Collagen has made its way into countless health and beauty products. But does it work? Sort of. Here's the lowdown.

food face drawing
Illustration by Hanna Barczyk
| Credit: Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Collagen is one of the buzziest beauty and wellness words right now and for good reason: It's the most plentiful protein in our bodies, a building block for skin, bones, joints, ligaments, and more. "Collagen promotes skin hydration and elasticity," says Maryland-based dermatologist Rebecca Kazin. Fibroblasts—the cellular collagen factories in your skin—are working hard to make collagen every day. "Problem is, as early as your mid-20s, production slows, eventually leading to sagging, fine lines, and even wrinkles," says Kazin. So how to get back to making more of the good stuff? Not necessarily by guzzling collagen drinks or popping pills and supplements, Kazin says. Here are the products and practices that we know work.

Go Skin Deep

Topical collagen creams sound like a good idea, but most molecules are too large to actually penetrate the epidermis, says New York–based dermatologist Dhaval Bhanusali. Look for your old friends retinoids instead. "They promote collagen deposition and cell turnover, which brightens skin and decreases fine lines and pore size," says Bhanusali. Start with a low concentration of retinoids (less than 1 percent) and slowly work up to nightly applications to avoid irritation. Kazin's pick: PCA Skin Intensive Age Refining Treatment 0.5% Pure Retinol Night Serum ($110).

Protect Yourself

Smoking and UV rays produce free radicals, which degrade collagen. Avoid both and wear sunscreen. 

Eat Pretty

Aim for a protein-rich, well-balanced diet. Kazin suggests foods high in vitamin C, like fruit, tomatoes, and bell peppers. This antioxidant protects skin from reactive oxygen species, free radicals that can damage the body.

Drink a Cup of Hope

Collagen beverages, powders, and supplements have flooded the market, and preliminary studies suggest they might work. But researchers are unsure about quality, how much is absorbed after digestion, and where the collagen ends up in the body. Give these ingestibles a shot if you want, but Bhanusali and Kazin say to take "before" pics. Then, in three months, assess the "after" with your derm to gauge results.