22 September 2023
Collagen products in all its different forms and variations- are said to replenish collagen in the skin to erase wrinkles and lift up saggy skin. As one of the structural proteins in the skin, collagen plays a crucial role in maintaining its firmness and the appearance of youth. Increasing awareness that diminishing collagen levels in the skin results in the formation of wrinkles, fine lines, and sagging skin has fueled the demand for collagen replenishing therapies. Enter collagen skincare in its various forms to cater to diverse consumer preferences- creams, serums, threads, dissolvable balls, gummies….you name it, you’ve got it.
The crux of the matter is, can collagen containing skincare replenish collagen in the human skin to reduce signs of aging? Truth is, not at all, even for hydrolysed collagen peptides. So is collagen skincare useless? Not quite, collagen still has a purpose as an active ingredient in skincare; but not in the collagen boosting way that we expect it to be. All the science and evidence in this review.
Collagen are proteins that are a major contribution to the structure and form of the bones, tendons, joints, and skin1. In the skin, collagen makes up 75% of the bulk of the skin2,3. Together with other proteins such as elastin and hyaluronic acid, these trio of proteins keep the skin plump, tight and moist.
Collagen is continuously being produced by cells in our skin called fibroblasts to keep the skin plump and youthful. It is also naturally broken down by enzymes in the skin. As we get older, this balance of collagen production and loss tilts toward a net loss of collagen fibres. The estimated collagen loss is approximately 1% every year throughout adult life4. Coupled with other ageing related changes to elastin fibres and hyaluronic acid in the skin; the skin becomes thinner, less firm, less elastic and fine wrinkles appear5.
Based on this knowledge of how collagen depletion in the skin contributes to signs of aging; beauty companies have rushed to the fore by offering collagen cream, and more recently, collagen balls that claim to replenish collagen loss in the skin and counter signs of aging.
Collagen creams and collagen balls form the bulk of collagen containing skincare products. Regardless of their forms, the collagen components of these products are derived from animals including pigs, cows and marine sources6. In other words, collagen products are not vegetarian friendly.
Marine sources (e.g. fishes and jellyfishes) are favoured as collagen sources in the cosmetic industry. Compared to bovine and porcine sources of collagen, marine collagen sources have a lower risk of transmission of diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy7.
Marine animals are also an abundant source of collagen- 75% of a fish weight constitutes collagen content8. From fishes, the main sources of collagen are the skins, bones, heads, scales, fins, and entrails9.
From these animal sources, collagen is isolated by three steps: preparation, extraction, and recovery. These processes extract the collagen from the non-collagenous proteins in the animals; remove impurities; and prepare collagen in the form that is required (e.g. powder)6.
There are several types of collagen; and in the human skin, collagen type I is the dominant type10. Collagen from marine animals is abundant in this type of collagen7; making this source desirable in the cosmeceutical industry.
Jumping on the popularity of collagen skincare; are also beauty companies releasing gimmicks like collagen balls; or “needle-less” threads that they claim to restore collagen fibres in the skin; repair fine lines and lift sagging skin.
For collagen in the skin to be replaced; collagen in the skincare products needs to be absorbed and integrated into the dermis of our skin. To undo aging related signs of collagen loss in the skin such as fine wrinkles, enlarged pores and sagging as these collagen products claim; these animal sources of collagen have to be incorporated as part of the skin’s structural and support framework.
The problem with collagen in skincare lies in its large molecular size. The human skin has a barrier function; that prevents the penetration of harmful toxins and allergens. Inevitably, this barrier function of the skin also impairs the uptake of active ingredients with larger molecular weights.
Compounds, including skincare ingredients, larger than 500 dalton in molecular weight cannot penetrate the skin11. Allergens that irritate the skin; and medications applied to the skin are smaller than 500 dalton in molecular weight11.
Collagen is a large molecule; and its molecular weight ranges between 285–300 KDa12. This means that the average collagen molecule is more than 500 times larger than the maximum permissible size for drugs and active ingredients to penetrate the skin. In other words, collagen in skincare products does not get absorbed by the skin to be integrated into the dermis.
As collagen is huge molecule, skincare companies have tried to overcome this barrier of entry by breaking down collagen molecule into smaller proteins. These smaller pieces of collagen are preferred to as “hydrolysed collagen” or “collagen hydrolysate”.
Are these hydrolysed collagen molecules able to penetrate the skin barrier? Not at all. The molecular weight of these hydrolysed collagen molecules range from 3-6kDA12, making them 5-10x larger than the largest size possible of 500 dalton for absorption into the skin.
Since collagen molecules cannot be absorbed by the human skin in the first place, does this make collagen skincare useless or a scam? Why then do some users and beauty companies claim that using collagen skincare improves their wrinkles or lifts their skin?
Collagen skincare may not translate into collagen fibres in the human skin; but it does not mean that collagen skincare useless or a scam.
On the contrary, as an active ingredient, collagen is useful as a humectant in moisturisers6. Collagen and its smaller forms, hydrolysed collagen, retain water in the skin, keeping the skin softened and moisturised6. This plumping action of collagen helps to reduce the appearance of fine lines and improve its firmness temporarily. Collagen also has film-forming benefits which reduce transepidermal water loss; and reduce mechanical stresses to improve the appearance of the skin13-15.
The humectant and film forming effects of collagen skincare also have the effects of making the skin feel smoother; and reducing fine lines. When used in skincare and hair care, collagen gives a temporary improvement in the appearance of the skin16.
Three active ingredients that are strongly evidence based for increasing collagen levels in the skin; and reducing signs of aging like enlarged pores and wrinkles are:
2. AHAs & BHA (see: A Complete Guide to Acids in Skincare & Chemical Peels)
3. Vitamin C (see: All About Topical Vitamin C: One of the Best Ways to Protect Your Skin)
My reviews of popular products containing these ingredients can be found here:
If you find that skincare is moving too slowly, you can speak to your doctor to learn about your options to address signs of ageing such as enlarged pores, sagging skin and wrinkles. Some of these options are:
• Enlarged facial pores with Fractional CO2 lasers or Skinboosters with Microbotox. I’ve shared about my experience with Fractional CO2 laser for my pores here. You can also learn more about Skinboosters in Skinboosters: All You Need to Know About It.
• Wrinkles in the upper face can be treated with Botox to relax the muscles. I’ve shared my results with Botox in Baby Botox & Preventative Botox. Safety issues and FAQs on Botox are covered in Is Botox Deadly?
• For fine wrinkles in the skin, injectables moisturisers such as Profhilo and Rejuran Healer are popular options. Learn more about them Is Profhilo the Future of Injectable Skincare? and Rejuran Healer: All You Need to Know About It.
In the same vein, animal and marine derived collagen consumed orally through supplements or food cannot be preferentially directed to the skin. The science and evidence of collagen supplements is discussed in depth in Do Collagen Supplements Work?
Collagen skincare products remains popular; even though they do not translate into increased collagen fibres in the skin of users. This does not mean that collagen skincare products applied to the skin are useless. Rather, collagen, when applied to the skin has moisturising and film forming effects that reduce the appearance of fine lines; and plump the skin for younger looking skin.
1. Collagen: A review on its sources and potential cosmetic applications. Rodríguez et al. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2018 Feb;17(1):20-26.
2. The Presence of Food-Derived Collagen Peptides in Human Body-Structure and Biological Activity. Sato. Food Funct. 2017;8:4325–4330.
3. Extracellular Matrix Regulation of Fibroblast Function: Redefining Our Perspective on Skin Aging Cole et al. J. Cell Commun. Signal. 2018;12:35–43.
4. The influence of age and sex on skin thickness, skin collagen and density. Shuster et al. Br J Dermatol. 1975 Dec;93(6):639-43.
5. Skin connective tissue and ageing. Calleja-Agius et al. Best Pract Res Clin Obstet Gynaecol. 2013 Oct;27(5):727-40.
6. Collagen Based Materials in Cosmetic Applications: A Review. Sionkowska et al. Materials (Basel). 2020 Oct; 13(19): 4217.
7. Cosmetic potential of marine fish skin collagen. Alves et al. Cosmetics. 2017;4:39.
8. Senaratne L., Park P.-J., Kim S.-K. Isolation and characterization of collagen from brown backed toadfish (Lagocephalus gloveri) skin. Bioresour. Technol. 2006;97:191–197
.9. Marine origin collagens and its potential applications. Silva et al. Mar. Drugs. 2014;12:5881–5901.
10. Ervin et al. Human skin collagen. J. Biol. Chem. 1978;253:1336–1337.
11. The 500 Dalton rule for the skin penetration of chemical compounds and drugs. Bos and Meinardi. Exp Dermatol. 2000 Jun;9(3):165-9.
12. Hydrolyzed Collagen—Sources and Applications. León-López et al. Molecules. 2019 Nov; 24(22): 4031. 13. Current research on the blends of natural and synthetic polymers as new biomaterials: Review. Sionkowska. Prog. Polym. Sci. 2011;36:1254–1276.
14. Collagen and its interaction with chitosan. II. Influence of the physicochemical characteristics of collagen. Taravel and Domard. Biomaterials. 1995;16:865–871.
15. Collagen–synthetic polymer interactions in solution and in thin films. Sionkowska et al. J. Mol. Liq. 2009;145:135–138.
16. Topical application and oral supplementation of peptides in the improvement of skin viscoelasticity and density. Campos et al. J. Cosmet. Dermatol. 2019;18:1693–1699.