Collagen products are the latest skincare fad popping up all over the pharmacy shelves and your instagram timeline. Those who swear by it say collagen gives you shiner hair, perfect skin and a whole lot more. It seems so easy – just drink a little potion every day and you are more radiant. But does it really work?
Firstly, what is collagen?
Dr Alessandra Prioreschi, developmental pathways for Health Research Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand said it’s a protein fibre found in many connective tissues and deep skin layers in our bodies. It is also the most abundant protein in our bodies. Prioreschi says collagen is responsible for providing strength and cushioning and it has many important functions in the body.
Dr Marí van de Vyver, senior researcher at the department of medicine at Stellenbosch University adds that collagen is naturally synthesized by the body. “It is an essential component of connective tissue and is present in skin, muscle, ligaments and tendons.”
So what are its functions?
Collagen is the protein that ensures our skin maintains its elasticity and hydration. Basically it helps ensure our skin doesn’t look saggy. It also helps with wound healing. It’s the glue that keeps our bones, cartilage, skin and blood vessels together. It allows our body tissues to grow and mature.
So what happens when the body doesn’t produce enough collagen?
Prioreschi said deficiencies in collagen can result from genetic defects or nutritional deficiencies that affect any of the processes involved in collagen production. But having too much collagen in the body can also be a problem. This can cause a condition known as scleroderma.
But the decrease in the body’s ability to produce collagen is a normal process. As a person hits their mid-twenties, the body stops producing as much collagen. Prioreschi said the collagen production decreases which can lead to decreased elasticity of the skin, and is involved in musculoskeletal deterioration.
According to van de Vyver, poor lifestyle choices and stress can increase overall inflammation and oxidative stress within your body leading to premature cellular aging and less production of collagen.
Many doctors and nutritionists would recommend eating a wide variety of foods and nutrients so that the body has what it needs to produce collagen. Homemade broths made with chicken, beef or fish are a good collagen aid. Foods like salmon, avocado, sweet potatoes and citrus fruits are good for helping with anti-ageing concerns. Living a healthier life by avoiding smoking which is a huge cause of collagen depletion is recommended.
But as we’ve seen the healthcare industry has been inundated with collagen products taking the form of supplements, powders and creams.
But creams are probably the least useful. Van de Vyver says given the size of the collagen protein, it is unlikely to be absorbed through the skin in the form of a cream. That’s why the oral supplementation of hydrolysed collagen is a better alternative and has shown consistent promise to improve overall skin health in various studies. She says beyond skin health, there really isn’t a lot of scientific evidence to support the use of collagen supplements.
The supplement industry
Regardless of whether it works or not, there has been a massive surge in the collagen supplement industry. It’s likely been driven by a need to live a healthier life. Everyone from the Kardashians to local “influencers” have been selling and advertising the products.
It’s also not something new. Chinese women, centuries ago viewed collagen as the “fountain of youth”. They would eat pigs feet, shark fin and donkey skin in the hope of achieving good skin. In the 1980s in America, collagen was used as an expensive injectable filler to plump lips and soften lines. But now the edible collagen market is in with appetising ways to consume the product.
Aadilah Saley is the founder of a company selling marine collagen products. A major reason her clients enjoy her products: her collagen is berry flavored. Saley who is a personal trainer said she started taking collagen supplements to help with her training. However for religious reasons, she found that she couldn’t take the bovine collagen supplements. She then did further research and found marine collagen and decided to start selling the products.
Saley says her company uses marine collagen because it has closer peptides and gets absorbed faster. According to Saley her products work from everyone who has used them. She is planning to launch a collagen product specifically for pregnant women.
From better skin to healthier hair Saley says her clients have all reported good results. She says that she believes collagen supplements are not just a passion trend, but a lasting product.
Is it good or bad?
While the people selling the products are likely to expound on its benefits, it’s important to understand the commitment required. Van de Vyver says based on the data available thus far using collagen supplements seem safe with little known reported risks. However she says it isn’t clear if collagen supplements provide any advantage over the regular dietary intake of amino acids and/or vitamins that stimulate the body to synthesize its own collagen. For example vitamin C is known to promote collagen synthesis and could be a cheaper option as a daily supplement.
So people are advised to understand the monetary and time commitment required. It’s not just a quick fix. Taking the supplements could be a long term commitment.
Lastly, is the industry regulated?
Like many of the skincare and healthcare products that hit the market, the collagen supplement industry is not regulated. Consumers should be cautious, especially if the product is not approved by a regulating authority.
The Medicines Control Council (MCC) is a body that regulates the performance of clinical trials and registration of medicines and medical devices for use in specific diseases, says van de Vyver. However, supplements are not regulated by the MCC. If people would like to find out more about the product they are using, they can contact the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority.