Does Collagen Work In Topical Serums? What You Need To Know

Contributing writer By Andrea Jordan
Contributing writer
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.
Medical review by Keira Barr, M.D.
Board-certified dermatologist
Keira Barr is a dual board-certified dermatologist and founder of the Resilient Health Institute.
Woman Applying Moisturizer/Lotion in the Bathroom Mirror

Image by Studio Firma / Stocksy

Collagen came buzzing into the skin care world giving 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 tapped a few experts to get the skinny on the effectiveness of topical collagen once and for all. 

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. 

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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: hydrolyzed collagen supplements.* 

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"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." 

"It can manage 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.* The research shows that these collagen peptides are able to support skin elasticity and dermal collagen density.* How? Well, hydrolyzed collagen peptides have been shown to help promote your body's natural production of collagen and other molecules that make up the skin, like elastin and fibrillin.* 

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Other actives to stimulate collagen. 

So, say you've got your collagen supplement. But you're still looking for ways to promote collagen, topically, to help maximize the benefits. Well, there are other actives that work to stimulate collagen production, Engelman says. For example: retinol and bakuchiol. "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," she says. 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 retinol

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 among retinol and vitamin C, he also reaches for hydroxy acids like glycolic acid. "Glycolic acid creates a wound-healing response that stimulates new collagen," Zeichner says. It's similar to when you put your body through manageable stress during a workout, so your body is healthier in the long run. It's also a great ingredient to tackle stubborn acne and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. 

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 collagen-stimulating actives that you can use topically.

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