Get the Facts: Collagen

Sporty young woman with collagen at home, closeup

By Angela Ballard, RN

Published On: Sep 2, 2022

Last Updated On: Sep 2, 2022

Collagen supplements have become increasingly popular among beauty and wellness influencers. Promises of beautiful clear skin are likely to catch anyone’s attention, let alone someone trying to manage a severe eczema flare. In 2021, the global collagen market exceeded $9 billion and is expected to surpass $16 billion by 2028. In fact, a recent article about collagen in Vogue promised 12 different collagen options that would “transform your skin–and boost your immune system.” But are collagen supplements really as miraculous as they might sound? Before we all empty our pockets in search of that perfect flare-free skin, let’s get the facts.

What exactly is collagen anyway?

Collagen is a naturally occurring protein in the human body that makes up around 75% of our skin. According to Dr. Shari Marchbein, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, “collagen is the main structural protein that forms the connective tissue throughout our body, from skin to bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments.” Within our skin, collagen also helps maintain hydration – a critical concern for people with eczema, as prolonged dehydration of the skin can lead to cracks and fissures. Skin dehydration is one of the causes of skin barrier dysfunction in people with eczema and may increase the risk of Staph infection.

What do people with eczema need to know about collagen supplements?

There’s no question that collagen plays an important role in the health of our skin barrier, and that importance might help explain the popularity of collagen supplements: if our bodies produce something naturally good for our skin, so the thinking goes, perhaps we should supplement that protein and amplify the beneficial effects. That appears to be the rationale behind the marketing claims of clearer, healthier skin. But those claims greatly diminish – or vanish altogether – in the face of scientific data.

“There’s no real evidence that collagen taken orally does anything for eczema,” said Dr. David Pariser, a professor of dermatology at Eastern Virginia Medical School and former President of the American Academy of Dermatology. “Collagen is a protein that is rapidly broken down in the digestive system. I never recommend it for eczema, nor have I heard of any authorities on the subject recommending it to their patients.”

Dr. Saedi, an associate professor of dermatology at Jefferson University, echoed Dr. Pariser’s caution about the efficacy of collagen supplementation. “Don’t expect much,” Dr. Saedi said. “We can’t say for sure what the body absorbs from these supplements, or even how much of it gets into the skin.” If it sounds like snake oil, it just might be. Fortunately, you should be able to get enough collagen building blocks from your diet, and doing so is preferable because your body is able to absorb and use collagen from natural food sources more effectively than from supplements.

What do people with eczema need to know about collagen and aging?

A healthy and varied diet, adequate exercise, not smoking, avoiding excess sugar and protecting your skin from the sun are all more accepted ways of maintaining skin collagen. This is especially important as you get older because collagen naturally decreases with age, particularly in women, who at menopause, reported the American Academy of Dermatology, lose about 30% of skin collagen in five years. But, really, decreased collagen affects almost all of us. According to Scientific American, everyone produces about 1% less collagen per year starting at about age 20, which could be why it’s tempting to pop a pill to replace it. Quality collagen supplement studies are lacking, however, and those that have been conducted demonstrate potential conflicts of interest, cautions the Harvard School of Public Health.

What sort of diet will help my body’s natural collagen production?

Foods that support collagen production are generally recommended as part of a healthful diet, so you can eat holistically and nurture your collagen production at the same time by including the following:

  • protein-rich foods including meats, bone broths, eggs (especially the whites), dairy, tofu, marine algae, beans, legumes and spirulina;
  • vitamin C: just a half cup of bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower or strawberries already provides more than 80% of your daily recommendation of vitamin C;
  • copper and zinc: these are key for collagen production, and you can get them from shellfish, cashews, whole grains, sesame seeds, tofu, lentils, chickpeas, avocados, chickpeas, sweet potatoes and mushrooms.

What about topical collagen supplements?

Wondering about topical collagen? The molecules of the protein are too poorly absorbed by the skin because of their size: they’re too large, according to Harvard University-based nutritionists, to pass through the outer layers of the epidermis. So, using a collagen cream on the skin is unlikely to have any effects beyond the usual benefits of a moisturizer. In other words: it’s best to save your money.

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