If you have even a passing interest in skincare, you’ll be well-versed in the hero ingredients that promise to plump, smooth and protect skin over time. But what about the impact of what we put into our bodies? Collagen isn’t exactly a secret – it’s the main protein component of connective tissues that make up our skin, tendons, ligaments and muscles, acting as a sort of scaffolding that provides structure, suppleness and plumpness. However, because collagen levels naturally start to decline in our late twenties, a new host of oral collagen supplements are promising to restore this lost protein – helping to keep skin firm, strong and smooth for longer. So how to sort fact from fiction and find out everything you need to know about collagen? Read on…
What do collagen supplements actually do?
“Taking collagen can have many benefits for your skin’s health and appearance. It can also decrease joint pain and improve flexibility – it may even help prevent bone loss and boost muscle mass,” says Engelman, who, although initially skeptical about the power of ingestible collagen to make a noticeable difference to the skin, has been won over by recent studies – as well as impressive results in her patients. In terms of what’s inside the box, the majority of collagen supplements contain hydrolyzed animal collagen: put simply, collagen broken down and formulated to be more easily absorbed by the human body, where it can replace the proteins that are naturally lost with age. But supplements don’t just work by topping up the collagen you’ve lost. “Studies show that higher levels of collagen in the body support your body’s own natural production of collagen,” Engelman adds.
Does our diet make a difference?
If you’re wondering whether you can top up your collagen levels by just eating a few extra steaks, you’re not far off the mark. “I actually do recommend that people consume foods that are naturally collagen-rich, like bone broth and meat off the bone, but that’s not easy for a lot of people to do – and it doesn’t fit into everyone’s lifestyle,” Engelman says. “To really reap the benefits of collagen, most people need to supplement their diet.” Whether it’s supplements or animal products, it’s the body’s job to break the collagen down into a perfectly digestible form – busting one particularly prevalent misconception: “Collagen is not destroyed by stomach acid; it just gets broken down into amino acids, which actually boost the collagen in your body,” Engelman says.
Are there vegetarian and vegan alternatives?
Since collagen is an animal protein, supplements generally come from bovine or marine sources, making them off-limits for vegetarians and vegans. Plant-based supplements geared towards boosting collagen do exist, but there’s a crucial difference. “Unlike animal-derived collagen, plant-based collagen supplements (also known as collagen promoters) do not give the body a direct source of collagen. Instead, they stimulate the body to produce its own collagen, using substances that naturally form the building blocks of collagen: silica, phytoceramides, amino acids, minerals and antioxidants,” explains Engelman. Think vitamin C, which the body uses to produce collagen itself, and the amino acids glycine, lysine and proline. “However, because your body needs to go through the processes to break down the ingredients and create its own collagen, vegan collagen is not as efficient and therefore does not work as well as animal-derived collagen.”
What should you look out for in a collagen supplement?
Unfortunately, not all collagen is created equal. “Look for varieties that contain high-quality ingredients and come from reputable sources that are transparent about their practices,” Engelman says. She recommends adding collagen powders to smoothies, drinks or food for ease. Plus, you’re also less likely to forget to take them that way. Make sure that the collagen comes from grass-fed or wild sources, and keep your eyes peeled for formulations that also include vitamin C to boost collagen production. “And be sure to check that the supplement doesn’t contain an excess of added sugars or other unhealthy ingredients,” Engelman adds.
Can topical skincare boost collagen production, too?
Skincare does have an impact on the skin’s collagen levels, but not in the way you might think. While topically applied collagen can moisturize the skin, it won’t actually affect collagen production – the molecules are too big to penetrate the epidermis (the top layer of skin). That said, there are other ingredients that can. Antioxidants, such as vitamin C, support the production of certain collagen types when applied to the skin, while that brilliant multitasker retinol gives your own collagen production a helping hand. “It boosts collagen and elastin production, which helps your body retain and create more collagen, keeping your skin stronger and more youthful,” confirms Engelman. And, last but not least, everyone’s favorite hydrator plays a role, too. “In addition to making your skin look plumper and bouncier, hyaluronic acid also contributes to collagen production, helping your skin actually stay younger-looking,” she says.
The model featured in this story is not associated with NET-A-PORTER and does not endorse it or the products shown