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The hype is strong with you, collagen supplements, but are you legit?
Short answer: pure collagen itself will always be a vital constituent of skin and connective tissue, but the supplement brand matters.
It’s healthy to be weary about collagen, or anything else that pops its head out of the swirling maelstrom of cosmetic industry buzzwords.
In this case, however, the supporting science is there.
Moreover, even a product marketed as the best collagen supplement for sagging skin may provide deeper benefits in the area of joint health, muscle growth, and more.
Before we get into the evidence, a quick review of collagen itself.
What Is Collagen, Anyway?
Often referred to as a “structural protein,” collagen is essentially a building block for several kinds of tissues, including skin, bone, muscle, and connective tissues like ligaments and cartilage.
In the case of the skin, collagen lives in what’s called the “extracellular matrix,” which is the space outside of the cell bodies.
This is the space where the skin retains water, which contributes to its smoothness, firmness, and youthful appearance.
Given this protein’s importance, it makes sense that the human body has its own collagen production capability—which is the first good sign for supplement safety and tolerability.
As we age into our late 20s and early 30s, natural collagen production begins to suffer, which is when dry, wrinkled skin and other negative effects begin to make an appearance.
The good news is that we can restore our production with collagen supplements as well as food.
Minimally processed meat is often a good source of whole collagen, considering animals have connective tissue as well (even with the skin removed).
We can also piece together the amino acids required for collagen synthesis from other protein-rich foods, whether or not they contain whole collagen.
Do Collagen Supplement Claims Hold Up In Research?
Most anti-aging collagen supplements or products in the beauty and cosmetics industry throw out a standard set of claims when promoting the best collagen supplements for sagging skin, namely, that they reduce wrinkles and hydrate the skin, restoring its youthful appearance.
In the less noisy, but slowly gaining fitness supplement application, collagen is said to even assist with muscle growth, joint pain, and weight loss.
This spread sounds a bit lofty when attached to just one supplement, but indeed, every one of these benefits has been verified by multiple concurring studies.
To reiterate, it’s very important to avoid the one-dimensional thought process of “more collagen equals healthier skin,” because there are several supporting circumstances that need to be in place for collagen to do its thing.
We already mentioned pro-collagen nutrients like vitamin C, but if you’re looking to improve skin health or joint discomfort, it’s very important to hydrate and stay active as well.
Disclaimers aside, here’s a closer look at the supporting evidence, including proposed mechanisms by which collagen supplements may support skin health.
First and Foremost, It Works
This randomized, placebo-controlled trial from Dermatest GmbH in Munster, Germany found that a collagen-infused nutraceutical beverage called ELASTEN improved several dynamics of skin health, including hydration, elasticity, roughness, and density.
According to the authors of the 72-participant study (36 experimental, 36 placebo), the difference in skin health between the two groups was “statistically significant for all test parameters.”
In addition to confirming the ability of collagen-based cosmetics and/or supplements to boost these key indicators of skin health, the authors also made an important observation about the ingestion method.
Where topical products often struggle to reach the dermis and other deeper layers of the skin, this oral supplement was able to do so, allowing for sustainable, regenerative benefits.
Peptides and Skin Damage
Peptides are chains of amino acids that your body makes to form different proteins; many collagen supplements provide these in the sequence required for collagen so your body can readily develop them into the protein.
Researchers from this study by agroindustrial company Uni-Collagen S.A de .V in Hidalgo, Mexico found that consistent treatment with collagen peptides prevented “MMP-induced damage to the extracellular matrix.”
MMP stands for matrix metalloproteinase, which is an enzyme that is encouraged by the aging process to invade the space where the collagen lives and break it down.
In other words, aging is not only associated with a dip in collagen production, but an abundance of this anti-collagen enzyme that further damages the skin, and collagen peptide supplementation can address both of these problems for compounding benefits.
Antioxidant Power and Metabolism
Finally, collagen-based supplements and cosmetics can produce another “upward spiral” effect when it comes to the body’s collagen production, as several studies such as this one from Life Research in Sandy, UT confirm.
Per the study, collagen “binds receptors in fibroblasts located in the dermal layers to stimulate the synthesis of collagen and elastin as well as hyaluronic acid.”
In other words, supplementing with collagen is like giving the man a fish and teaching him how to fish at the same time (why the two are assumed mutually exclusive, we’ll never know), because it supports the body’s ability to keep its own production up.
At the same time, the MMP-fighting defensive capability of collagen is allied with its antioxidant power, which helps to combat the inevitable issue of oxidative stress.
Collagen supplements have been objectively proven to support nearly all measurable aspects of skin health, including elasticity, hydration, and smoothness to name a few.
In addition to its direct role in skin integrity (as an actual building block of the tissue), collagen can fight damage caused by enzymes like matrix metalloproteinase as well as general oxidative damage.
Finally, upping your collagen intake has a self-perpetuating effect, as it increases the metabolism of collagen, hyaluronic acid, and elastin, all of which are vital for skin health.