Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely seen, heard of, or even tried collagen peptides. The ingredient is popping up in powders and drinks left and right, touted as a way to improve the look and feel of your skin, hair, and nails — the ultimate beauty supplement. But while collagen is nothing new, this exact delivery method is, and there’s lots of confusion and misinformation out there.
So we asked top dermatologists to explain what collagen peptides are, and to weigh in on the skin benefits you can really expect.
So, what is collagen anyway — and what does it do for the skin?
Let’s start with the basics. “Collagen is a protein that makes up 70 to 80 percent of the skin,” says Sapna Palep, M.D., a dermatologist at Spring Street Dermatology in New York City. “It plays an important role in strengthening the skin, and also helps with elasticity and hydration.” In other words, it’s crucial for maintaining strong, firm, healthy, youthful skin.
The problem: As we age, collagen production slows down, and by the time you reach your 30s, you’re losing it at a rate of one to two percent per year, explains New York City dermatologist Marnie Nussbaum, M.D. (So yes, the earlier you can start thinking about protecting your collagen as a preventative measure, the better.)
And that’s just what’s happening innately. A whole host of other, external factors — exposure to sun, smoking, stress — can contribute to the increased and faster breakdown of collagen, too. And less collagen equals more wrinkles, dryness, and sagging.
How do collagen supplements — and collagen peptides — work?
That’s why you may have seen topical skincare products containing collagen, which are thought to replenish your body’s natural supply. Most of these use hydrolyzed collagen, collagen that’s been broken down into its smaller building blocks of amino acids, explains Dr. Palep. (Collagen itself is a very large molecule that isn’t able to penetrate the skin otherwise, hence why it needs to be broken down.) But as of late, the thought has been that rather than trying to deliver it from the outside, in, an inside, out approach may be more effective. Enter ingestible collagen.
There’s no shortage of different types of collagen powder and collagen pills out there, though most brands rely on collagen peptides. Like hydrolyzed collagen, collagen peptides are simply smaller particles of the protein — short chains of amino acids — though collagen peptides are slightly larger than the hydrolyzed version and are better absorbed by the bloodstream to be dispersed throughout the body, notes Dr. Palp.
There are two different schools of thought as to how ingesting these peptides can work. One is that by introducing these amino acids to your body, it tricks it into thinking that your own collagen is breaking down, thus stimulating the production, explains Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. The second, more commonly agreed upon, method of action is that these amino acids circulate through the body and act as building blocks to produce new collagen, which can be beneficial to skin, hair, nails, and joints, he says.
But do collagen supplements really work?
It’s the million dollar question. Short answer: The jury is still out, but here’s what we know so far. The derms we spoke with unanimously agree that more research needs to be done in order to determine if ingestible collagen is effective and to what degree. While some small studies have shown that it can improve skin hydration and elasticity, these were conducted among small groups and for only four to 12 weeks, says Dr. Nussbaum, who adds that it takes at least three months to truly start to build collagen. Our derms were also in agreement that they’d like to see larger, peer-reviewed clinical studies to help further understand the benefits of ingestible collagen.
Still, that doesn’t mean you should rule these out. “While we don’t yet have enough data, I am optimistic about collagen supplements,” says Dr. Zeichner.
But there are other things you should be doing to protect your natural collagen, too.
At the end of the day, your best MO for healthy, youthful skin is first and foremost a smart topical routine, relying on cornerstones such as sunscreen — to protect the collagen you already have — and retinol, which has been scientifically proven over and over to promote collagen production, says Dr. Palep.
And keep in mind that you can also get collagen from foods; high-protein foods such as bone broth, chicken, fish are good options. But don’t sleep on fruits and veggies, since many of these are rich in vitamins and minerals that can help boost collagen production, too.
How should you go about picking a collagen supplement?
That being said, if you want to incorporate a collagen powder into your routine, go for it. Like any other supplement, you’ll want to check with your doctor first, but as long as you’re healthy, the derms we spoke with all agreed that there’s no downside to using a collagen supplement. If nothing else, you’re getting a good dose of protein, and collagen also has antioxidant properties that can benefit your entire body, including your skin, points out Dr. Paelp. It can also help promote muscle recovery and healthy joints, a win for athletes or fitness enthusiasts.
There are a few important things to keep in mind when choosing a product. Not all collagen is created equal; the majority is animal-derived, either bovine (from cows) or marine (from fish), says Dr. Nussbaum. That means that if you’re following a vegan diet, you’ll want to make sure you’re choosing an option that uses plant-based collagen.
Look for products that use Type 1 and Type 3 collagen, too. There are many different types of collagen, but these types in particular support skin, hair, nails, muscles, and joints, points out Dr. Nusbaum. One to try: Neocell Super Collagen Powder ($17; neocell.com), which comes in not only an unflavored version, but also delish french vanilla and berry lemon flavors, we should add. And while the studies aren’t a fail-safe, it’s not a bad idea to pick products from brands that have at least done clinical studies, adds Dr. Zeichner.
The bottom line: Collagen peptides (and collagen supplements in general) aren’t a direct replacement for your topical product protocol, but they can be a piece of the skincare puzzle and a good add-on to the smart skincare moves you’re already making.