Can eating collagen stop skin ageing?

Collagen was once best known as an injection to plump lips and soften lines. But the beauty industry has found a tastier, less painful way for you to get your fill. Collagen powders, bars, chocolates, chews and liquid and capsule supplements are some of the products claiming to support your body’s collagen levels and keep signs of skin ageing at bay.

If you’re tempted by this seemingly tasty fountain of youth, let’s ask the question… what on earth is collagen and does eating or drinking it really keep your skin looking younger for longer?

Why are people eating and drinking collagen?

Collagen is the glue that holds your body together. We have lots of types of collagen, but most is Type-I, which is the main structural protein in skin.

Type-I collagen gives skin shape and strength, but starts to break down faster than your body can replace it in your mid-20s. At this age, skin begins to lose thickness and strength at a rate of around 1.5 percent a year, according to consultant dermatologist and author of The Skincare Bible Dr Anjali Mahto.

Collagen has long been a popular ingredient in skin creams, but there is a question over whether it can penetrate the epidermis (outer layer of skin). Injecting collagen has fallen out of favour, as it doesn’t last as long as some alternative fillers and has been associated with complications such as allergic reactions.

An increasing number edible collagen-containing products are appearing in the shops. Flavourings and sweeteners are often added to make them more appealing. You can also buy unflavoured collagen powder to stir into juices, smoothies, soups and even coffee.

What types of collagen are we eating?

There are two kinds of collagen used in edible products: whole and hydrolysed.

Whole collagen is broken down into peptides (amino acids, the building blocks of protein) during digestion in the gut, “just like any other protein”, says dietitian Sophie Medlin. It’s claimed these peptides make their way to your skin dermis (an inner layer of skin, containing blood vessels, nerves and hair follicles), replacing or topping up your collagen levels.

Hydrolysed collagen is already broken down into peptides before it is consumed. One theory is this fools your brain into thinking that damage has been done to your collagen, spurring your body to produce more.

Collagen is found in and therefore often derived from animals such as cows, pigs and fish or other seafood. Products containing collagen are not vegetarian and may be unsuitable for people with other dietary requirements.

Does eating or drinking collagen work?

Some studies support the effectiveness of eating hydrolysed collagen on improving hallmarks of skin ageing by inducing collagen production, improving skin elasticity and increasing hydration and collagen density in the skin.

Some users, however, told us it is difficult to tell if it is 'working'.

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There are also questions over whether collagen can survive the digestion process.

“Treat these arguments with caution”. says Dr Mahto. “Evidence for the effectiveness of eating collagen on human skin outside of a lab is scarce, with little solid proof it will survive digestion, travel into the blood stream and make it to your skin. Most of the human studies have been carried out by the people selling the products, so there could be bias.”

While there is research to suggest collagen supplements could benefit your skin, more studies are needed to get a definitive answer. Dr Mahto doesn’t believe collagen supplements will be harmful, especially in the doses available.

Some nutritionists are positive about collagen supplements though. “Normally as a nutritionist I would recommend food first over supplements, but collagen is an exception because most of the studies that suggest a benefit have been done with supplements rather than food”, says nutritionist Fiona Hunter. She adds that supplements might “offer collagen in a form that is easier for the body to absorb.”

Though a healthy lifestyle cannot prevent collagen loss, unhealthy lifestyle practices are proven factors in premature skin ageing. Dr Mahto recommends eating a varied, balanced diet with a limited amount of sugar, which has been linked to premature skin ageing. She also recommends taking regular exercise, wearing sun cream and not smoking. “There is no such thing as a skin superfood; ageing is a life-long process and your efforts to be healthy, inside and out, should be too”, she says.