Sun. Apr 14th, 2024

Is it worth taking collagen supplements?

Q: I keep seeing people recommend collagen supplements on social media. What is collagen? Can it really make my skin and hair healthier?

A: Collagen is a protein found in many parts of the body — in cartilage, bone, tendons and skin. It helps build a structural framework to preserve the skin’s integrity. But as we get old, we produce less collagen. This contributes to skin appearing less elastic — even saggy — and wrinkles forming more easily.

Supplementing with collagen has become increasingly popular in recent years, with brands claiming it can boost nail, skin and hair health. But there isn’t strong evidence behind these claims.

Though several studies on collagen supplementation point to increased elasticity and improvement in wrinkles in skin, the data is often muddied by confounding study design, lack of objective microscopic evidence or funding straight from the people selling the products. There is no study demonstrating that the supplements will prevent wrinkles.

Collagen supplements do appear safe. But I’m generally wary of unnecessary or ineffective supplements. So instead, my advice is to spend your money on two products that are backed by much better evidence: sunscreen and retinoids.

Applying sunscreen daily is the best thing you can do for healthy skin. Retinoids – which are compounds derived from vitamin A – have been shown to block degradation of collagen on a molecular level while boosting its production, and they’ve been proven to improve skin wrinkling, texture and elasticity in multiple studies.

“These two things have the strongest data and are relatively easy and inexpensive to do,” said Temitayo Ogunleye, an associate professor of clinical dermatology at Penn Medicine, in an email interview.

How is collagen absorbed by the body?

Collagen supplements are made by extracting the protein from animal tissues, such as cattle bones or fish skin. Collagen is sold in powders and pills as well as in protein bars, coffee creamers and topical creams.

My two cents: If you’re going to go for it, at least avoid the latter.

Topical creams don’t penetrate the deeper layer of the skin where collagen is needed. Ingested powders or pills are — theoretically — more likely to reach that layer if absorbed into the bloodstream from our guts. But it’s not that simple.

Hydrolyzed collagen is a term often found on the labels of popular supplements. When collagen is hydrolyzed, a process that breaks down its chemical bonds, the resulting products are the tiny fragments, or peptides, that are easier for the body to absorb than the sturdy, larger triple-helix structure of intact collagen.

But collagen isn’t absorbed as a whole molecule anyway. It will be broken down as other peptides naturally through digestion.

We don’t have control of what happens next. Those peptides may rearrange and be directed to other parts of the body to form entirely different proteins than the original collagen. In other words, we have no way of insisting they reform into collagen expressly at the site of our unwanted crow’s feet.

Are collagen supplements backed by science?

Some clinical trials and meta-analyses involving collagen supplements appear preliminarily positive in terms of benefits for the skin. But it’s hard to conclude that any certain collagen supplement is the reason.

“Many of the studies utilize supplements with other ingredients, making it difficult to tease out which ingredient may be contributing to perceived changes,” Ogunleye said. “There’s also a lack of standardization for measuring improvement.”

Most of the studies were only conducted on women, and we don’t have great data on the effect of supplementation among people with darker skin tones. (Aging in darker skin can sometimes manifest more as discoloration than wrinkling.)

No serious adverse events have been reported in the recent literature reviewing hundreds of patients.

Do collagen supplements help with joint health?

Several (though not all) randomized placebo-controlled trials have found that collagen supplements improve symptoms in people with osteoarthritis, a disease in which joint cartilage has become degraded. But the studies have limitations, such as ties to the industry and short-term duration. If you’re experiencing joint pain, talk to a health-care provider about your symptoms and treatments backed by stronger evidence, such as exercise.

How can I support collagen production in my skin?

Retinoids may not be for everyone — in some cases, they can cause redness and irritation to the skin. Other valuable ways to improve collagen production include:

  • Using sun protection. Younger people like those in their 20s who are trying to be proactive — and may be touting collagen supplements on social media — should still focus on sun protection, said Natasha Atanaskova Mesinkovska, vice chair of dermatology clinical research at the University of California Irvine and the lead author of a review article on collagen supplementation.
  • Avoid smoking and pollution. Deep-skin biopsies have revealed that smoking is associated with slower collagen production and an increase in an enzyme that breaks it down. Particulate matter of air pollution can produce similar outcomes of premature skin aging.
  • Get your beauty sleep. Sleep deprivation has long been demonstrated to impact the appearance of our skin, and studies have found that sleep deprivation causes inflammatory changes that may indirectly impact collagen integrity.

What I want my patients to know

Certain foods are high in collagen — notably bone broth or red meat — which may seem like appealing alternatives to people seeking a “natural” remedy. But I don’t recommend a diet high in red meat to rejuvenate skin due to numerous adverse health risks, including colon cancer, that are associated with it.

Got a health question? Reach us at askadoctor@washpost.com. We can’t dispense personal medical advice, but we may answer your question in a future column.

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