In the pursuit of outrunning the ageing process, we’ve searched far and wide for youth-preserving products, purging our dollars in the process.
The wellness economy is not a small one, estimated by the Global Wellness Institute (GWI) at $4.5 trillion and representing roughly 5.6% of global economic output in 2017 alone, and it's only boomed further in recent years. With global lockdowns instated, many of us have turned to our self-care routines, preoccupying ourselves with overhauled skincare routines and making the most of the time to work on our fitness.
And one of the biggest trends we've clocked is the rise of collagen products. From serums and creams to powders and liquid vitamins — the smooth skin promising ingredient is everywhere and has experienced the largest growth in the supplement/vitamin industry, jumping up a staggering 82.7% in sales in 2019, with some researchers valuing the global collagen market size as 8.36 billion USD (11.28 billion AUD) in 2020. Australian searches for 'collagen supplements' have skyrocketed over the years, showing Aussies are interested in the fountain of youth. Sometimes it feels like every influencer on the planet is promoting some collagen supplement.
But collagen is a term thrown around a lot, and it doesn't come cheap. If you’re not quite sure what it actually is and whether or not it's worth the spend, read on.
What is collagen?
Collagen is the main protein naturally produced by your body. As the main component of connective tissue, it is the most abundant protein in all mammals, making up from 25% to 35% of the whole-body protein content. The body makes its collagen by breaking down dietary protein into amino acids.
Collagen is already in your skin, your bones, in your cartilage and in your hair, but it serves a different purpose. In terms of your skin, it’s essentially what makes your surface plump — it’s what makes your skin bounce back when pressed upon. Collagen is not a simple protein. There are about two dozen different types that can be found in our bodies, and the type that helps our hair grow strong isn’t the same as the type that feeds our skin.
Collagen renews itself, but over time, the renewal process is disturbed by factors such as sun exposure, stress, disease and, of course, natural degradation — i.e., ageing. This results in an overall loss of that 'plump' skin we're always hearing about.
What does it mean when collagen is in products?
As collagen is found in abundance in animals, many companies extract it from the bones, skin, and connective tissue of animals, including cattle, fish, horses, pigs, or rabbits. The problem here can be if products are based on collagen from an animal’s cartilage, it’s not the kind of collagen that impacts your skin.
With the ever-growing push to make products vegan and cruelty-free, more and more brands are utilising vegan sources of collagen that are found in genetically modified yeast and bacteria.
Do collagen products work?
This is a hotly debated topic in the beauty and wellness sphere.
Yes, the decrease of collagen is responsible for the inevitable loss of elasticity in our skin. But can topical formulas and ingestibles actually make their way from our stomachs and outer layers of skin to where they need to be? Well, according to a recent viral TikTok by Australia’s Dr. Karl, the odds are slim. For the collagen to do this, it needs to get to our bloodstream‚ not an easy feat when the scientist breaks it down.
“Before any proteins can get from your gut into the bloodstream, they have to first enter the cells lining the gut. These cells are called endothelial cells,” Karl explains. “The biggest group (or collection) of amino acids that can get into these cells is three – not a thousand. Just a lousy three amino acids joined together. And what is the biggest group of amino acids that can get out of these endothelial cells and into your bloodstream? Not a group – only one actually.
“That's right, the thousand amino acids that make up a single molecule of collagen have to be broken down into a thousand separate, and individual, amino acids. Only then, can they individually get into your bloodstream, to finally arrive at your skin to be recombined in half a dozen complex steps to make collagen — to then presumably iron away your wrinkles. And remember, amino acids have no memory. Each individual amino acid cannot remember that it used to be part of a thousand-strong group,” argues Karl.
What is the best way to have collagen?
As Karl points out, “you’re much better off eating foods rich in protein that can be broken down into the individual amino acids, that your body needs to make collagen.
“According to Clare Collins, Laureate Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Newcastle, these protein-rich foods include “meat, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, nuts, tofu, dried beans and legumes”.
What’s also important to note is that collagen becomes unstable if you don’t have enough vitamin C, so Professor Collins recommends foods such as, “broccoli, brussels sprouts, capsicum, tomatoes, spinach, lemons and oranges.”
The main factor in the loss of natural collagen is ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun that attack the collagen fibres and cause them to break down quicker — making one of the best and most effective ways to combat collagen loss, slip, slap slopping that SPF and avoiding overexposure.
In the end, collagen is far from ‘bad’ for you and most ingestible versions contain a multitude of other great vitamins that your body can absorb with ease. Will it turn back the clock and rid us of our crow’s feet and societal expectations to stay young? Not really. Can it help? Kind of. Will I stop taking it? Probably not since I like the taste and the versions I consume are filled with gut-healing properties, too.
Always remember that marketing is a powerful tool, particularly in the beauty and wellness industry, and that something we often forget is that ageing itself is a privilege and never something to get bogged down over. Researchers are constantly finding new and improved ways to keep us looking youthful, but facts can be different from person to person. It's worth doing your own research beyond some fun packaging and always seek out professional advice if you're really unsure.