What is the buzz with collagen?

Collagen gives skin a fresh and volumized look and is a key component of healthy, youthful skin.   Collagen comprises close to 80% of the skin and is a protein that is woven together with the help of vitamin C to create a flexible, supple network.  Over time, this network begins to thin, usually due to genetics, sun exposure, and less robust production of collagen by the skin. This results in a gradual but noticeable loss of volume and tightness.  

Collagen supplements are marketed to restore a youthful appearance.  Collagen is offered in many oral and topical supplements. Most collagen supplements are animal derived, as they are proteins, and often are found from cows, chickens and fish.  Collagen supplements purport to strengthen and plump skin when ingested but there is a great deal of controversy in this claim. Most ingested proteins are broken down in our stomachs and therefore are used by our bodies in other places, well before they would be used by the skin.  To date, there are no studies showing definitively that ingested collagen turns up in the skin- while some studies have shown improvements in elasticity and moisture, these were not controlled for other variables. Further the doses required to get these results, whether or not they are reliable, are higher than what most supplements offer and would require higher dosing of the supplement.  And again, whether the collagen ingestion or other factors are at play remains an open question. As for topical collagen, the same questions remain: does it actually penetrate the skin or simply sit on top and provide some moisture?  

With the jury out on collagen supplements, what else can be done to help collagen along?  Another hot topic in this area is the use of peptides, which are small bits of protein that are found in the skin.  Like the larger collagen molecule, the question of whether a peptide can effectively benefit the skin remains open. The idea behind peptides is that they mimic collagen breakdown products.  These breakdown products tell the cells to start making more collagen, so the use of peptides is a way to trick the cells into making more collagen even in the absence of collagen breakdown. Commonly found peptides include palmitoyl pentapeptide 3 and oligopeptide, both of which can stimulate collagen, but may also be repelled by the upper skin layers.  As for taking peptide supplements, a study done in 2018 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29949889 did suggest that ingestion of low molecular weight collagen peptide can help, and formulations with these are being developed.  

Collagen production is also enhanced by vitamin C.  Vitamin C is required for collagen to cross link and lay down strong supports in your skin.  Use of topical vitamin C is an excellent way to boost collagen, which results in a plump, moist appearance.  In addition, vitamin C has the ability to fight off free radicals induced by sun damage and also can help to improve skin tone issues.  Penetration of vitamin C into the skin can be challenging- the top layer of the skin often deters the medication from entering the skin.  So it is important to utilize forms that are appropriately made and stabilized for maximum efficiency. Often, it is helpful to stabilize vitamin C with iron (Fe) or to add vitamin E in order to enhance its effects.  As for eating more vitamin C, while it prevents the pirate’s scourge of scurvy and tastes great, it likely doesn’t make it to your skin.

Tretinoin is also an excellent treatment for collagen replacement.  Over 30 years ago it was shown in a small study that tretinoin application can increase collagen by up to 80% in the skin after 1 year of treatment.  Further studies have shown that even a few months of tretinoin treatment can improve collagen levels in skin and result in clinically appreciable endpoints, such as improved tightness and texture.  Interestingly, retinols also showed some benefit in collagen production, but retinol was also found to be very unstable and easily degraded.

The bottom line…

So what’s the bottom line here?  The best bang for your buck to enhance moisture and skin plumpness is the use of topical Vitamin C and tretinoin. The direct use of collagen and its peptides is  still an open area of discussion, whether ingested or applied on the skin. A balanced diet of animal and plant based proteins will likely do the best job for your skin and overall health, along with judicious use of topical products.

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