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Choose healthy proteins instead of collagen supplements—here’s why

Collagen is the protein in skin that gives it its strength and elasticity. It makes your face look plump and keeps wrinkles away. Over time, however, collagen fibers weaken and stretch out. Sun exposure breaks down existing collagen molecules, while age reduces the overall amount of collagen the body produces. As a result, skin starts looking older.

Some people turn to collagen supplements in a bid to slow down or reverse the signs of aging. Typically made from animal products, collagen pills and powders may be marketed as a way to create younger-looking skin. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of evidence that taking collagen supplements will provide the cosmetic results people hope for.

That’s because collagen supplements are absorbed into the stomach and broken down into protein “building blocks.” The body then combines these with vitamin C to create new proteins where the body needs them. There’s no way to force the body to transport collagen to the face and use it there. Instead, the body uses these protein building blocks wherever it wants—and that might be in the liver or an armpit.

What’s more, most Americans don’t need the extra protein that collagen supplements provide. People get all the protein they need through food. Instead of buying supplements, I recommend spending the money on high-quality protein sources in the grocery area. Purchasing omega-3-rich fish and lean meat and following a healthy diet with lots of plant-based foods will support the body’s overall health.

Another concern with collagen supplements is that, like other supplements, they tend to be poorly regulated. Supplements are not FDA approved and are not required to meet the same quality control and testing standards as medications. As a result, the doses and ingredients on the inside of a bottle may not match what is advertised on the outside. Should a patient choose to take any supplement, they should always buy it from a reputable drugstore or pharmacy.

Face creams and serums that have collagen added to them in the form of peptides or hyaluronic acid are also suspect. Lotions can moisturize the skin and make it look better. However, the skin has no ability to break down proteins, absorb them, and turn them into more collagen.

So what does work? The best way to keep your skin looking young and healthy is to prevent sun damage by wearing sunscreen and following sun-protection practices like covering up and avoiding the sun at peak times of the day. Creams and serums with antioxidants (such as vitamin C) may also protect against collagen breakdown by fighting damage from the sun and environmental pollutants. Retinol-based products can be used to improve skin color and texture but are not safe for use during pregnancy.

Summer is a great time to recommit to eating well and following healthy sun habits. If you have questions about how to achieve younger-looking skin, talk to a physician who specializes in dermatology or plastic surgery.

Dr. Kate McCarn is an otolaryngologist at Vancouver Clinic’s Columbia Tech Center and Salmon Creek locations. She specializes in the ear, nose, and throat. She is experienced in functional and cosmetic surgery for the removal of cancers of the face, head, and neck.