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How does collagen work, anyway?

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This post is part of a series in which we break down buzzy skincare ingredients. Check out the rest of the posts in this series:

From your smoothie menu to your favorite face mask, collagen is #1 on our list of 2018’s buzziest skincare ingredients.

For skin, this ingredient promises plumper, fuller texture and fewer wrinkles. Its whole-body benefits are touted too, with promises of healthier joints and happier digestion.

But can collagen really do all that?

In this post, we’ll explore collagen’s role in our body, discuss which forms of collagen are (and aren’t) helpful for skin, and list some of our favorite collagen-packed products.

So what is it?

Collagen refers to a family proteins that provide structural support in our body.

So far, researchers have identified 28 types of collagen. Together, they form connective tissues like ligaments, tendons, cartilage, blood vessels, and skin. Collagen is the main component in our extracellular matrix, the network that supports our cells.

skeleton with fingers on chin

With so many responsibilities, its unsurprising that collagen is actually the most abundant protein in the body. The most common types of collagen are Type I and Type III.

Collagen is a major player in skin health, too. It helps skin heal and repair and maintain a strong barrier. Plus, the more collagen we have, the less wrinkled our skin looks.

We lose about 1% of our collagen every year, so it’s no wonder that collagen-packed products are appealing for skincare junkies.

And how does it actually work?

Let’s start with the bad news: topical collagen just doesn’t work.

Bummer, right?

See, to positively impact the amount of collagen in our skin, our body has to build and deposit collagen fibers from the inside out.

folded wrinkly handsCollagen itself is too large a molecule to permeate our skin, making slapping it on from the outside in kind of a waste of time. Sure, those collagen-infused masks might give you a momentary glow (probably thanks to other helpful ingredients like hyaluronic acid and Vitamin C), but they won’t actually change levels of collagen in your skin.             

That doesn’t mean that there’s no topical solution to increase collagen. Two ingredients we’ve discussed before, retinoids and Vitamin C, are great at prompting skin to create its own collagen. Check out “How do retinol creams work, anyway?” and “How does Vitamin C work, anyway?” for our recommendations.

And, happily, supplementing with collagen internally is also a great way fuel your collagen stores.

Typically, collagen supplements aren’t vegan and are either derived from cows or fish (marine collagen). This type of collagen comes from cooking bones and joints for a long time, and has a long history of improving joint health.

There’s also an emerging body of evidence to show that it improves skin health, too. Studies show it helps skin moisture, texture, and smoothness, as well as decreasing wrinkles, and improves elasticity, too.

For most of us, collagen is most easily consumed as collagen peptides in a powder or pill. Peptides are simply the building blocks of collagen protein. When we consume them, we give our body more of these building blocks, which equals more collagen production. They stimulate collagen production by binding skin cells, as well.

red smoothie with spoonCollagen peptide powders mix easily into liquids and make a great addition to smoothies. Our favorite smoothie company, Smoothie Box, makes it simple to slip collagen into your daily routine by delivering ingredients right to your door.

So which one should I try? 

Since we know topical collagen isn’t effective, let’s focus on oral alternatives. If you’re dedicated to topical formulations or don’t eat animal foods, never fear—just remember that Vitamin C and retinoids also stimulate collagen formation.

For go-anywhere, try-in-anything collagen, Vital Proteins. You can thank Vital Proteins for bringing collagen peptides to the masses. We especially like their marine collagen packets, as some evidence suggests marine collagen may be cleaner and more effective than alternatives.

For a well-studied formulation, try Sparkle. Their orange-flavored collagen peptide supplement uses Verisol, a collagen formulation with skin-boosting benefits particularly well-backed by research, and also includes Vitamin C and Hyaluronic Acid.

Whole Foods sells as similar Collagen + C supplement  in pill form.

For a luxury alternative, try La Sirene Marine Beauty Collagen. It relies on the marine collagen we love, derived from the scales of wild Japanese fish, and comes in a convenient stick pack.

And don’t forget to fill out your anti-aging routine with Sundaily gummies! our Base Layer gummies perfectly complement that collagen supplement with the active ingredient Polypodium leucotomos, a free-radical-fighting powerhouse. The Back Up tackles visible signs of aging, like the wrinkles that come from depleted collagen stores. Start your subscription today!


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