When collagen came buzzing into the skin care world, it gave us hope for a more plump, youthful, and glowing complexion—and since then it has been stamped on what feels like hundreds of products we see in the beauty aisle. But do topical collagen-infused skin care products actually work? We spoke to the experts to find out.
Does collagen in skin care products do anything?
From creams and serums to even makeup, collagen has become a huge marketing tool to draw us into healthy aging products. Well, it turns out that these creams do hydrate; however, it's not scientifically possible for collagen to be absorbed or penetrate the skin from the outside. "Collagen is a huge molecule that sits on the surface of the skin and cannot be absorbed into the dermis," board-certified dermatologist Dendy Engelman, M.D., says. "When applied topically, it is not possible for collagen to penetrate, which is why we use other actives to stimulate collagen production." She confirms that any product that claims benefits is simply a marketing tactic.
Board-certified dermatologist Deanne Mraz Robinson, M.D., agrees with the falsehood of collagen benefits in topical products. "Unfortunately, the hype behind topical collagen is just that: hype," she says.
So, how should you use collagen to help the skin? Supplements.*
Now that we know creams and serums aren't the way to go when trying to maximize collagen benefits for our skin, we asked the experts what's the best way to support collagen production, and the answer was unanimous: supplements.* And more specifically, hydrolyzed collagen supplements.*
"When a collagen supplement is hydrolyzed, the collagen has been broken down, making it easier for you to absorb," says Robinson. From there, the broken-down collagen peptides travel throughout the body; in the case of skin, they help support your body's natural collagen production.* Engelman explains the process of hydrolyzing collagen further. "Oral supplements can help to support the body's natural collagen production by being absorbed through the bloodstream," she says.* "Hydrolyzed collagen is easiest to digest, as it is broken down into the smallest forms of peptides and amino acids."
Research 1shows that these collagen peptides are able to support skin elasticity and dermal collagen density1.* How? Well, hydrolyzed collagen peptides have been shown to help promote your body's natural production of collagen2 and other molecules that make up the skin, like elastin and fibrillin.* "It can help reduce skin wrinkling, providing the skin one of its basic ingredients to stay firm and taut," says Taz Bhatia, M.D., an integrative medicine physician and mbg Collective member.*
3 topical actives that actually stimulate collagen.
Once you've got your supplement to promote your natural collagen levels, if you're still looking for ways to aid your collagen production, there are osome skincare ingredients that may help stimulate collagen production topically.* Starting internally is still your best bet, but these will help your skin along in the process.
"Retinol, the active form of vitamin A in the body, and especially retinoic acid, work to increase cell turnover, build collagen, improve discoloration, hydrate skin, and reduce acne by replenishing the body of vitamin A," says Engleman. She also notes that retinoic acid can connect almost any skin cell receptor site and tell it to behave like a healthy, younger skin cell. If you're new to retinol, it's always a good idea to consult with your dermatologist before using, as some might find it too irritating. For a natural, more gentle version, try bakuchiol. Research shows that it encourages skin to act in similar ways as retinol3, increasing cell turnover and collagen production.
Then there's the other go-to for collagen production: vitamin C. "Collagen synthesis relies on vitamin C, so I always recommend a topical vitamin C antioxidant serum," Robinson says. "Vitamin C supports the body's natural ability to produce collagen, and it defends against damage that may expedite a further breakdown of collagen." Vitamin C is also great for decreasing the appearance of hyperpigmentation and helps improve the overall appearance of the skin.
Board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D., says along with retinol and vitamin C, you may also consider certain hydroxy acids like glycolic acid4. "Glycolic acid creates a wound-healing response that stimulates new collagen," Zeichner says. It's also a great ingredient to tackle stubborn acne.
The bottom line.
Promoting collagen production comes from the inside out. So if you really want to support your natural levels, a hydrolyzed collagen supplement is your best bet.* From there, there are plenty of other collagen-stimulating actives that you can use topically.
Andrea Jordan is a beauty and lifestyle freelance writer covering topics from hair and skincare to family and home. She received her bachelor's in Magazine Journalism from Temple University and you can find her work at top publications like InStyle, PopSugar, StyleCaster, Business Insider, PureWow and OprahMag. When she's not writing, you can find Andrea tackling new recipes in the kitchen or babysitting one of her many nieces and nephews. She currently resides in New Jersey with her husband and cat, Silas.