Collagen – a buzz word in the skincare and wellness sector, but what exactly is it and is it something we need to supplement our bodies with? This blog looks at why collagen is so important when it comes to skin, how our bodies manufacture it and how our collagen levels change as we age. We also delve into oral and topical applications of manufactured collagen to see what all the hype is about.

What is collagen?

The word itself is derived from the Greek word kola, which translates to ‘glue’. According to Yale University “collagen refers to a family of proteins that are the primary structural component of connective tissues, such as skin and cartilage.” Collagen is the building blocks for bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

No wonder the wise Greeks called it glue, it really is the glue that keeps everything stuck together. In fact, collagen makes up to one-third of all the protein found in humans, and amazingly enough 28 different types can be found within us!


How is collagen made?

Collagen is naturally produced by the body – manufactured from protein sourced from our diet and the foods we consume. Particularly protein rich foods include eggs; poultry; dairy; legumes; nuts and whole grains. Protein is also readily available to be consumed in a concentrated powder form. Once the body sources the protein it needs, it is broken down into amino acids - the building blocks for collagen production.

Does collagen production alter over time?

Unfortunately, yes - collagen production decreases or slows down with age, starting in our mid twenties. A visible sign of this decrease can be observed by looking at the largest organ in our body, our skin! 

As we age, our skin becomes less firm and supple, wrinkles appear - this is largely due to a reduction in collagen production. A decrease in the amount of collagen our bodies produce can also be a result of smoking, poor diet, and exposure to ultraviolet radiation or more specifically UVA rays. UVA rays activate an enzyme in our skin called matrix metallopeptidases, in non-scientific terms this enzyme eats the collagen up.


Collagen as a supplement

Non-human collagen supplements are highly marketed, available, and manufactured from one of three main sources – all of which are animal-derived. Currently there is no vegan or plant-based alternative as collagen is only found in animals.

1. Marine collagen (Fish)
2. Bovine collagen (Cows)
3. Porcine collagen (Pigs)

Marine Collagen is classified as a Type I collagen – which is the most abundant collagen found in the human body. Type I is readily featured in the beauty industry as it is naturally found in the skin, hair, and nails. Many collagen supplements are highly processed, the structure of the collagen is essentially destroyed to make peptides – short chain amino acids. The product resulting from this process is called hydrolyzed collagen. Hydrolyzed collagen is water soluble which means it is easier to format into a topical lotion, or to dry and put into a powder or tablet.

On the flip side, products containing collagen may list ‘soluble’ collagen on their ingredient list - this simply means that it is non-hydrolyzed - kept in its whole or most pure form and not broken down into smaller peptides. Although some manufacturers of collagen supplements make claims surrounding the benefits to skin, whilst supplements have been found to improve skin health there are limited studies to support these claims.


Does topically applied collagen help?

Currently, there is little or no scientific evidence to prove that applying collagen topically helps with collagen production or any real scientific benefit for hair, nails, or skin. However, there is some evidence that it can be beneficial when treating wounds.

Let’s bring in a little chemistry - the 500 Dalton rule. The rule states that when it comes to successful skin penetration, a molecule must be under 500 Daltons to allow proper skin absorption. Collagen molecules can vary from 15-50,000 Daltons – meaning collagen molecules are just too large to penetrate the skin.

So, be wary of thinking topically applied collagen creams are going to work wonders – like reversing the ageing process and replacing lost collagen. Topically applied creams containing collagen will moisturise and hydrate the skin, but that’s the extent of their benefits for now.

The Take Away?

Buying skincare with collagen or taking a collagen supplement is not going to do you any harm, but it is just a case of setting realistic expectations, and understanding there isn’t a lot of science to back some of the claims made.

You’ve probably heard this all before, but ultimately no supplement or topical treatment can benefit a poor diet and lifestyle. A study from Tufts University in 2019 states that “adequate intake of certain nutrients is associated with a reduction in all-cause mortality when the nutrient source is foods, but not supplements. There was no association between dietary supplement use and a lower risk of death.”

Ultimately, do what's right for you, eat and live well. Your skin and your body will thank you for it.