Can Collagen Help Your Skin Look Young and Healthy?

By Alisa Hrustic |

Loads of tablets, powders, and creams containing collagen claim to work wonders for aging skin. Should you buy in? Not before you read this.

woman applying moisturizer

For decades, people have used collagen topically in antiaging creams. But recently there’s been a spike in collagen everything: pills, powders, and many other collagen-infused products.

Why the surge? Collagen comes with some lofty health claims, including the ability to reveal a younger-looking complexion. But before you buy in (most collagen supplements come with a hefty price tag), here’s what you should know.

What Is Collagen, Exactly?

Collagen is a naturally occurring protein that makes up the connective tissues in your body, explains Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. That means collagen is in your skin, hair, joints, bones, muscles, and organs.

All collagen is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. Your body uses these amino acids to repair its tissues. In other words, collagen is the glue that holds those tissues together and helps them withstand stretch.

An ample amount of collagen is also to thank for the plump, youthful appearance of your face—that is, until your body naturally starts producing less of it after age 30. At that point, you’re more likely to start to develop lines and wrinkles, “as the skin’s foundation is not as strong as it was when you were younger,” Dr. Zeichner says.

That’s where creams and supplements come in.

The theory: Topically treating your face with collagen or ingesting it can boost the amount that makes its way into your skin, leaving you with fewer wrinkles and a younger-looking appearance.

Do Collagen Supplements and Creams Actually Work?

Some studies have turned up encouraging results. In one 2014 study, German researchers found that women ages 45 to 65 who took a specific collagen peptide daily for eight weeks experienced a significant reduction in the wrinkles surrounding their eyes compared to women who popped a placebo.

Plus, a recent review published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology found that supplementing with oral collagen increased skin hydration after eight weeks, which suggests that taking collagen can help you beat dry, cracked winter skin.

But before you get too excited, it’s important to note that many of the studies on collagen include small sample sizes or receive funding from skin care brands and organizations. To truly understand how collagen impacts the look of your skin, more large-scale research is needed.

“Unfortunately, topical and ingestible collagen have not proven to be tremendously successful in treating skin aging,” Dr. Zeichner says. “Collagen is a very large molecule, so while it may provide some moisturizing benefits when applied topically, it’s too large to penetrate through the skin.”

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What about powders and supplements? The problem is that there’s no way for you to control exactly how your body uses the collagen you consume. Remember: Collagen, like all proteins, is made up of amino acids. The collagen you consume in a collagen powder is going to be broken down into those amino acids with the help of enzymes in the stomach. After that, your body takes the reigns on how it wants to use them.

“If those amino acids are absorbed through your bloodstream, it’s possible they could make their way to your skin, which may provide it with the building blocks to produce new, healthy collagen,” Dr. Zeichner says. “And this could have a modest benefit on the appearance of wrinkles.”

However, your body may send those amino acids to your bones, blood vessels, or muscles instead. They could also just pass right through your digestive system, he says.

The bottom line: While the existing research is promising and there’s relatively low risk for harm, it’s not exactly a proven way to fight the impact of Father Time just yet. More research is needed.

As with any supplements, it’s best to ask your doctor if they are right for you. If you decide you want to give it a try, you may want to look for a product with “type II collagen” (sometimes labeled UC-II) or one that’s purely collagen peptides. Research shows both of these variations are more likely to make it through the digestive process and still provide value for your body.

How Else Can You Promote Younger-Looking Skin? Do This

1. Pack More Antioxidants into Your Diet
Much of the science behind an antiaging diet comes down to two things: antioxidants and free radicals. Free radicals are the bad guys. They roam around the body damaging cells, proteins, and even your DNA.

Antioxidants, on the other hand, help prevent free radicals from raging out of control. But unfortunately, the human body can’t generate antioxidants on its own so you need to get them through your food. The best options include tomatoes, olive oil, kiwi, and any other foods on this list of antiaging kitchen staples.

2. Add Retinol to Your Nightly Skincare Routine
Retinol is a form of vitamin A that is proven to promote collagen production and speed up the renewal of your skin cells, Dr. Zeichner says. “It’s the best-studied ingredient we have to reduce fine lines and wrinkles.”

His recommendation: Try using a product that contains retinol in the evening, like Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum or one of the derm-approved products in our guide to caring for mature skin.

3. Slather on the SPF
It’s hard to overstate the importance of wearing sunscreen every day to prevent further skin damage, Dr. Zeichner says. And it’s never too late to make it a worthwhile habit: One study published in the journal Dermatologic Surgery found that using a minimum of SPF 30 for just 12 weeks could visibly reverse the signs of sun damage, like uneven pigmentation and texture.

4. Get Moving
Exercise, particularly cardio, generally has a very positive impact on your skin because it boosts blood flow and circulation. “More blood flow to the area allows more oxygen and nutrients to reach the skin, which makes it easier for your body to generate new, healthy skin cells,” says Neal Schultz, M.D., a dermatologist and founder of BeautyRx Skincare in New York City.

Exercise also helps reduce inflammation in the body, which contributes to wrinkles, dryness, and dullness. Follow these simple tips to maximize your workouts for your healthiest skin.

Healthy Meal Plan: Salad a Day