vegan collagen is not as widely available as animal-based collagen (Avila Rodríguez, 2017). Supplements are available in pill and powder forms and can be taken alone or incorporated into smoothies or other foods. Collagen’s use worldwide is continuing to grow, with billions of dollars being spent on collagen products (Vollmer, 2018). 

Vitals

  • Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body, making up part of your connective tissues, like skin, joints, etc.
  • Collagen supplements usually come from animal sources like bovine, porcine, or marine animal tissues.
  • After age 30, your skin (which is 90% collagen) starts losing collagen as natural aging and sun exposure lead to collagen breakdown.
  • Taking oral collagen supplements may help improve the signs of aging, like fine lines and wrinkles, loss of skin elasticity, and dry skin.
  • Other potential health benefits of collagen include decreasing joint pain in people with arthritis, improving nail appearance, reducing the risk of osteoporosis, and treating atherosclerosis. More research is needed in these areas.

Collagen and skin

Collagen makes up over 90% of your skin, so it is no wonder that people have been interested in the role collagen plays in skin aging. While there are many different types of collagen in your body, the skin has mainly collagen type 1 and collagen type 3 (Avila Rodríguez, 2017). As you age, your body makes less collagen and produces substances that break down collagen, called collagenases (Kohl, 2011). You start to lose collagen around 18–29 years of age, and after age 40, you lose around 1% per year. By the time you reach 80 years old, your collagen production is only 25% as much as in young adults (Leon-Lopez, 2019). The loss of collagen has detrimental effects on the skin. By losing collagen, your skin loses the structural framework that other cells need to make important compounds like elastin and hyaluronic acid (Vollmer, 2018). The common signs we see in aging skin, like fine lines and wrinkles, dryness, sagging, and loss of skin elasticity (the ability of your skin to snap back), are often due to loss of collagen.

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Damage from sun exposure (called photoaging) also affects the collagen in the skin. Approximately 80% of facial skin aging can be traced back to sun damage—sun exposure occurring in childhood can change the appearance of aging skin later in life (Kohl, 2011). When you expose your skin to the sun, the ultraviolet (UVA and UVB) rays cause DNA damage in skin cells leading them to produce more of the compounds that break down collagen (Kohl, 2011). Also, sun exposure can decrease the production of elastin, which is a compound needed to keep the skin firm and elastic (Kohl, 2011). People with photoaging have more aging signs than those who used regular sun protection from an early age. 

Many “anti-aging” cosmetics target collagen in one way or another. Some include hydrolyzed collagen, which is collagen that has been broken down into smaller protein pieces (also called collagen peptides). Others include the precursors (or building blocks) of collagen that your body can use to make more collagen. Still others include compounds that stimulate your skin cells to produce more collagen; some examples include vitamin C (ascorbic acid), alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), and retinoids (tretinoin, retinol) (Baumann, 2018). And it is not just cosmetics—many of the procedures used for anti-aging, like lasers or chemical peels, also work by stimulating collagen production. Often, an anti-aging treatment will involve some combination of options.

Since collagen is so vital in the skin aging process, there ongoing research about how to incorporate collagen supplements into anti-aging treatments. Many animal studies have looked at how hydrolyzed collagen taken by mouth affects the skin. The research shows that oral collagen supplements can increase the health of skin collagen as well as improve skin dryness and inflammation (Vollmer, 2018). Human research also shows a benefit to collagen supplementation. Several studies show that taking hydrolyzed collagen supplements by mouth improved skin elasticity, decreased the number of fine lines and wrinkles, caused smoother skin, increased skin hydration, and reduced the signs of skin aging in the face (Vollmer, 2018).

More research is needed in the area of skin rejuvenation (making the skin look younger) using collagen supplements, but so far the results are promising. However, collagen supplementation is not a magic wand that will reverse the effects of time. Most likely, collagen supplementation will decrease the appearance of aging to some extent and potentially slow down the development of new wrinkles as well as improve some of the other signs of skin aging. 

Additional benefits of collagen

In addition to its potential effects in anti-aging, collagen may also have health benefits for other medical problems. One of the studies that looked at collagen for anti-aging also found that people who took the collagen supplements had improved nail appearance and a decrease in nail breakage (Vollmer, 2018). Another potential use for collagen is to improve joint pain and function in joint conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis (Bello, 2006). Studies also suggest that taking collagen may help improve bone mass density in postmenopausal women, thereby potentially decreasing their risk of developing osteoporosis (Konig, 2018). There is also some evidence that collagen supplements can affect your blood vessels and may help with the prevention and treatment of atherosclerosis, a significant cause of heart disease (Tomosugi, 2017). However, all of these health claims have limited data to support them, and more research in these areas is needed. Lastly, collagen is sometimes added to certain foods to increase their protein, decrease their fat content, and improve their texture and stability, among other uses (Bello, 2006).

Conclusion

Scientists are continuing to study the aging process and learn more about potential options to slow the signs of aging. Collagen clearly plays an important role in aging. Taking collagen supplements may improve aging signs as well as benefit your health in other ways. Fortunately, they have few side effects. For some, it may be worth trying collagen supplements for their potential benefits.