Are Collagen Supplements The Key To Plump, Youthful Skin?

Photographed by Lara Callahan.
The list of bright-skinned celebrities who extoll the benefits of collagen supplements is a long one, peppered with names like Jennifer Aniston, Busy Philipps, Kourtney Kardashian, and Mandy Moore. Take one look at them, and it's clear that something must be working to give them minimal wrinkles and plump skin, two supposed byproducts of ingesting the protein. Could collagen supplements be the thing stamping out dull complexions all over Hollywood — or are they just another empty promise that Instagram won’t let us escape, like "flat tummy tea" or posture enhancers?
Collagen, dermatologist Debra Jaliman, M.D., explains, is "the most abundant protein in the skin, making up 75% to 80% of your skin." We come pre-loaded with the stuff when we're born, but things like repetitive facial movements, sun exposure, and the presence of an enzyme in our own skin called collagenase break down collagen in the dermis, leading to a loss of plumpness and fullness over time.
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Our bodies do their best to counter this loss, but it's an uphill battle. “Every day we make collagen, but after the age of 25, we break down more collagen then we make, which is why we start to see fine lines and wrinkles," Dr. Jaliman says. Your diet is your first defense against the deficit. “Nutrition is a key factor influencing skin health and consequently its appearance," she explains. "Leafy greens and citrus can help with collagen synthesis and any foods rich in vitamin C, like strawberries, play a major role in collagen production."
Ideally, we'd all have no issue boosting collagen by eating a smart diet rich in fresh fruits and veggies. But this is real life, and sometimes meals are more deli-to-mouth than farm-to-table. That's where the basis of collagen shots, drinks, and powders comes in. “Collagen peptides are used as an ingredient in supplement products and have been shown in studies to improve skin barrier function and help the production of collagen after eight weeks of intake,” Dr. Jaliman says. “The collagen density in the dermis significantly increased, so the skin became thicker and the lines were diminished.”
It’s research like this that helps Dr. Jaliman get behind the idea of taking supplemental collagen to put a dent in skin aging. “Collagen consumption can increase skin elasticity and can help your body’s skin repair process, therefore encouraging your body to form new collagen,” she says. Her choice? A 600 mg daily dose of NeoCell Super Collagen +C Tablets.
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For her part, Los Angeles-based dermatologist Jessica Wu, M.D., also recommends eating vitamin C-rich foods as often as possible, ranging from citrus fruits to red and yellow peppers, kiwi, guava, and kale. Like Dr. Jaliman, she approves of collagen supplements for inquiring patients, though she warns it’s crucial to be choosy when it comes to formulation.
“While some collagen supplements have been shown to improve skin hydration and reduce fine lines, they’re not created equal,” Dr. Wu says. “In general, I recommend choosing a supplement or drink containing collagen peptides, which are small pieces that are easier to absorb. Ask the company for clinical studies that show the benefits of that particular product and read the label to see where the collagen comes from. For example, if you’re vegetarian or vegan, you may want to avoid collagen that comes from a bovine (beef) source.”
Our skin may look forever 19 — or at least more plump — with a richer matrix of collagen to support it, but not everyone is convinced that the best way to encourage this boost is through ingestibles. Rebecca Oshiro, a certified nutritionist and board-certified behavior analyst with Arivale, says our bodies may not actually process collagen supplements in a way that’s useful to the skin.
“Like all other proteins, collagen is made up of individual amino acids. When you consume collagen or any other protein, your body breaks it down in to its individual amino acids before they are absorbed in to your circulation. Once in circulation, these amino acids are available to any of the tissues or cells of the body that need them,” she explains. ”Unfortunately, there is no way whatsoever to direct precise, individual amino acids to a certain area of the body. In other words, when you take a collagen supplement, the cells of your pancreas are just as likely to absorb the individual component amino acids for its own use as your skin is to do so.”
One thing all three of our experts do agree on: A healthy diet rich in vitamins and proteins still may be the best way to support collagen production and overall skin health. “It is important that your body obtains all of the essential amino acids that it requires for health and maintenance every day from your diet,” says Oshiro. “It doesn't matter where the individual amino acids come from: chicken, beans, quinoa, etcetera." Throwing collagen supplements into the mix won't hurt — but there's not enough research to suggest we should rely on them for glowy A-lister skin just yet.
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