Collagen – the Biggest Con in the Beauty Industry?

By Michael Edmonds 03/05/2011

Collagen is the term for a group of proteins which play an important role in human connective tissue. These large protein molecules are derived from subunits of tropocollagen. Tropcollagen is an interesting molecule in that its’ molecular structure models its’ physical property of elasticity.


Composed of three intertwined helices, tropocollagen resembles three springs, and these helices are able to stretch and bounce back and hence are equated to skin elasticity by many beauty products.

However, as most products containing collagen are creams, my question is how is the collagen in the cream absorbed into the skin? In order to give the skin increased elasticity, it would need to be absorbed deep into the skin. However, as skin is an effective barrier to small molecules such as water under most conditions, how is it possible that such enormous molecules such as collagen could be absorbed? It seems to me that applying collagen on the skin to make it more “springy” is a little like trying to respring on old bed by throwing a bag of springs on the bedspread.

Some collagen beauty products come in capsule form. So is taking collagen orally likely to improve skin tone? I’m not convinced.

Collagen in the body is assembled from amino acids in our diet, so it is not possible for collagen in the diet to move directly into the skin. Rather, it requires the collagen to be broken down into amino acids and then reassembled into human collagen. This begs two questions.

1) How digestible is collagen? Can the body break it down or does it just pass straight through the body?

2) Do we not get enough of the amino acids required for collagen synthesis in our normal diets anyway?

Beauty products seem to be an area where manufacturers are keen to use “science” to prove how good their products are. However, having watched numerous TV ad’s I am less than impressed.  Often when they describe “tests” of their products they make statements such as “9 out of 10 women thought they looked better after 10 days.” Confirmation bias perhaps? If one has just spent a lot of money on a beauty product surely one is going to be looking for a positive result after 10 days? Also, I’ve noticed on various before and after shots there seems to be quite a difference between the lighting used (and possibly even the use of makeup?).

So is collagen the biggest con in the beauty industry? If so, it certainly wouldn’t be the only one. Perhaps someone out there has some information which proves that it does have a positive effect? If so, I’d be interested in hearing about it.

0 Responses to “Collagen – the Biggest Con in the Beauty Industry?”

  • You’re right in that Collagen does not pass through the skin, it’s just too big a molecule to be absorbed that way. Rather the “removal of fine lines” or whatever, by collagen-based products is due to the collagen filling in wrinkles in the skin, giving the appearance of smooth skin. It’s like putting icing on a cake.

  • Ah, I see the collagen holds together the “filler” in the wrinkles
    I’ll have to watch some beauty product advertising again because I’m sure a lot of them imply diagrammatically that molecules such as collagen penetrate the skin.

    Did come across one that uses an extract of a melon because it had been observed that the melon decayed a lot slower than other fruits, therefore it must contain substances that slowed down the aging process. Did make me laugh.

  • Collagen is rather digestible, >90%. At least research looking at collagen in the form of pig skin and the like. A lot of commercial products contain varying levels of hydrolysed collagen, either as gelatin, or a fully hydrolysed product isolated from pig, cattle or fish.

    Whether it has any influence on skin health is a different story. Collagen provides quantities of hydroxyproline, which if it was a limiting factor in collagen synthesis, might be an issue. But collagen also pretty much the only dietary protein that has evidence showing intact peptides (di- or tri-) being detectable in the plasma following oral dosing. These peptides may provide some benefit, but evidence would be the major lacking component.

  • Hey Aaron,

    Thanks for the comments and info. I wonder how many oral collagen products actually contain hydrolysed collagen?
    Good point about hydroxyproline. I thought the hydroxyproline in collagen was synthesised internally from proline so it would be interesting to know what happens to hydroxyproline in the diet. If it is absorbed can it be incorporated into collagen? I wonder if anyone has done any labelling studies along this line?

  • collagen definitely doesn’t penetrate skin, but I understand it works great at hydrating since it attracts water. actually I recently did read a study on pigs that showed ORAL hydrolyzed collagen improved the amount and quality of skin cells. Genetically pigs are extremely close to humans for testing purposes so I don’t think it’s a far stretch to say it would work the same in humans . I’ve read a lot of studies on collagen for joints too, but again, oral collagen not topical. Has anyone heard anything on the collagen dressings they are using for wound healing? Although I think that’s supposed to be a medical application not a OTC thing…

  • Thanks bella for the further information. The pig study sounds interesting. It would be interesting to know exactly how the collagen might be affecting pig cells.

  • Ben Goldacre has written on this… well, he has written on face creams, anyway, in his book. Basically, he said that the big development in the moisturizer industry was how to make it non-greasy. But the patent on this has worn off, so they’re all made the same way.

    The next thing they mostly have is long protein chains. He doesn’t name them, so maybe it’s collagen? Anyway, the protein chains are long and mobile when they’re soggy, but as they dry up they curl up and contract. So if you put them on your skin, they will effectively pull your skin tighter as the moisturizer dries, and may (temporarily) smooth out some wrinkles.

  • In a previous life I was doing contract rnd for various companies trying to prove ther products work. One of the contracts was an in depth look at various oral collagen preperations for both arthritis and comestic applictaions. My Lab manager had done his PhD in collagens and was highly skeptical at the claimed efficacies. That skeptisisim that proved to be valid as we found collagen wasnt absorbed and could not be detected in the blood, even after regular consumption. There did seem to be a positive effect in in vitro assays (results which the client held on to with a death like grip) but they had no effect in several in vivio assays for arthritis.(There was no in vivo cosmetic work done, no matter how much they said they would pay us) Suffice to say, our client, who already had put the product to market (silly move people) was not impressed, and accused us of doing it wrong and when we wouldnt redo all the tests for free, threatened court action! (wasnt the first or the last time that happened)

  • Dark skinned women are never used to advertise collagen. It is very noticeable that very few of them have wrinkled skin, even the ones over 70 do not have wrinkled skin.

    Could it therefore be that there are natural constituents in our skins, which protects us from the effects of our diets, alcohol, sun worshipping. In fact I do not know of any dark skinned women who do not put some type of oil on their skins when going out in either very cold or hot weather.

  • Sorry to bust your bubble, people. In 2004, I began using a collagen formula by a German plastic surgeon — who is one of the leading PS in Europe. The brand is QMS. I was, at the time, about to become 65 years of age. In the course of 90 days my skin, as promised by the beautician who recommended it, began to look younger and younger. At the turn of the first years of usage, my skin was as stunning as it had been during my thirties. Not only did my face became as “cushioned” as it was during my youth, its healing powers were amazing I used the product for the next four years, until the distributor lost the distribution for lack of sales. It is now more than three years that I don’t use QMS and my sking has retained its excellence. Maybe, the collagen con is true as fact as the American con goes, but I happen to know there’s a plastic surgeon in Germany who truly discovered the way to make collagen penetrate the skin! I wear the “proof” on my face!

  • “until the distributor lost the distribution for lack of sales” – there’s a reason for that! If this really did make “my skin was as stunning as it had been during my thirties. Not only did my face became as “cushioned” as it was during my youth, its healing powers were amazing” there is no way they’d lose out on sales.

    You don’t offer a evidence that of a “way to make collagen penetrate the skin” – references, etc? My own instincts (i.e. as a molecular biologist*) are that it will be the chemical linkages between collagen molecules that are disrupted with ageing, rather than just a simple loss of collagen. If so, even if you could find a way to ‘offer’ ‘new’ collagen, and that this ‘new’ collagen were absorbed (see usefulidiot’s comment above) it wouldn’t make any real difference.

  • Not exactly. What that paper’s discussing is ‘hydrolysed collagen’ ie the original collagen has been broken down into smaller units (the gelatin hydrosylate in the title), labelled with C-14. The first part of the results looks at accumulation of radioactivity in various parts of the mice that were studied (& I do feel sorry for the rats, who were sacrificed for their skins to provide the collagen in the first place), rather than the gelatin itself. Indeed, it’s hard to see how that big (2-5KDa) could pass through the gut wall in any sort of quantity, assuming they weren’t degraded by proteolytic enzymes in the stomach. (None of the authors’ 3 older links relating to this have abstracts, so it’s hard to get any idea of the data on which their conclusions were based. The paper by Terpend et al looks at isolated intestinal cells in vitro.) There were higher levels of radioactivity in the joints but this doesn’t demonstrate that the collagen itself somehow gets there – it does suggest active incorporation of amino acids/short peptides into cartilage.

  • The question is do collagen supplements like well known brands resvitale work or is it just a hype

  • “2) Do we not get enough of the amino acids required for collagen synthesis in our normal diets anyway?”

    This line of reasoning should never be used in the context of diet and nutrition. It is also the same faulty logic that claims “We do not really need fat in our diets, since we can synthesize lipids from carbohydrates.” “We do not need carbohydrates, since we can synthesize glucose from amino acids.” “We do need to worry about non-essential amino acids, since our bodies can synthesize them from other molecules.”

    Amino acids compete for absorption, and proteins contain different ratios of amino acids. Collagen (and gelatin) has a peculiarly high ratio of glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline, contains no tryptophan, and has almost no methionine and histidine. This not only makes a difference with digestion and absorption, but it also supplies more of the building blocks for cartilage and joint repair, sparing the body from diverting its resources into expensive conversions. It is also one of the reasons collagen/gelatin supplements are recommend to consume on an empty stomach without other proteins.

    In the end, the clinical studies done on collagen do in fact show beneficial results in regards to joints, cartilage, and connective tissues. The recommend daily amount to achieve good results is at least 10g (10,000mg) per day. Not very feasible with capsules, but much more practical in powdered form.

  • When I take collagen supplement. My hair and nails grow dramatically faster. This tells me that taking it internally ifs effective even if it is broken down and re assembled in digestion. In fact I am mostly bald and hair begins to grow where there was no hair. It makes me wonder if collagen supplementing could have prevented my hair loss.

  • How interesting! [Referring to the comments on this blog]
    I will add my two cents FWIW.
    Background: Molecular biology and cosmetology. In other words, I am no better than the rest of us, but I do know a couple of things:
    No: Collagen in cream would not be absorbed unless it is micronized and in this case it is the same as taking it in the powder form… the latter being cheaper.
    Yes: Collagen as a dietary supplement is used by the body. The long chain from whatever source is broken down in its basic components and these are reused by our body to create our own specific human collagen. The basic components may be the same, but the sequence varies between individual species. (The way each unit is strung along to recreate the long chain)
    I must have had a genetic deficiency of that product because as a child I loved eating cartilage from bones, I still do and so did my best friend (another French woman).
    The problem for optimal result is our metabolic efficiency. Most of what we ingest in the form of dietary supplement is eliminated quicker that it can be used up. Some benefit is obtained as one person duly noted from her hair improvement but a combination of dietary intake and subcutaneous injections provides the best results. One last cautionary advice: be careful where you go for these injections. The amount used and the skill needed to give good results are paramount. Too much and wrong locations can lead to very sad results.

  • By the way, I must say I choose to take collagen supplements because I have pain in my joints sometimes, but it’s mainly to protect my skin from wrinkles.

  • Why bother taking collagen when it doesn’t work? I don’t understand why so many people bother. I tried myself (I do admit), and saw absolutely no benefit, even after months of taking it. Wish I could get my money back. Why so many people believe it does anything is beyond me!!

  • Not sure how to link a PDF

    Figures in this paper show fluorescent labeled topically applied humanlike collagen with absorption enhancer (azone) penetrating the skin and remaining intact in skin of mice. Very cool. I’m going to try rose hip oil as an absorption enhancer for collagen hydrolysate.

  • I fully agree that on the face of it the collagen molecule seems far too big to penetrate the skin, however this is too simplistic and It does make me wonder whether collagen can be absorbed via an osmotic like action? After all water molecules are far to big to penetrate an impermeable GRP boat hull yet they do! Don’t underestimate the power of molecular attraction through a semi permeable barrier.