Step inside a health food shop – or any high street supermarket or chemist – and you’ll see rows and rows of supplements promising everything from better joint mobility to shinier hair and clearer skin. And the one everyone’s talking about right now? Collagen supplements, available in tablet, liquid, powder or cream form and said to be the secret to keeping wrinkles at bay. But what is collagen, exactly-and is it really worth splashing out supplements? We asked the experts to fill us in on the basics…
1. Collagen is a protein
“Collagen is an important protein that provides structure to the skin, hair, nails, connective tissue, cartilage, bones and joints,” explains Dr. Clare Morrison, GP at MedExpress.co.uk, an online doctor and pharmacy. Specifically, it’s made up of the amino acids glycine, proline, hydroxyproline and arginine and makes up around 30% of the proteins within our body.
2. Collagen benefits more than our looks
Collagen gives skin strength and elasticity, and is what makes younger skin look more full, and less lined. But it doesn’t just affect the way we look. Collagen is also the glue holding our ligaments, joints and bones together. Some collagens act as protective coverings for organs in the body, like the kidneys, too.
3. Our body produces less collagen as we age
“As we age, collagen production declines and the skin matrix tends to weaken, leading to wrinkles, fine lines and dry skin,” explains Dr. Morrison. Exposure to factors like UV light, a high-sugar diet or smoking can decrease our collagen levels, too. In addition to older-looking skin, a lack of collagen can cause stiff, swollen tendons and ligaments.
4. Men have more collagen than women
Collagen loss begins at around age 25, and by some estimates, we will have lost up to 30% of our collagen by the time we’re 45. Men, however, have thicker skin than women and consequently, more collagen density. So while we lose collagen at roughly the same rate, women’s skin can appear to age faster than men’s because of both this and the large reduction in collagen experienced after menopause.
5. Collagen creams probably won’t reduce your wrinkles…
“There are claims that applying collagen in the form of creams can boost collagen within the skin, helping to reduce signs of ageing,” explains Dr. Morrison. “However, there is little data to support these claims-in fact collagen molecules are too big to be absorbed in this way. These creams probably work as a simple moisturiser only.” Consultant Dermatologist Dr. Anjali Mahto at The Cadogan Clinic agrees. “Collagen in a cream doesn’t do anything-it’s too large a molecule to cross the skin barrier,” she says.
6. … But collagen supplements *might*
“There is more data in favour of collagen supplements taken by mouth,” says Dr. Morrison. “One study involving 114 women aged 45 to 65 years, who took collagen supplements for eight weeks, appeared to demonstrate a reduction in wrinkles of 20% and improved dermal matrix synthesis. It’s unlikely that the collagen reached the skin directly, as it would be digested in the stomach. However, supplements would ensure an adequate supply of amino acids, which the body then uses to make its own collagen.”
7. Experts remain divided about the efficacy of collagen supplements
“I remain sceptical about the benefits of taking collagen supplements or drinks for anti-aging purposes,” says Dr. Mahto. “Collagen is a protein which is broken down in the gut during digestive processes to smaller molecules such as peptides and subsequently amino-acids. There is little evidence that ingesting whole collagen will survive digestion and then travel in the bloodstream to the skin in high enough quantities to make any meaningful change to the skin’s structure or function.”
8. Trials on collagen supplements are somewhat lacking
“Many collagen supplements contain fragments of collagen (collagen peptides) rather than whole collagen,” explains Dr. Mahto. “I have often heard the argument that these collagen peptides ‘fool’ the body into thinking that collagen has been broken down resulting in new collagen production but I would treat these arguments with caution. Firstly, there are few robust, validated high-quality scientific trials to confirm this, and secondly many of the studies actually come from the manufacturer of the product itself-so there is clearly a conflict of interest.”
9. It might not be the collagen supplements giving people great skin
There could be another reason, says Dr. Mahto, that people who take collagen supplements or drinks seem to have better skin. “People that consume collagen drinks or supplements are likely to be a self-selecting group that already look after their skin. These individuals are therefore already more likely to be doing other things to help their skin, like wearing regular sunscreen, following a good diet, etc. so it’s hard to account for other confounding factors in the positive studies.” Still, if you don’t mind your wallet taking a hit, most experts agree that collagen supplements are unlikely to do any harm.
10. Your diet can affect how much collagen your body produces
“In the same way supplements could ensure an adequate supply of amino acids, which the body uses to make its own collagen, you could also get these amino acids by eating protein found in meat, eggs, fish and nuts,” says Dr. Morrison. “The best way to help the body produce collagen, needed to repair cartilage, joints and other connective tissues, and to have metabolically active lean tissue, is to eat a healthy diet, with adequate protein. It also helps to avoid stress, get sufficient sleep, and eat plenty of foods rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, such as oily fish, fruit, nuts and olive oil. Taking vitamin C also helps the body produce collagen. If you do this, supplements shouldn’t really be necessary.