It's impossible to talk about anti-aging skincare without certain ingredients coming up in the conversation, one of which being collagen. The reason for that? Among other roles, collagen is the most important structural protein in our skin and is responsible for giving us plump, youthful-looking skin. But thanks (or rather, no thanks) to aging and other outside factors, our collagen breaks down over time. In an effort to restore that collagen, we turn to whatever we can get our hands on the fastest, be it collagen creams, collagen-stimulating ingredients, collagen supplements—the list goes on.
Meet the Expert
But with all the different forms and types of collagen skincare, things can get pretty confusing. To sort through the facts, we turned to board-certified dermatologists Jeannette Graf, MD, and Marie Hayag, MD. Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about collagen, including which products (if any) are even worth trying.
Type of ingredient: Protein.
Main benefits: Moisturizes the skin.
Who should use it: Graf says in general, anyone interested in moisturization and anti-aging can use collagen skincare.
How often can you use it: Graf says topical collagen, as well as oral collagen, can be used on a daily basis. When applied to the skin, collagen can be used be morning or night or both as it's not sun-sensitizing.
Works well with: If your ultimate goal of using collagen skincare is to stimulate collagen production, Hayag recommends adding to your routine a retinoid or retinol (which she calls the gold standard for boosting collagen) or peptides and growth factors as a less irritating option that can help by acting as “messengers” to signal cells to create collagen. Hayag also recommends vitamin C (another collagen producer) and sunscreen with UVA protection to prevent your collagen from breaking down further.
Don't use with: In general, collagen is safe to use with most ingredients and topical products. "When you apply hydrolyzed collagen, it gets right into the skin and penetrates rapidly," Graf explains, and for that reason, she says it shouldn't interfere with any other product or ingredient.
What Is Collagen?
Collagen is often referred to as the body’s scaffolding, and the reason for that is because, as we mentioned above, it's the most important structural protein in your skin. Not only is collagen made in our bodies, but it can also be derived from plants and animals. It's available in topical and ingestible forms, and in the past, it was also a popular injectable (we'll dive deeper into the different forms a little later on). As far as topicals, collagen is found most commonly in creams (aka collagen creams), but depending on your intended goal, your collagen skincare products might not be as effective as you would think or hope.
Hayag says not only do we naturally produce less collagen starting in our 20’s, but we also lose collagen with age and other factors, like sun exposure, smoking, or sugar. In other words, as we age, we lose more collagen than we make. So what's the fix? One idea is to apply collagen to the skin with collagen skincare in an attempt to replenish it, but here's why Graf says that doesn't quite work: simply put, the entire collagen molecule is very, very large, and way too big to penetrate the epidermis of the skin. However, as Graf explains it, hydrolyzed collagen is enzymatically broken down into fragments that have a delivery of getting into the dermis, and therefore, it's actually able to get into the position of where collagen would be. Even still, Hayag says not enough clinical testing has been done to support the idea that this would lead to making collagen.
Benefits of Collagen for Skin
According to Graf, putting collagen into your skin isn't going to stimulate other collagen, sadly enough. However, collagen is known for having great moisturizing benefits when applied topically, so if your nightly routine consists of applying a collagen cream, it's not a total loss. As Hayag puts it, topical collagen creams are said to improve fine lines and wrinkles by replacing the lost collagen, but in reality, the collagen mostly moisturizes it. Hayag says this can make the skin can feel softer and smoother, but as far as actually building collagen? Not so much.
Side Effects of Collagen
Despite the fact that your collagen cream, sadly, will not turn back time, Hayag says there's no harm in using one if you like the way it feels and the results you get. However, Graf points out that it's possible to be allergic to any molecule or any chemical in any skincare product, so if you have a reaction to it, stop using it. And the same goes for supplements. "I would probably recommend finding out where the collagen is derived from," Graf adds. "If someone is allergic to cows milk, then they probably should avoid collagen that comes from a cow."
How to Use It
Whether it's an ingestible or topical form of collagen skincare, Graf says you can use it any time of the day, morning or night. As a moisturizer, collagen cream can be applied either once or twice a day, according to Graf. For either form, it's best to follow the manufacturer's instructions.
As we mentioned before, collagen is also available in an oral form to improve hair, nails, and in the interest of this article, skin. Despite the claims, which range from glowing skin to improved wrinkles and skin elasticity, Hayag says the studies to back them up are limited; however, between collagen creams and collagen supplements, Hayag believes the oral version would be the most beneficial to the skin. With that said, there are things to keep in mind when selecting a product. As is the case with all supplements, oral collagen isn't FDA-regulated, which is why it's important to always consult your physician before making any changes to your regimen. In general, Hayag says to be wary of any products that contain animal by-products and look for supplements with collagen types I and III that comes from a cage-free, free-range, and antibiotic-free source.
So what's the final verdict? Do you actually need to be taking a collagen supplement? The answer isn't totally clear. According to Hayag, if you're eating a normal balanced diet that includes protein-rich foods, like meat, eggs, dairy, and beans, oral collagen supplements likely aren't necessary. Graf, on the other hand, says they could potentially be beneficial. "It does benefit the skin, but it also benefits other things internally, like joints, that a topical doesn’t," Graf explains. And if you don't need it, well, Graf says your body won't absorb it and will excrete any over-supplementation.
Oh, and about those collagen injections. Circa 1980s, before hyaluronic acid fillers were the top choice, collagen injectable fillers were used to soften wrinkles and plump up lips. They've since been replaced by longer-lasting hyaluronic acid fillers, which Hayag says are less allergenic.
Is it better to use collagen orally or topically?
There are limited studies that detail the difference between using collagen orally or topically, but our experts agree that if you decide to use collagen in your skincare routine, using an oral supplement is the best route.
What foods are high in collagen?
If you're looking to supplement your diet with extra collagen-rich foods, look for food rich in vitamin C, like oranges, bell peppers, berries, and citrus. Bone broths, egg whites, chicken, and fish are also great options.
Why is using sunscreen important for collagen production?
Sun damage and harmful UV rays break down collagen in the skin, so it's important to use sunscreen daily (and especially during long periods outdoors) to protect your skin.
Bolke L, Schlippe G, Gerß J, Voss W. A Collagen Supplement Improves Skin Hydration, Elasticity, Roughness, and Density: Results of a Randomized, Placebo-Controlled, Blind Study. Nutrients. 2019 Oct 17;11(10):2494. doi: 10.3390/nu11102494.