Collagen is in your face: You have plenty and if you’re a woman you were likely told to fear losing it before you knew what it was. Seeing Goldie Hawn’s character’s doctor refuse to inject her with more in The First Wives Club is my earliest memory.
Injecting collagen is currently less popular than shooting in hyaluronic acid or Botox (Ms Hawn injected her lips with saline for the film), but collagen is still big business in other forms. You’ve probably seen ads for skin-smoothing collagen supplements. The wide variety on the market is sometimes promoted with female customer testimonials.
The collagen in supplements comes from a variety of animal and vegan sources and determining which (if any) works as promised is challenging.
I am directing this piece towards women because the anti-ageing collagen supplement business targets us. We typically have less collagen in our skin naturally. Also, while both men and women lose collagen over time, women can lose a visibly significant amount quickly during menopause because of the role oestrogen plays in our collagen development.
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland is responsible for regulating supplements under various European Directives transposed into Irish law, but the standard of proof of efficacy is not the same as that for pharmaceuticals. For the media, it is hard to honestly recommend any supplement that effectively beefs up the skin’s collagen beyond sharing the manufacturer’s own research and a still small number of independent studies involving collagen peptides that may not be in the given supplement.
Even unsponsored testimonials that a customer or journalist shares after trying one brand may be undermined by the influence of their unshared lifestyle habits and exposures. Dr Andrea Suarez, a Houston-based dermatologist who has made informational videos on these supplements as they pertain to the skin, points out that our knowledge of test subjects in collagen trials is similarly limited. We know nothing about their medical histories or their diets and lifestyle habits during these trials.
Testing any supplement for yourself takes some investment, as you may need to consume well over a month’s worth of any given product before making a fair assessment, depending on the brand’s advice.
How it works
Supplement brands may benefit unfairly from a widespread understanding that collagen in your skin makes you look younger coupled with misunderstanding of how the body processes the collagen we swallow.
“We can consume collagen in our diet, but this doesn’t necessarily become collagen in our body,” says Maria Lucey, a registered dietitian based in Dublin. “The body recognises collagen supplements as protein, and this is then broken down into amino acids that join the pool of the amino acids we get from food.
“The body draws from this pool for whatever it needs protein for most, which may not be collagen.” The supplements have no agency, they can’t ‘tell’ your body they’re earmarked for the skin.
Perhaps more importantly, protein is just one co-factor required for the skin’s collagen development. The skin’s natural collagen synthesis is a complex operation that require resources and behaviours that no supplement can cover.
There are many foods that can help your body make better quality collagen (quality does decline with age) and to repair or replace damaged collagen. Cooking with your collagen in mind can result in a fabulous, varied diet that benefits multiple bodily systems, not just the skin.
As mentioned, the body processes collagen supplements into amino acids and it is true that protein helps with making your own collagen. Ideal sources include lean meat, fish, and legumes. Egg whites are high in the amino acid lysine, which is important for collagen synthesis.
Healthy skin cells are coated with a protective fatty membrane. Omega 3 fatty acids support this and help prevent collagen destruction. If you don’t like fish, you can get these from walnuts and chia and flaxseeds.
Dark green, leafy vegetables are an important group, their vitamin C is vital to collagen synthesis and important for good overall health. These vegetables are also high in folic acid which is important to healthy skin cell division and proliferation. Folic acid is a great support to your genetically imputed rate of skin healing and repair. Red fruits and vegetables are packed with lycopene, which better equips your skin to handle environmental stressors, further protecting your collagen. Harley Street dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting recommends a tomato (as well as an unpeeled apple) a day for glowing skin.
Orange vegetables have Vitamin A, which helps restore and repair damaged collagen.
It is better to get your Vitamin A from food than supplements because this is a fat-soluble vitamin that can accumulate in the body to toxic levels if you keep taking it without a doctor’s supervision. Orange foods are also rich in carotenoids, which help to protect collagen from the stress of your daily grind.
Vitamin C-rich fruits are delicious — berries, kiwi, citrus fruits — and so good for collagen production. Soy is packed with isoflavones and has genistein, which helps inhibit the collagen-destroying enzyme family matrix metalloproteinases, which we produce in response to UV radiation and oxidative stress. Garlic is a great natural source of sulphur, which is very helpful in healthy collagen production. Garlic is also high in taurine and lipoic acid, which support collagen repair. Combining Vitamin C, garlic, protein, and much more, hummus and carrot batons make a pretty skin-perfect snack.
Sugar and alcohol vs collagen
Collagen provides skin with most of its structural integrity and makes up a whopping 75% of its dry weight.
Age-related decline contributes to its breakdown but there are many lifestyle factors and exposures that speed this up, including UV radiation, stress, smoking, pollution, lack of sleep, and high sugar and alcohol consumption. Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) destroy collagen and are most often associated with a diet high in processed, sugary foods. Red meat has higher levels of AGEs than white meat, as does smoked or fried meat. Food preparation plays a role. For example, fried chips are higher in AGEs than a baked potato. Low heat and slow cooking are generally better for your face.
“It’s not that we need to cut out [less nutritious] foods completely, but their presence in the diet can mean nutritional needs are not met elsewhere,” says Maria Lucey.
“For example, we know that 80% of Irish adults don’t meet their daily fibre needs and around 47% of Irish women don’t meet their iron needs. Displacement is an issue.”
Alcohol dehydrates the skin and weakens its natural antioxidant defence system. Alcohol causes skin inflammation, releasing a histamine that dilates the blood’s capillaries. The redness this causes can become permanent over time and the inflammation impedes collagen repair.
Wine and beer contain sulphites that can cause facial puffiness. Someone always mentions the polyphenol resveratrol in red wine whenever I talk about alcohol and the skin. Resveratrol is great but red wine is a dehydrating vasodilator, so it’s probably better for the skin to moderate your consumption and get most of your resveratrol directly from red or purple grapes.
Collagen and oestrogen
Oestrogen is important to collagen synthesis and menopause can make a significant difference to women’s skin in a brief period. The menopause is a tiring and potentially vulnerable time, taki