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 That’s because glue was originally made by boiling horse skin.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.)

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. 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.

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.

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?