Most of us know that collagen is important to our skin and that when we lose it, our skin sags. Often referred to as the fountain of youth or the body’s scaffolding, collagen in the form of supplements, facial creams, and drinks is flying off the shelves to replace our depleting supply.
Collagen is one of the fastest growing supplements on the market. U.S. consumers spent some $98 million on collagen supplements in 2017 and were projected to spend 30% more ($122 million) last year, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.
But does it work? Is it truly the fountain of youth? Can collagen treatments—whether smoothed on the skin or taken as a dietary supplement—help us look younger? Let’s look at what collagen is and the role it plays in our bodies.
What exactly is collagen?
Collagen is the principal structural protein that holds our skin together and makes up about 75% of the dry weight of our skin. It forms the mesh of fibers in the skin and consists of amino acids wound together to form elongated fibrils (a small fiber or filament). It is mostly found in fibrous tissues such as tendons, ligaments, and skin.
There are as many as 28 different types of collagen.
From a beauty perspective, types I, II, and III are key.
Type I, the most prominent in the body, has numerous benefits for health and well-being as well as hair, skin and nails.
Type II collagen is a bit more specialized. It is the main component of cartilage and extremely important to cartilage health.
Type III is generally found in reticular fibers, such as in the bone marrow, usually alongside Type I collagen in the body. That is why collagen supplements and drinks often comprise Types I and III (but generally not Type II).
The quantity and quality of collagen plays a major role in how fresh and youthful our skin looks.
The amount of collagen in our bodies begins to decline as we age. Sun damage, smoking, exposure to pollution, and fluctuations in our weight can make this worse. When this happens, the structure or mesh sags so skin doesn’t have the elasticity and tautness it once had.
We notice this first as lines and wrinkles in our face, and as sagging skin on our face and neck. You can blame achy joints on lost collagen as well.
What happened to our collagen?
Collagen occurs naturally in the body. Our bodies have the most collagen when we’re around 20 years old. As we age, we break collagen down faster than we can replenish it.
From age 20 onwards, our collagen production declines by about 1 percent a year. By the time we turn 60, we have only around 40% left.
Collagen is complicated.
It may be tempting to think that simply getting more collagen into the skin can make us look younger and more rejuvenated. As always, the truth is a bit more complicated. Here are the basics to understanding collagen including what doesn’t work and what does.
You can’t apply collagen to the skin and expect results
According to MedicalNewsToday, “one of the biggest myths about boosting collagen levels is that you can apply it directly to the skin.
For many years, body creams, lotions, medicated ointments, and moisturizers containing collagen have claimed to boost collagen levels. However, in truth, collagen molecules are too big to cross into the lower layers of the skin and are of no real use.”
Some cosmetics include soluble or hydrolyzed collagen. This means that the collagen molecules have been broken down into much smaller fragments which can sometimes penetrate the skin’s surface.
But according to SmartSkinCare.com, the molecule fragments of this form of collagen are too small to effectively integrate with the skin’s own collagen. (SmartSkinCare.com is an independent skin care information resource. It doesn’t sell skin care products or cosmetics or endorse skin care manufacturers.)
The take-away? For the time being, external skin creams can’t be expected to help boost collagen. However, you can bet that scientists and chemists around the world are looking for ways to change that.
Ways to boast your skin’s collagen
The most effective way to temporarily supplement the skin’s collagen is with collagen injections, according to the Mayo Clinic. The results last only for about six months: the collagen is absorbed by the skin and slowly disappears. Possible side effects include sore red bumps on the skin, skin ulcerations, and sometimes even permanent scarring.
Collagen injections are expensive. You will also need to continue them to maintain the results. In addition, as with any procedure, the quality of the outcome depends on the skill of the technician. If you are considering collagen injections, do your research.
Numerous studies and a wealth of anecdotal information say that collagen supplements are effective. They work not only for joint and bone health but also improve the appearance of the skin.
In a 2013 study published in the journal Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, researchers in Germany asked 69 women between the ages of 35 and 55 to take a collagen supplement with 2.5 or 5 grams of collagen or a placebo. At the eight-week check-in, the groups taking collagen saw a significant improvement in their skin’s elasticity compared to the placebo group.
Not all supplements are created equal.
In its native state, the collagen molecule is too large to be absorbed effectively by the intestine. In fact, collagen is often referred to as a “super molecule” because it is so large. Detractors of collagen supplements maintain that taking a collagen supplement is no more effective than eating meat.
To address this, the Japanese invented and patented the technology known as hydrolysis. This technology breaks down the collagen molecule into tiny molecules, known as hydrolyzed collagen or collagen peptides. The hydrolysis process means that the collagen peptides can be readily absorbed through the intestine and then into the bloodstream.
You may have heard a lot about collagen peptides lately. They come in either capsule or powder form. The powder form is very convenient as it can be stirred into coffee or smoothies in the morning. It has almost no taste and when the peptide is stirred into a glass of water, the water turns clear.
If you plan to take a collagen supplement, make sure it is a collagen peptide. You will also want to buy from a respected manufacturer. If the supplement is not a collagen peptide (hydrolyzed), the body will eliminate it during the digestion process.
A good place to start to research on collagen supplements is consumerlab.com (CL). It has been reporting for over 20 years and have an impressive advisory board. CL’s objective is to identify the best supplements through independent testing. Consumer Lab has exposed companies whose products do not contain the ingredients they advertise. For a small amount every month, you can join the site and access their information.
And before we finish with supplements, what about collagen capsules?
If you search for collagen peptides you’ll mostly find powders, such as the one mentioned above. That’s because, while capsules may be more convenient to take, you would need to take many of them many times a day to get the same dosage as you do with the powder. The unit cost of capsules is also much higher than that of the powders.
Research suggests that Vitamin C plays an important role in protecting the skin and creating collagen. Since our bodies cannot make Vitamin C, it is very important that we get it from our diet. A combination of nutritional supplements and topical serums may be the answer for your skin.
Consumer Lab can help you find some very good Vitamin C supplements your body will easily and quickly absorb. It is a good idea to consult a naturopath (many health food shops and emporiums have naturopaths on staff) to determine the best dosage for you. The suggested dose on the back of the bottle may not be enough if you are using Vitamin C to boost your collagen levels.
One highly touted supplement is BioCgel by Natural Factors. Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) can be hard to absorb because of its effect on the stomach. In nature, Vitamin C is always found in natural complexes with flavonoids and other beneficial antioxidants. BioCgel gives you a high absorption Vitamin C that is easy on the stomach. It also contains a full-spectrum blend of antioxidants from berries and other fruit. Find it on Amazon.
Vitamin C serums work by irritating the skin through their acidity. When this happens, the skin is triggered to heal itself by sloughing away dead cells from the skin’s surface, leaving it brighter and smoother. When skin heals itself, it accelerates the production of collagen and elastin.
Pay attention when you are choosing a Vitamin C serum, though. Some can be too irritating for sensitive skin. Others mostly contain other ingredients and not much Vitamin C. Read the labels carefully. You could be paying a very hefty price for a serum that will not have the desired benefit of Vitamin C.
Tips for choosing a Vitamin C serum
Choose a serum in a dark colored or opaque bottle. Vitamin C serums (just like an apple slice) will brown over time, meaning they are not stable for extended periods. A colored bottle helps to prevent light from making the product unstable. Serum in a dark colored or opaque bottle will last much longer than in a clear bottle. In fact, if the serum is sold in a clear bottle, do not buy it.
Choose a serum that is boosted by other antioxidants. The best serums combine vitamin C with vitamin E and ferulic acid, two antioxidants that, according to research, boost vitamin C’s power eight-fold.
Also, choose a serum that has L-ascorbic acid as one of its main ingredients. L-ascorbic acid is another name for ascorbic acid or ascorbate and distinguishes it from D-ascorbic acid, which is synthetic. Don’t pay for a Vitamin C serum where ascorbic acid is not high on the list of ingredients (many of these serums are wildly expensive.)
Follow the instructions on the bottle and don’t try to speed up the process. Don’t forget, C serums work by irritating the skin so that your collagen defenses spring into action. If you try to overdo it, you may not like the look of your red and irritated skin and you may give up at that point.One serum that satisfies all of these requirements is SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic. It contains 15% L-ascorbic acid so tread lightly and follow the directions. It’s mentioned in just about all of the best Vitamin C serums lists online. Find it on Amazon.
Hyaluronic acid is found in foods rich in amino acids, such as beans, root vegetables, and soy. Adding hyaluronic acid to your diet through food can help boost collagen levels. Hyaluronic acid is also available as a supplement. However, as with collagen, it is not particularly effective applied to the skin since the molecules are too big to penetrate the skin’s lower levels.
But because hyaluronic acid happens to be a humectant, like glycerin, it draws moisture to the skin. So, from that perspective, applying a hyaluronic acid to your face can help moisturize your skin, even though it will not help boost the production of collagen.
Collagen in your diet
A collagen-rich diet is essentially the healthy diet we’ve heard about all these years: fruits, vegetables, protein, and grains. The only exception may be the addition of bone broth.
Collagen-rich foods include wild salmon, leafy greens, citrus fruits, tomatoes, berries, eggs, pumpkin seeds, avocados and garlic. They are relatively easy to incorporate into a daily meal plan.
Bone broth has been garnering attention lately for its purported ability to improve collagen levels. It is made from animal bones and connective tissue—typically cattle, chicken, or fish—that have been boiled into a broth. Its earliest version dates back over 2,500 years.
Is it stock or bone broth?
There are two main differences between bone broth and traditional broth or stock: simmering time and the part of the animal it’s made from (bones or flesh).
Regular broth and stock are simmered for a shorter period of time than bone broth. The expedited cooking process reduces the amount of beneficial gelatin that’s extracted from the bones. This limits its ability to support the immune and digestive systems. It also greatly reduces the amount of collagen available.
Make your own
If you want to make your own bone broth, we found this simple recipe at Wellness Mama. The beauty of making your own is that you’ll have more control over the source of your bones. You can also add your favorite veggies to make it a base for soups, stews and vegetables.
Bone broth ingredients
• 2 pounds (or more) of bones from a healthy source
• 2 chicken feet for extra gelatin (optional)
• 1 gallon of water
• 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
• 1 onion
• 2 carrots
• 2 stalks of celery
Optional: 1 bunch of parsley, 1 tablespoon or more of sea salt, 1 teaspoon peppercorns, additional herbs or spices to taste. I also add 2 cloves of garlic for the last 30 minutes of cooking.
How to prepare
The first step in preparing to make broth is to gather high quality bones. Get them from a butcher you trust or save them when you cook. You can make bone broth in any amount; just multiply or divide the recipe up or down. If you are using raw bones, especially beef bones, it improves the flavor to roast them in the oven first. Place them in a roasting pan and roast for 30 minutes at 350°F.
- Place the bones in a large stock pot (make sure it’s big enough to accommodate the amount of water you are going to use).
- Pour cool filtered water over the bones and add the vinegar. Let sit for 20-30 minutes in the cool water. The acid helps make the nutrients in the bones more available.
- Rough chop and add the vegetables (except the parsley and garlic, if using) to the pot. Add any salt, pepper, spices, or herbs, if using.
- Now, bring the broth to a boil. Once it has reached a vigorous boil, reduce to a simmer and simmer until done.
- Suggested simmering times are:
• Beef broth/stock: 48 hours
• Chicken or poultry broth/stock: 24 hours
• Fish broth: 8 hours
- During the last 30 minutes, add the garlic and parsley, if using.
- Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Strain using a fine metal strainer to remove all the bits of bone and vegetable.
- When cool enough, store in a gallon size glass jar in the fridge for up to 5 days, or freeze for later use.
During the first few hours of simmering, you’ll need to remove the impurities that float to the surface. A frothy/foamy layer will form and it can be easily scooped off with a big spoon. Throw this part away. Check it every 20 minutes for the first 2 hours to remove this. Grass-fed and healthy animals will produce much less of this than conventional animals.
Click here to read the full bone broth commentary by author and Wellness Mama founder, Katie Wells.
Since we may not have the time (or desire) to boil bones for hours, we found Ancient Nutrition bone broth. It’s an easy way to add 20 grams of healthy protein to our daily diet. Some people dissolve the powder in hot water to make a cup of broth. Others put it in coffee, even smoothies. Find it on Amazon.
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