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For perfect skin, should you turn to collagen replacement?

Collagen-containing products have grown popular, but can they deliver the benefits they promote, like more youthful skin?
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

If you’re interested in beauty and wellness, you’ve probably noticed one ingredient has recently earned “It” status, cropping up everywhere from supplements to skin creams: collagen.

“Collagen is definitely hot right now,” said NBC News Health Editor Madelyn Fernstrom of the supportive compound, which naturally occurs throughout the body to hold things together and keep skin firm.

That’s because “with age and sun exposure, collagen gets damaged,” said Dr. Hayley Goldbach, a resident physician at UCLA dermatology. “To add insult to injury, we actually start producing less collagen starting in our 20s and 30s.”

When collagen stores are depleted, skin loses some plumpness and structure, and fine lines and wrinkles appear, Goldbach explained. “It makes total sense that people would think about how they can replace collagen and get it back.”

That desire is where the products — including collagen-containing pills, powders, juices and fruit chews, plus topical beauty creams — come in. The fact that actress Jennifer Aniston said she adds a collagen-containing powder derived from cow hide to her morning smoothie has likely upped their profile.

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But while collagen-containing products have grown popular, there’s little evidence to show they can deliver the benefits they promote, like more youthful and smooth skin, and healthier hair, joints and bones.

“You can help slow the rate that your body will naturally lose collagen by not smoking and staying out of the sun,” Fernstrom said. “But trying to replenish it when it’s gone by using a supplement or a skin care product isn’t going to help.”

There are, however, a few caveats to that takeaway message, as well as some things that you can do to improve your skin quality, doctors said.

Efforts to replace collagen:

There are three techniques people try, Goldbach said:

  1. Topically apply it to the skin.
  2. Ingest it.
  3. Inject it.

When it comes to the topical creams, Goldbach said buyers should save their money. “There are a lot of interesting creams out there, but the science for this is not strong.”

Dr. Eva Hurst, an associate professor of dermatology at Washington University in St. Louis, agreed.

“The collagen molecule is too big to penetrate the outer layer of skin,” she said, adding that even broken down collagen molecules, called hydrolyzed collagen, have no scientific evidence behind them. The only benefit of a collagen-rich cream? “It might give you a little bit more of a glow because it’s a good moisturizer,” Hurst said.

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woman in her 40s applying wrinkle cream

In terms of ingesting collagen, there is some evidence that suggests it may come with some benefit, Hurst said, pointing to a small study from 2014 that found women who took animal-derived collagen supplements once a day for eight weeks had slightly higher levels of a pre-collagen building block in the skin, and slightly smoother skin around the eyes.

“However, as a dermatologist, it doesn’t make total sense to me that you could eat something, which would then be digested and broken down into tiny protein building blocks, which could then circulate through your body and make it to your skin,” Hurst said. “I’m not going to rush out and buy these collagen products and consume them myself.”

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Research related to how collagen supplements can improve joint and bone health is also spotty, Fernstrom said.

“Taking a collagen supplement or sipping it in juice is unlikely to have any biologic activity,” she said, adding buyers should be aware these dietary supplements, which often contain animal by-products like chicken feet and cow hide, are not regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, or approved for efficacy or safety.

Finally, while collagen used to be injected as a filler, Goldbach said it has been almost fully replaced by hyaluronic acid fillers, which are less allergenic and last much longer— four to ten months, compared to the one to three months that collagen fillers lasted.

What to do instead:

So you can’t boost collagen with collagen. “But the good news is that we have fantastic tried and true, scientifically backed methods for stimulating collagen,” Goldbach said.

To protect collagen stores, doctors recommend you use a broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher sunscreen every day, not smoke and eat a healthy, protein- and anti-oxidant-rich diet.

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Additionally, you can use a skin cream that includes prescription strength retinoic acid (like Retin-A) or over-the-counter retinol, which “help promote collagen growth and minimize oil production,” Hurst said. She also recommended a secondary vitamin C-containing cream, which can provide some additional anti-oxidant benefit.

Finally, hyaluronic acid fillers and light- and energy-based treatments, which use various means to boost collagen production, will also improve skin appearance.

“These are all going to be better solutions,” Hurst said, “that have more science behind them than collagen supplements or creams do.”