When we talk about skin aging, we’re really talking about collagen—or, more accurately, a lack thereof. Pretty much every desirable characteristic of healthy skin comes down to collagen content: The more of this protein we have, the firmer, plumper, and juicier our skin looks.
But as we age—and particularly as we smoke, drink, and get UV exposure while aging—our collagen production drops off, and the collagen we already have starts to break down. This causes wrinkles, as well as a loss of plumpness or fullness. Addressing these symptoms means addressing collagen loss in one way or another.
To that end, there is a slew of collagen-rich products on the market, most of which fall into one of two categories: moisturizers (particularly creams) and oral supplements. Trendy supplements dominate today’s market, while collagen creams are a bit more old school.
But regardless of the form the product takes, the manufacturers claim that giving your skin more collagen to work with will help it replenish what it’s lost, improving everything from hydration and elasticity to fine lines and wrinkles. However, experts remain skeptical.
Can a moisturizer or supplement really help your skin cells produce more collagen?
The short answer is no. The long answer is maybe, but still probably no. To understand why, it helps to know a little bit more about collagen and how it’s made.
Collagen is the main structural protein in human connective tissues, most notably our skin. The vast majority of the collagen in our skin is found in the dermis (the second layer of skin that sits beneath the epidermis), where it’s also produced. Skin cells in the dermis (fibroblasts) synthesize the collagen that holds the rest of the dermis together, giving our skin its underlying structure.
As for the structure of collagen itself, it’s kind of like a braid or rope: Individual amino acids link up to form long chains, which bundle together to form thicker strands. Those strands then twist and coil around each other to form triple helices. Finally, those helices connect end to end and stack on top of each other to form clusters called fibrils. In other words, collagen is a pretty complex and massive molecule.
That’s why creams formulated with pure collagen simply can’t live up to their lofty claims— those huge braided molecules are just too big to penetrate your epidermis, and definitely too big to get down into the dermis where the real magic happens. So even though collagen creams feel nice and may help moisturize the skin, that’s about it in terms of benefits.
“Your skin might feel softer and smoother [or] your wrinkles might look less prominent, but that’s all an illusion—that’s just what’s happening on the surface,” Suzan Obagi, M.D., UPMC dermatologist and American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery president, tells SELF. “It’s not actually building collagen.”
To get around the sizing issue, most lotions, potions, and pills touting collagen as a main ingredient these days actually contain hydrolyzed collagen, or collagen peptides. (Fun fact: Gelatin is a form of hydrolyzed collagen!)
Essentially, hydrolyzed collagen has been broken down into smaller chains of amino acids called peptides, John Zampella, M.D., NYU Langone dermatologist, tells SELF. Some researchers and dermatologists believe these peptides “can traverse the skin cells in your outer skin barrier and make their way into the dermis, essentially [providing] the building blocks for fibroblasts to make new collagen,” Dr. Zampella says.
And it does seem plausible that applying a cream chock-full of these collagen precursors could help increase collagen production down the line, provided that those peptides do eventually make their way into the dermis. But this theory hasn’t really been tested, let alone experimentally proven.
Surprisingly enough, there is some research to suggest that oral collagen may improve skin appearance. According to at least three recent studies, taking collagen peptides orally is associated with improved skin hydration, elasticity, and wrinkling, as compared to placebos. However, these studies come with a few asterisks: They’re on the small side (around 60 participants) and were short-term (4 to 12 weeks), and they focused solely on women over 35.
The observed results could be due to increased collagen production, or some other mechanism. But either way, they’re mild at best and we have other options (such as retinoids) that are more likely to provide benefits. Plus, it’s important to remember that supplements aren’t FDA-regulated or tested the way drugs are, so you don’t necessarily know what you’re getting or how well it may work.
So should I just throw out all my collagen products?
A little extra collagen probably won’t make a huge difference in your skin, but it’s also pretty harmless. So if you love your collagen peptide moisturizer or enjoy the perceived benefits of supplements and aren’t experiencing any negative side effects, by all means, keep it up. But if you really want to minimize collagen loss, there are more effective options out there, starting with—what else?—sunscreen.
“The number one thing is sunscreen—you obviously want to prevent your [existing] collagen from being broken down,” says Dr. Zampella. “Number two is a retinoid, because that’s the thing we have the most evidence for to build collagen.”
Dr. Obagi agrees, especially when you consider the cost of overpriced collagen products: “You can buy products that cost hundreds of dollars—if not a thousand or two—and I don’t know that [they’re] going to be better than a prescription retinoic acid. In fact, I can pretty much guess that [they won’t].”
If you’re wondering about the best way to manage wrinkles or any other side effects of collagen loss, talk to a dermatologist to get recommendations for your specific skin.