You’ve probably heard of collagen and how important it is for your skin. But does eating more of it really translate to more collagen in your skin? Let’s have a look at the evidence.

The building blocks to bouncy, youthful skin?

We’ve heard you are what you eat, so technically drinking or eating collagen would help give your body the building blocks for making collagen … right?

First, let’s dissect the word collagen, a buzzword that’s been creeping into our beauty products, supplements, and Facebook ads. Collagen is an incredibly important protein that keeps your tissues and bones together. Specifically for your skin, collagen helps give your skin structure and elasticity, or that famous “bounce.”

So, in theory, boosting your skin’s collagen levels — or preventing its loss — would help you look younger. But will drinking it or eating it do anything?

Collagen contains the amino acid hydroxyproline that’s unique in youthful skin. Prolyl-hydroxyproline, a collagen fragment which consists of two amino acids only, was found to trigger skin cells in vitro (in cells) to produce more hyaluronic acid, another component that’s important for boosting the skin’s water content.

Unfortunately, you usually have very little control over where your body puts things. When you eat or drink a protein like collagen, your stomach and small intestine will break the protein down using enzymes. These small fragments are generally up to three amino acids long before your body can absorb them. That’s not a lot of amino acids. And most of the time your body can’t tell these particular fragments come from collagen — they could be any number of other proteins.

Like the fountain of youth, the science behind collagen has been translated differently across channels, leading to a very different conclusion. While there have been studies where collagen supplements have improved skin, it’s all in mice and rats, and even pigs.

And what works in the lab doesn’t always work for our skin. Another problem with these supplement studies is that they often use a combination of ingredients. This means you can’t say for sure that it’s the collagen having an effect. It’s even trickier since there are actually 28 different types of collagen, and not all of them help your skin!

Collagen proteins are also made up of thousands of amino acids. Most supplements use collagen that’s been hydrolysed (broken up), but you can break it up in many different ways. It’s likely that the body doesn’t necessarily treat them all the same way. This means that a study showing a benefit with one form of collagen doesn’t tell you anything about the other forms of collagen — or even other collagen supplements.

And about those “according to science reports.” Have there been clinical human studies on collagen? Sure. However, that brings up another problem. A lot of these studies are performed by people selling collagen supplements. There’s an obvious bias toward publishing good results.

Volunteers took a daily supplement containing 5 grams hydrolysed collagen derived from fish cartilage as well as a whole host of other vitamins and minerals. Dryness, wrinkles, and nasolabial fold depth improved after 60 days, and collagen density and skin firmness improved after 12 weeks. Most parts of the trial didn’t use a placebo control, and the trial was published wholly by the company producing the supplement.

Another manufacturer-sponsored trial, run in conjunction with a university, had volunteers take either a daily supplement containing 2.5 grams of collagen peptide or a placebo for eight weeks. There were improvements in eye wrinkles as well as the content of the skin. The same supplement also improved skin elasticity after eight weeks in a separate trial.

Another placebo-controlled trial run by the manufacturer found that 10 grams of a daily collagen peptide supplement improved skin hydration after eight weeks, increased density, and decreased fragmentation of collagen in the skin after four weeks.

While it looks like collagen supplements are promising and could potentially work, the evidence is far from solid!

It looks like patting the waters of the fountain of youth onto your skin is still more effective than drinking from it! Look for topical products like creams containing vitamin A with ingredients like retinol and tretinoin. These are the gold standard for boosting collagen in the skin. Vitamin C serums are also fantastic for increasing collagen.

Skin hydration is also a common cause of tired-looking skin and easy to fix with serums and moisturizers as well. Look for humectant ingredients, or ingredients that promote moisture retention, like glycerin and hyaluronic acid to plump up skin and hide wrinkles.

Most importantly, sunscreen with high UVA protection will prevent free radicals from breaking down collagen in the first place.

Michelle explains the science behind beauty products at Lab Muffin Beauty Science. She has a PhD in synthetic medicinal chemistry. You can follow her for science-based beauty tips on Instagram and Facebook.