Growing up, I always wondered how aging would work. Would I look in the mirror one morning to find my cheeks collapsed in random folds? To see the skin at the corners of my eyes crossed and recrossed by fine dry wrinkles?
Im 31 now, and I can tell that my face looks different than it did five years ago. My eyes are puffier and droopier than they were in my twenties, and even when Ive slept eight hours I look more hungover than rested.
These changes have led me to waste time researching products that promise to make me look fresh-faced again serums with retinol to reduce the appearance of fine lines and creams with complexion-plumping collagen.
Recently, however, I’ve noticed that beauty and wellness websites are increasingly promoting ingestible beauty supplements for healthier-looking skin.
Indeed, the last few years have seen supplements long confined to drugstore vitamin aisle to mainstream beauty staple, complete with Instagram-worthy packaging and consumer-friendly product names, like Moon Juices, Beauty Dust and DirtyLemons +Collagen daily beauty tonic.
A search for supplements on Sephora.com yields 97 results, while the luxury e-commerce site Net-a-Porter offers 60 options. (Its worth noting that ingestible supplements aren’t regulated as drugs by the FDA, which technically classifies them as food products.)
While beauty supplements make up a relatively small percentage of the United States’ $13.5 billion vitamin and supplement market, the beauty sector is growing rapidly. In its 2016 Consumer Survey on Dietary Supplements, the Washington, D.C.-based Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) found that nearly one-fifth of people who take supplements in the U.S. take them for skin, hair, and nail benefits. And collagen-infused drinks and powders are leading the craze.
There are cereal bars, too, as well as alcohol spiked with collagen (The Collagin, Anti-A-Gin). All of them contain active ingredients which purport to keep skin looking youthful and smooth, to boost elasticity and hydration, and improve various other elements of skin function.
The idea of making our skin glow from within makes intuitive sense. But is there enough scientific data to support the seductive claims of ingestible beauty products?
Understanding those claims requires looking beneath the skin’s surface (the epidermis) to its second layer (the dermis), where blood flows and where much of the skins plumping, structure-maintaining collagen and elastin fibers are stored.
The theory is that feeding skin from the inside outwith beauty-boosting ingredients absorbed in the gut and delivered via the blood to the dermiswill have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on its appearance than smothering its dead outer layer with creams and lotions.
The molecules in creams and ointments are quite large and its very difficult for them to affect the dermis, whereas if you take something internally then the molecules can get into the bloodstream, says Sara Sibilla, head of research and development with the popular Gold Collagen, which was the only drinkable collagen product in the European market when it launched in 2011. (It came to the U.S. in 2015.)
The really effective result of ingestibles is that they can go straight to the dermis without having to squeeze through the base layer of the skin like creams and ointments do, so that they nourish and rejuvenate cells in the dermis itself.
Beyond this principle, claims vary according to the active ingredients involved. But two blockbuster ingredients are collagen and hyaluronic acid.
Collagen is the protein that makes up around 75 percent of our skin, and its the key to skins structure and elasticity. But once we reach age 25, we lose roughly 1.5 percent of collagen every year.
Collagen is also broken down by stressors like sun exposure. When were young, our bodys collagen factories produce enough of it to make up for skin damage. But these become sluggish as we age. And when collagen starts to disappear, so does our skins youthful appearance.
Ingestible and drinkable collagen tend to contain smaller fragments of collagen than creams. Its more easily absorbed in this hydrolized form, according to Sibilla, especially when its already dissolved in a liquid. Once in the body, these collagen fragments supposedly trick our own collagen factories into becoming more active.
Research projects around the world have already demonstrated that it may be possible not only to improve supplies of collagen in the skin and connective tissues by consuming collagen-based supplements, says Sibilla, but also to boost natural production of this essential building block that makes up roughly 30 percent of the total protein mass in mammals.
Theres been some research that suggests collagen is good for gut health, too, which is one reason why doctors who specialize in integrative or alternative medicine have long urged their patients to drink collagen-rich bone broth.
In the old days there werent that many collagen products in the market, but thats changed in recent years, says Dr. Frank Lipman, who recently introduced a collagen-infused powder in his own line of supplements.
These things are tricky because theres not much science supporting them, but clinically Ive seen results in my patients, says Lipman, whose clients include Gwyneth Paltrow and Maggie Gyllenhaal. So many people have gut problems, and if I can get nutrients into them that help heal the lining of the gut and the absorption of other nutrients then Ill do it rather than wait for the research to come around backing it up.
The idea that collagen supplements can improve gut health and kickstart collagen production in the skin is seductive, but not everyone is buying it.
A nutritional source in liquid form will empty from the stomach more rapidly and so it can be absorbed in the small intestine earlier than the same dietary components eaten in a solid form, but that doesnt mean we absorb more of these nutrients or that theres a nutritional advantage to this, says Dr. William H. Percy, an associate professor and biomedical scientist at the University of South Dakota who has spent more than three decades studying the ways the human gut breaks down and absorbs the food we eat.
One issue is that the collagen will be broken down into component amino acids in the digestive process.
Its possible that these amino acids could be absorbed into the bloodstream and make their way to the skin, says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in the dermatology department at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. If collagen supplements do in fact provide a benefit to our skin, it is likely because of their ability to provide amino acid building blocks for new collagen production by our skin cells.
But, he adds, theres no scientific evidence supporting the alleged health and beauty benefits of ingestible or topical collagen. Youre better off getting filler injections instead since theres data showing that by stretching collagen producing cells, injection of fillers can stimulate collagen in addition to providing volume.
The list of active ingredients in ingestible beauty supplements tends to be long. And while some researchers and companies like Gold Collagen are conducting or commissioning research, others arent as rigorous when it comes to supporting the claims they use to sell their products.
Ill hold back on beauty supplements for now. But if a collagen potion is eventually proven to turn back the hands of time, Ill drink to that.