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Is collagen a good anti-aging ingredient? Episode 73

Do you wonder which anti-aging ingredients really work? Today we’re starting a new series where we review the evidence to find out. We begin with a look at collagen. 

Which anti-aging ingredients really work?

When it comes to anti-aging products it’s easy to be tricked into spending a lot of money on products that aren’t worth it.  That’s because there’s so much pseudoscientific misinformation out there about anti-aging cosmetic ingredients. Also, once you buy an anti-aging product, it takes you a long time to determine if it’s really working for you or not.  That’s why we’re going to focus some of our podcast episodes on specific anti-aging ingredients, starting with collagen.

What is collagen?


The word collagen comes from two Greek terms: kolla meaning “glue” and gen meaning “producing.” That’s because glue was originally made by boiling horse skin. It makes sense that collagen has glue-like properties considering the role it plays in biology – it’s a type of connective tissue that helps other structures “stick” together. In skin, collagen is part of the matrix that keeps it firm and plump and most people know that when skin loses collagen you develop wrinkles. The beauty industry has done a pretty good job of educating consumers on that much but there’s a lot of misunderstanding of what collagen is as a cosmetic ingredient and what it can do for your skin. Let’s start with a brief explanation of the types of collagen and the different forms that it takes.

Types of collagen

Collagen is a protein (which means it’s made of long strings of amino acids) and it’s very rich in two amino acids in particular: proline and hydroxyproline. Its structure is rather complicated, to say the least, but here’s a quick breakdown: The amino acids link together to form long chains called peptides. Peptides form even longer chains called polypeptides. Three polypeptides wrap around each other to form a bundle that is called pro-collagen. Pro-collagen then turns into tropocollagen which is a single collagen fiber. A bunch of tropocollagen fibers bundle together to form fibrils. And a bunch of fibrils form a macro-fiber.

Depending on which amino acids are hooked together and how they form these sub structures you can generate 28 or 29 different types of collagen. Not all of these are relevant to a discussion of skin. For example Collagen XXII is present only at tissue junctions like those found in skeletal and heart muscle. We’ll just mention the 5 or 6 types that are important components of skin.

  • Collagen I: This is the common form of collagen in the human body and it’s the end product when tissue repair. It’s a very tough and strong version.
  • Collagen III: Is found in fast growing tissue especially in early stages of wound repair. It’s typically replaced later by Type I.
  • Collagen V and VI: Both are typically found alongside type I.
  • Collagen VII: Is crucial for skin integrity even though it’s present at very low amounts (about 0.001% of total collagens.) Collagen VII acts as an anchor between the layers of the dermal-epidermal junction.
  • Collagen XII: Is found with types I and III.

Just in case this isn’t confusing enough, in addition to the different TYPES of collagen, there are also different FORMS of each type of collagen.

Forms of collagen

Soluble collagen
Let’s start with soluble collagen. Remember the process by which collagen is formed? If you extract collagen early in that process when it’s not fully formed you get soluble collagen. This usually comes from younger animals. Soluble collagen is thought to penetrate skin better but we’ll get to that in a minute. This form is used in cosmetics but not as often as the third type we’ll get to that.

Then there’s native collagen. This is essentially the fully formed, mature version. It’s has a very high molecular weight and its a very large molecule.

Finally there’s hydrolyzed collagen which is type most commonly used in cosmetics. It’s formed by taking mature collagen and chemically chopping it up into tiny bits.

Collagen bonus fact: If you heat collagen you can cause its three tropocollagen strands to partially or completely separate. The resulting mixture of these randomized protein coils is what we call gelatin.

Is collagen good for your skin?

Next we’re going to talk about the different approaches to restoring collagen in your skin. Here are a couple of things to understand for this discussion.

First, we’re talking about collagen as an ingredient and not other agents that can boost collagen production. That’s for another day.

Second, keep in mind that the only place you can get collagen is from animals. There are marine sources so you can get it from fish but there are no vegetable sources or synthetic sources of true collagen. So if any of our listeners are into vegan-only products you may want to excuse yourself from the rest of the show.

Third, and most important, the effectiveness collagen totally depends on how you’re introducing it into your body: You can rub it on your skin from a lotion, you can swallow it as a dietary supplement, or you can have it injected directly into your skin. The benefits of these approaches are dramatically different and we’ll be reviewing the evidence for each using the Kligman questions as a framework.

As a reminder, the Kligman questions were established by famous cosmetic dermatologist Albert Kligman to establish the validity of any anti aging treatment. The questions are: is there a mechanism for how the ingredients works? Does it penetrate skin? Are there proper studies on real people which show it works? Let’s start by answering these three questions for topical collagen – collagen that’s applied from a cream or lotion.

Topical collagen

Kligman question 1 is there a mechanism?
Sort of. We know that if you can jam more collagen in the appropriate location with in the skin, the skin will appear plumper and more youthful. However here’s the problem: you can’t “jam” collagen deep into the skin just by applying it from a cream or lotion. That’s the essence of the second question. does it penetrate.

Kligman question 2: does it penetrate?
I found an article titled “Studies of the penetration of native collagen,collagen alpha chains,and collagen cyanogen bromide peptides through hairless mouse skin in vitro.” Surprisingly, this hasn’t been thoroughly studied. It appears that skin scientists just assume that collagen won’t penetrate because it’s so big. But in this 1988 study they did look at it and found that there is some penetration surprisingly. Not sure why, but there may have just been fragments of larger molecules that penetrated. The bottom line is that it doesn’t really mater because according to the researchers…

“Even if native collagen could penetrate to the dermis, it is inconceivable that the molecules could form fibers or integrate with existing collagen fibers because the precursors for fiber assembly are soluble procollagen molecules.”

So, all this means that there is no evidence that applying large collagen molecules actually penetrate to where they need to be to work.

We’ve seen this conclusion echoed by other beauty science bloggers such such as the Cosmetic Cop who says that…

“Collagen and elastin in skin-care products can serve as good water-binding agents, but they cannot fuse with your skin’s natural supply of these supportive elements. In most cases, the collagen molecule is too large to penetrate into the skin. But even when it is made small enough to be absorbed it cannot bind with the collagen existing in skin, and there isn’t a shred of research indicating otherwise.”

Kligman question 3: Are there studies that prove it works?
Considering the answer to the second question, it’s not surprising that we couldn’t find any studies which prove topical collagen really will have a lasting effect on wrinkles. It MAY however, have a temporary effect. That’s because collagen is a film former and it can help moisturize skin by reducing water loss or by binding moisture. But while it’s true that collagen can do this its not as effective as the other ingredients such as occlusives and humectants typically used for this purpose. This means it won’t hurt to have collagen in lotion but it also won’t help much. Despite this truth you still see a number of products that market themselves based on collagen.

Here are some examples:

  • St Ives Collagen Elastin Moisturizer
  • Omojo anti-age collagen serum
  • Daggett and Ramsdell collagen serum
  • PCA Skin collagen hydrator
  • Loreal Collagen moisture filler

Injectable collagen

Kligman question 1 is there a mechanism
Next let’s talk about injectable forms of collagen which are well studied. Injectable collagen products have traditionally been made by extracting dermal collagen from cow skin. (Zyderm and Zyplast are two of the most well known.) Since they are made of bovine proteins which can trigger an allergic response, you have to have a test injection a month prior to receiving treatments. There is a newer form called Cosmoderm which is made by purifying human collagen cells and this type doesn’t require the allergy test. Both types work by physically filling in the voids in skin.

Kligman question 2: does it penetrate?
They “penetrate” in the sense that they are injected directly into the dermis and therefore bypass the epidermis.

Kligman question 3: other studies that prove it works?
We know these injectables provide immediate results which last anywhere from three to six months, depending where they’re injected and the type of collagen that is used. After that time, the injected collagen is absorbed by the body and your face returns to its original appearance of the skin surface.

This is a proven method of restoring collagen but since it’s temporary and rather expensive (since it’s done by a dermatologist) this approach isn’t for everyone.

Ingestible collagen

Finally, for every collagen cream or lotion there are dozens of ingestible tablets and powders that claim to improve your skin. Considering how skeptical we are about dietary supplements, you can imagine how doubtful we are that there’s any thing to this. Surprisingly, there may be more to this than we expected.

Kligman question 1 Is there a mechanism?
We did find a couple of studies which appear to establish a mechanism by which ingested collagen could improve the collagen content of skin. One study was done in two parts: The first part was an in vivo test that proved that when you swallow collagen it breaks down into smaller fragments and those fragments, which by the way are di- or tripeptides, can be detected in the blood a few hours after ingestion.

The second part of the study was an in vitro test on human dermal fibroblast cells (the cells responsible for creating new collagen.) The results showed that these peptide fragments DO stimulate the fibroblast cells to proliferate (which means there are more cells producing collagen) and to increase hyaluronic acid synthesis.

The other study was also done in vitro and it showed that ingested hydrolyzed Type I collagen works by changing the balance between production and degradation of collagen. Apparently, digestion breaks the collagen into smaller pieces that can stimulate relevant cells in a way which DOESN’T occur when you rub the stuff on your skin (even if it DID penetrate.) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25342893.

Kligman question 2: does it penetrate?
In this case penetration is achieved by digestion and we know this works because of the presence of collagen fragments in the blood. That leaves the third, and most crucial, question: are there any in vivo studies proving ingested collagen really benefits skin?

Kligman question 3: Are there studies that prove it works?
Again, we found a few studies that look promising. The first one was just a pilot study and it was an open label test which means that it was not blinded or placebo controlled. The researchers had 26 females take a 1 gram of a supplement containing hydrolyzed Type II collagen, hyaluronic acid and chondroitin sulfate daily for 6 weeks. They then measured improvement in several factors including the degree of skin dryness and scaling and the degree of lines and wrinkles. Results showed a statistically significant improvement in each of these. Of course this study is not very conclusive because of its small size, the study design (it was not blinded), and the fact that they mixed collagen with other ingredients so you can’t tell what’s really supplying the benefit. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22956862. The second study was a little more robust….

This was a larger study (about 200 people) and it evaluated the effect of daily consumption of a specific type of collagen supplement on facial wrinkles. But it was open label too. Not double blinded. or placebo controlled however. http://www.dovepress.com/daily-consumption-of-the-collagen-supplement-pure-gold-collagenreg-red-peer-reviewed-article-CIA

A third study we found on hydrolyzed collagen was double-blinded and placebo-controlled. It consisted of 69 women who were randomized to receive 2.5 g or 5.0 g of CH or placebo once daily for 8 weeks. The researchers measured changes to skin elasticity, skin moisture, transepidermal water loss and skin roughness. Their results showed a statistically significant increase in skin elasticity at both collagen dosages for the older women in the study. There were directional improvements but no other statistically significant results. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23949208

What does all this mean? I wouldn’t say these studies are conclusive but there are data here to indicate that ingested collagen MAY benefit your skin. So what’s the bottom line on collagen?

The Beauty Brains bottom line

  • Don’t waste your money on expensive collagen creams and lotions as there’s no mechanism and no evidence that they do anything more than moisturize your skin.
  • If you’ve got the money, the time and the tolerance to discomfort, you can have regular injections of collagen.
  • If you have the stomach for it (and the money) you can take a daily does of a collagen supplement but be aware that the evidence is mixed as to whether this really helps much or not.

Improbable Products

Here’s a superhero themed version of the game where Randy challenges me to guess which beauty product is real. I hope you score better than I do!

  1. Batman Aromatherapy Utility Belt
    Next year will see DC comics superman versus Batman movie and if Batman is going to take them Superman he will need to use every trick in the his utility belt. He might even use the new Aromatherapy Utility Belt that allows you to carry scented oils so they’re easily accessible during massage.
  2. Ant Man Hair Growth Cream
    The next big Marvel superhero movie is actually a very tiny one it’s about the crimefighter called Ant-man. He can shrink to the size of an ant and grow back to normal size. And if you want to grow hair you should use this Ant Egg Cream.
  3. Green Lantern wart remover
    In brightest day and blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight. That’s the oath sworn by Green Lantern who fights bad guys with a ring that shoots solid energy constructs made with green light. But did you know that derms are now using a green light laser to kill the virus that causes warts?



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Angela March 10, 2015, 8:27 am

    Thanks for interesting piece. I have a random, slightly related question: a few people in my family have suffered from an autoimmune condition that is related to collagen overproduction in the body. Due to this, I have been terrified of approaching any product with collagen in it. Should I continue to avoid these products are an I being overly cautious? I also avoid retinal-based creams/serums for the same reason.

    • Randy Schueller March 10, 2015, 10:38 am

      I’m sorry to hear about your condition, Angela. We’re not doctors so we can’t give you medical advice, but based on the evidence we’ve seen topical products containing collagen do not penetrate skin. To be safe, though, you should check with your physician.

  • Nanette March 10, 2015, 7:41 pm

    Thank you for the, as usual, informative and straight talkin’ discussion. Early on amino acids, peptides and polypeptides are mentioned. Here comes the obvious question, can amino acids, and/or the chains they make up to be peptides or polypeptides penetrate? If not by penetration can they impart any benefit to the skin, anti-aging or any other? Thanks, guys!

  • Cris March 10, 2015, 8:16 pm

    What about supplements that claim that if you take them your skin will produce collagen? What about silica? Like in all the hair, skin and nail supplements? I tried Biosil once…a liquid silica…don’t remember much difference. That was a long time ago and I see they still sell it so maybe it is collagen producing?
    By the way, you said a month ago that I had goodies on the way because of my iTunes review. Don’t you need my address?

    • Randy Schueller March 11, 2015, 6:26 am

      We discussed supplements in the podcast. Here’s the conclusion….”I wouldn’t say these studies are conclusive but there are data here to indicate that ingested collagen MAY benefit your skin.”

      Regarding your iTunes review…I was just kidding about the free stuff because you asked about it in your review. It wouldn’t be ethical to bribe you guys with free stuff to write a review. (But we do appreciate it!!)

      • cris hamilton March 11, 2015, 3:27 pm

        But silica isn’t collagen, is it?

        • Randy Schueller March 11, 2015, 4:44 pm

          Silica is NOT collagen. We only reviewed data on the supplements that contain collagen.

  • Yoya March 11, 2015, 11:24 am

    GREAT article! I hope phytoceramides are on your list for a future article!

    • Randy Schueller March 11, 2015, 12:49 pm

      Yoya: Yes, we’re planning on covering ceramides!

  • Eileen March 11, 2015, 12:48 pm

    Personal experience: Five years ago my nails began deteriorating. They became thin, prone to shredding, and had lots of shallow ridges. I was in excellent health and there was no medical reason for what I was experiencing. A friend suggested collagen supplements. I bought the ones from Costco* and began taking them daily. Over time, my nails started growing faster, thicker, stronger, and the ridges were greatly reduced. After taking the supplements for a year or so, I stopped. I thought my beautiful nails would continue as they were, but sure enough, they gradually began to deteriorate. As soon as the condition became noticeable, I resumed taking the collagen supplements and, low and behold, my nails started strengthening again. As long as I take the supplements, my nails remain strong and long. I guess that means if I want good nails, I’m a collagen “lifer” LOL I’m sure the positive effect was not confined strictly to my nails, but because I use so many other “anti-aging” products for skin and hair it would be hard to seperate the wheat from the chafe so to speak.

    *Youtheory Collagen Advanced Formula Type 1, 2 & 3

    • Randy Schueller March 11, 2015, 12:51 pm

      Your experience seems consistent with what we learned about ingestible collagen. Glad it worked for you!

  • Cadence March 13, 2015, 9:50 pm

    Hi, thank you so much for the entertaining and in depth podcast. I wonder if we ingest protein rich food (even plant based), will that also breakdown into amino acids and later could produce collagen? Also, would you guys talk about elastin in a future show? Thank you so much!

    • Randy Schueller March 14, 2015, 9:20 am

      Hi Cadence. We know that collagen is made with specific amino acids (proline, hydroxyproline) so our bodies must produce it from the proteins we ingest. We haven’t done a deep dive into elastin but I expect that the information we would find would be very similar to collagen. In other words, topically it doesn’t do much.

  • cris hamilton March 14, 2015, 7:29 pm

    Hope you will cover vitamin C in one of your anti-aging articles.

  • Kim Swilpa March 16, 2015, 9:21 am

    Love your podcast! The link to the Collagen article came through on LinkedIn. Then, I decided to listen to your podcast!

    And I believe Randy is correct on the “noseeums”! I’ve been a victim.

    All the best!

  • Loki March 19, 2015, 9:39 am

    I’ve read a lot about how supplements does not have such strict regulations then majority of other product. Do you have any suggestion about good brands or how to choose “safe” brand for collagen supplements?

    Maybe I worry way too much, but very sad anecdotal experience: my dog started to have joint pain, so I bought her glucosamine supplements. They helped, but after half a year she died from liver failure. Our vet blamed supplements.

    Since then I am very sceptical about any supplements, for people and animals. So since there is so little regulation, how do I know collagen supplements I might purchase are safe?

    • Randy Schueller March 19, 2015, 10:57 am

      Great question, Loki. And as you know if you listen to our show, we’re skeptical about supplements too! I guess the best approach would be to look up some of the specific products that were tested in the studies we cited and try to buy those. But as always, let the buyer beware!

  • Lauren April 16, 2015, 11:15 am

    Algenist brand Genius products use “vegetable collagen” as an ingredient and claim that it “reinforces skin structure and supports natural skin matrix.” What are your thoughts on this? And I know you said there are no vegetable sources for collagen…so are they flat out lying?

    • Randy Schueller April 16, 2015, 4:11 pm

      Hey Lauren: I found the ingredient list for Algenist Genius cream:

      Water, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Hydrogentated Polyisobutene, Glycerin, Chlorella Protothecoides Oil, Dimethicone, Butylene Glycol, Glyceryl Stearate, PEG-100 Stearate, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Butter, Pentylene Glycol, Potassium Cetyl Phosphate, Algae Exopolysaccharides, Vegetable Collagen, Ceramide 3, Cynara Scrolymus (Artichoke) Leaf Extract, Retinyl Palmitate, Astragalus Membranaceous Root Extract, Atractyloides Macrocephala Root Extract, Iris Florentina Root Extract, Bupleurum Falcatum Root Extract, Methyl Glucoside Phosphate Proline Lysine Copper Complex, Stearalkonium Bentonite, Acrylates/C10-30 Alkyl Acrylate Crosspolymer, Silica, Caprylyl Glycol, Sodium Hydroxide, Disodium EDTA, Ethylhexylglycerin, Cetyl Alcohol, Propylene Carbonate, Phenoxyethanol, Leuconostoc/Radish Root Ferment Filtrate, Chlorphenesin, Fragrance, Coumarin.

      Then I looked for ingredients called “vegetable collagen” and found this in a trade journal…”Plant Collagen (INCI: Water, butylene glycol, collagen extract) is an amino acid complex derived from plant protein which is similar to animal collagen. Plant collagen is high in oxyproline, proline, glutamic acid and glycine amino acids and is easily re-synthesized as collagen when it is absorbed into the body.”

      So, first of all, it’s NOT real collagen but a plant protein that is similar. Second of all, it appears that Algenist is NOT using the official INCI name.

      HOWEVER, I also found this article in Pubmed that talks about genetically engineering tobacco plants to grow “human” collagen. Hmmmm.

      • Lauren May 20, 2015, 10:50 pm

        Thanks, Randy! That’s really interesting.

  • Blanche May 18, 2015, 3:50 pm

    I remember women using Knox unflavored gelatin to improve their hair and nails. Do you think that eating Jello/gelatin be as beneficial as taking collagen supplements?

    • Randy Schueller May 18, 2015, 4:13 pm

      Hi Blanche. I’ve never seen data comparing the two but I believe that gelatin is a processed form of collagen so I’d expect it may not be as effective. However, that’s just my guess.

      • Blanche May 20, 2015, 12:45 pm

        Thanks, Randy!

  • Michelle Gartner July 16, 2015, 11:41 am

    I’m surprised that such a blog has no information or “expert” input on Nerium International. This company has a product that truly works, is breaking records in sales yet I’m so excited because there is so many people who have heard of it or even tried it!

  • Kat March 23, 2016, 10:04 am

    What is the source of human collagen?

    • Randy Schueller March 23, 2016, 10:09 am

      What do you mean? Are you asking if collagen from humans is used in cosmetics? If that’s your question, the answer is no. Collagen used in cosmetics comes from animals.

  • Aroosha August 21, 2016, 11:32 pm

    About three months ago I had LASIK eye surgery to fix my vision. My vision now is perfect, however I look awful. The speculum used to open the eyelids during the laser treatment stretched my eyelids too much and now I have droopy eyelids. I am in my mid 30s and three months ago had perfectly normal lids. I really do not want to get blepharoplasty, plastic surgery to fix my eyelids. Is there any non-surgical procedure you could recommend? I have been scouring your blog for information, but now am too overwhelmed and confused. I would greatly appreciate any suggestions of eye creams or ingestible collagen supplements that you could recommend.

    • Randy Schueller August 22, 2016, 6:47 am

      I’m not aware of any non-surgical procedure or product that will help with droopy eyelids.

  • Lisa September 21, 2016, 9:01 am

    Read the article and most of the comments, but I’m pretty confused. Are collagen creams efficient against wrinkles or not? Thanks!

    • Randy Schueller September 21, 2016, 11:28 am

      No. Topically applied collagen is not effective against the cause of wrinkles.

  • Alan January 21, 2017, 10:49 am

    Is tobacco collagen available yet to ingest? Thanks!

  • Lisa January 28, 2018, 12:18 pm

    I was wondering what you thought about “dermal rollers”. Everyone is now touting them. I’ve ordered one w/0.25 mm needles. These are recommended for gentle rolling all over your face (before applying any skin care lotion) and these claim to enable better delivery of skincare products (w/Retin A etc).

  • Kim August 6, 2018, 2:44 pm

    Great podcast!! I was wondering if having an adequate amount of vitamin c in the body can increase the bioavailability of collegan peptide powder supplement ingested?