Collagen, not unlike Cheap Trick, is big in Japan. Sure, it has a loyal following here in the United States, where it appears in joint-health supplements and cosmeceuticals—topical products—that promote skin, nail, and hair health. But in terms of sheer gusto for this structural protein—which accounts for at least a quarter of the body’s total protein content—American consumers can’t hold a candle to their Japanese counterparts, who until recently comprised 90% of the world collagen market, according to Lauren S. Clardy, principal, NutriMarketing (Santa Rosa, CA).
So what do Japanese consumers “get” about collagen that we don’t? In a phrase, its nutricosmetic value. For while American shoppers have been slow to embrace nutricosmetics—skincare supplements that deliver their nutrients internally, rather than topically, to generate “beauty from within”—their peers in Japan have driven the category’s growth from the start, gobbling up roughly $777 million of the beauty-boosting tablets, capsules, foods, and beverages in 2010 alone, according to research firm Euromonitor International (London).
It’s safe to say that many of those nutricosmetics were vehicles for collagen. “Oral ingestion represents more than 95% of the Japanese collagen market, with millions of people in Japan taking collagen daily,” Clardy says. If American consumers want to reap collagen’s beauty benefits themselves, they’d be wise to follow suit. For the more we learn about collagen’s relationship to healthy, young-looking skin, the clearer it becomes that this protein works its magic better from the inside out than the outside in.
Science Sets the Stage
Americans’ tepid response to nutricosmetics has frustrated industry insiders and observers for years. After all, we’re a nation of supplement users; and with some 70 million baby boomers staring retirement in the face, domestic demand for antiaging products, including collagen-containing nutricosmetics, could top $114 billion by 2015, per Global Industry Analysts (San Jose, CA) research.
But among the explanations posited for our moribund nutricosmetics market, perhaps the toughest to refute is consumer skepticism about the products’ efficacy. And that’s why emerging science on collagen pharmacokinetics bodes so well not just for supplement manufacturers hoping to put collagen’s skin-supporting promise into practice, but for a public keen to turn back time’s hands, as well.
“Over the decades, collagen science has advanced considerably,” says Jessica Mulligan, vice president, sales and marketing, NeoCell (Irvine, CA). While convincing research was “scarce at the outset,” she says, “dozens of more recent clinical studies have confirmed collagen’s effectiveness as an oral supplement for skin benefits.”
Many of those studies originated in Asia and in Europe, where nutricosmetics also enjoy broader acceptance than in the United States. But universities and laboratories on our shores are now helping advance the science behind collagen’s beauty potential. “Several aspects of its antiaging skin benefits are being investigated using sophisticated testing machinery that measures skin qualities such as suppleness, wrinkle reduction, hydration, elasticity, and more,” Mulligan says.
To make sense of the results, a quick refresher on this hardworking protein is in order. To start, collagen is a fundamental component of artery walls, cartilage, and the corneas of our eyes. “It’s in the myofibrils of skeletal and cardiac muscle, and in the extracellular connective tissues,” says Nena Dockery, technical support manager, Stratum Nutrition (St. Charles, MO). “It’s the main component of scar tissue.”
Most relevant to the nutricosmetic discussion, collagen constitutes 80% of the skin’s dermal layer, where its presence is so central that Jason Kwon, technical sales, Vesta Pharmaceuticals (Indianapolis), calls it, “essentially, the foundation of skin.” To the extent that healthy skin is smooth and wrinkle free, he says, we can largely credit “the rigid structural support that collagen and connective tissue networks provide.”
That support is a consequence of the very amino acid–rich composition of collagen itself, wherein hydroxylated proline residues form the basis of the protein’s fibrous structure. Fibroblast cells in our bodies produce these fibers by “spinning” the collagen proteins into strands that exhibit formidable tensile strength. “The collagen fibers then intertwine into a triple helical subunit,” Kwon says, “which then crosslinks further to provide a rigid, complex network on which the cells of the skin can grow.”
Fibroblasts spin out dozens of types of collagen, with types I and III predominant in skin. And while the spinning process proceeds smoothly for decades, the machinery starts to slow by a rate of about 1.5% annually after age 25, says Kathy Lund, vice president, business development and marketing, AIDP (City of Industry, CA). By age 45, collagen levels may have dropped by as much as 30%. “This leads to increased skin dryness, wrinkles, and a lackluster appearance,” Lund notes.
Not only does collagen production decline with age; its breakdown amps up, as catabolic enzymes attack the protein’s fibrallar network. And while a certain degree of crosslinking is necessary to knit collagen units together, that crosslinking accelerates in older skin, causing the protein to rigidify like an “old rubber band,” Dockery says, thus diminishing skin’s softness and its healthy glow.
Then there’s oxidation. “Collagen gets its ability to strengthen and support skin though its chemical bonds—its hydroxyproline and disulfide linkages,” Kwon says. “Age and increased exposure to sun and free radicals cause harmful oxidative stress to these chemical bonds, compromising the integrity of the collagen.” Environmental factors like smoking, pollution, and day-to-day anxiety amplify the effect, leaving skin wrinkled, coarse, and older looking. “Thus,” Kwon says, “it’s essential to replenish the right building blocks to aid in rebuilding collagen with the proper chemical bonds.”
The Supplementation Solution
The trick to doing so, Mulligan says, “is to increase the body’s natural collagen production back to its youthful level so that it can rebuild and strengthen the skin.” And that calls for oral supplementation. “Only when taken orally does a special set of amino acids—the building blocks of collagen proteins—signal the body to increase collagen production,” she says.
Topical application can’t effect the same changes, as collagen is too large a molecule to penetrate the skin. “This means that topical collagen doesn’t stimulate collagen production on a cellular level the way collagen supplementation will,” Mulligan continues. And though topical collagen may produce local results at the skin’s epidermal layer, those results are superficial and temporary. “Topical collagen’s benefits are lost each night when the cosmeceutical is washed off,” she points out.
Of course, experts aren’t recommending that consumers compost their collagen creams and serums en masse. As Clardy points out, the collagen question need not boil down to “a battle” between nutricosmetics and cosmeceuticals. “Both have benefits, and work in conjunction,” she asserts. “That being said, most clinical data support the benefits of oral ingestion.”
But even orally ingested collagen can produce uneven results if it’s not the right collagen for the job. And as research reveals more about the protein’s mechanism of action in skin and its cells, both collagen suppliers and supplement manufacturers are learning which collagen forms and types make for the most effective nutricosmetic ingredients.
Perhaps the top priority is bioavailability. As Dockery explains, “Supplemental forms of collagen, either taken orally or applied to the skin, must cross barriers” before making themselves available to the tissues. The most imposing barrier orally ingested collagen confronts is the human gut, where digestive enzymes begin breaking down the collagen molecules into smaller peptides and amino acids for absorption through the intestinal wall. “The body must then reassemble these building blocks into proteins—both collagen and others—that our bodies need,” Dockery says.
But if the collagen arrives at the gut in a form too big for our digestive machinery to manage, it’s “not completely absorbed through the intestinal wall and can’t be reassembled or used by the body as collagen,” she continues. Thus, by partially hydrolyzing the collagen first—cutting it into smaller, lower-molecular-weight chunks—we “ensure the ready absorption of its components into circulation.”
For maximum bioavailability in nutricosmetics, Ahmad Alkayali, CEO, president, Certified Nutraceuticals (Murrieta, CA), recommends formulating with type I and III collagen peptides hydrolyzed to a molecular weight below 5,000 Daltons; by contrast, the type II collagen produced by chondrocytes and commonly used in joint-health formulations usually appears in such products at molecular weights exceeding 20,000 Daltons. Further, Alkayali says, hydrolysis should target liberation of peptide chains “rich in the key amino acids hydroxyproline and proline,” as these best stimulate fibroblast cells to produce more collagen.
Playing to Type
Though it’s true that “all collagen types do not have the same ‘blueprints,’” as Alkayali says, and that “each type has its own amino acid structure that the body recognizes for specific structural rebuilding,” Joosang Park, vice president of scientific affairs, BioCell Technology (Newport Beach, CA), cautions supplement makers against focusing too heavily on collagen type when selecting ingredients for nutricosmetic formulations.
Namely, Park believes that the association of collagen types I and III chiefly with skin, hair, and nails, and the primary association of type II with joint health, creates “a great degree of misunderstanding about the types of collagen found in collagen supplements.” What really matters to the consumer, he says, “is not the collagen type, but its bioavailability and efficacy.”
For example, his company’s BioCell Collagen is a matrix of hydrolyzed type II collagen—normally thought of as the “joint collagen”—and glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) sourced from chicken sternal cartilage. Yet, he says, “multiple human studies showed that its ingestion improved not only joint health, but also reduced various signs of skin aging through the support of collagen types I and III.” In fact, he says, daily intake increased dermal collagen content, “suggesting the stimulation of fibroblast cells in the connective tissue to produce collagen and GAGs, which may help regenerate the extracellular matrix.”
One of the most important GAGs for skin health is hyaluronic acid (HA), which, as part of skin’s extracellular scaffold, “serves as a core protein in which glycosaminoglycans link,” Kwon says. Acting much like a lubricant, HA “helps retain water within the skin; thus, it’s essential to giving skin its supple, youthful appearance.”
Yet as with collagen, HA levels decrease with age, “deflating” skin and allowing wrinkles and roughness to emerge. That’s why collagen suppliers frequently pair collagen peptides with HA in nutricosmetics both to goose collagen production and hydrate skin tissues at once.
And HA isn’t the only sidekick capable of increasing collagen’s effectiveness. The glycoprotein fibrillin—like collagen, a product of fibroblast cells—settles into the extracellular matrix to provide a framework for the deposition of elastin, another protein that gives skin elasticity.
Some nutricosmetics deliver these proteins along with collagen; others are designed to help the body better generate them on its own. That’s the case, according to Oliver Wolf, head of advertising/print media/exhibitions for global marketing and communication, Gelita (Sergeant Bluff, IA), with his company’s Verisol Bioactive Collagen Peptides. A recent double-blind, placebo-controlled trial showed that Verisol, when taken orally, not only reduced wrinkles, but increased synthesis of type I collagen, elastin, and fibrillin.1
Female subjects aged 45–65 received either 2.5 g of the collagen ingredient daily or a placebo for eight weeks, and had their skin wrinkles measured before treatment, at four and eight weeks into the protocol, and, finally, at four weeks after treatment ceased. Results showed that reductions in eye-wrinkle volume among the treatment group were statistically significant at four weeks and grew more pronounced at eight, attaining a maximum reduction volume of 50%. Further, Wolf says, “Pro-collagen type I content was increased by 65%, elastin by 18%, and fibrillin by 6% after eight weeks of Bioactive Collagen Peptide treatment.”
Other nutrients to consider adding to nutricosmetic formulations include antioxidants “to prevent free radicals from attacking the body’s healthy collagen,” Mulligan says. Furthermore, supporting nutrients like silica, biotin, and vitamin C can increase the efficiency of the body’s internal collagen-production mechanism. NeoCell’s Beauty Infusion includes vitamin C, alpha lipoic acid (ALA), and biotin to “work synergistically” with the base formula.
From the Source
Some consumers are also concerned about where the collagen comes from. Two of the most common industrial sources are bovine and porcine tissues, the latter of which is neither kosher nor halal, while the former, despite industry safeguards, can bear the perceived risk of potential contamination with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
Marine-source collagen, extracted from fish skins and scales, appears to be a palatable alternative that also produces noticeable beauty-boosting results. AIDP’s Lund notes that participants in a double-blind, placebo-controlled study (not yet published) using her company’s Natricol fish collagen enjoyed significantly better skin hydration after 6 and 12 weeks, as well as significantly improved skin elasticity measures at an experimental dose of 10 g. Lund says that the collagen’s “higher ratio of peptides” permits better digestibility compared to porcine and bovine sources, “allowing the body to circulate amino acids necessary for collagen fibril synthesis.”
Clardy is also a fan of marine-source collagen, noting that research supports the claim that type I peptides extracted from fish are smaller, more readily shuttled into circulation, and thus more bioavailable. “Marine-collagen peptides are also characterized by their specific amino-acid composition,” she goes on, with a high concentration of glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline to stimulate collagen synthesis. She adds that the number of hydroxyproline-containing peptides in TruMarine Collagen, an ingredient from supplier Nippi Collagen NA (Burnaby, BC, Canada), is “significantly higher than in any other collagen form, and is detectable in blood after ingestion.”
And don’t forget eggshell membrane. “Eggshell membrane provides a more desirable source for many because of its pure derivation from eggs and its content of other supporting ingredients, such as additional glycosaminoglycans, and both elastin and keratin, which are also components of healthy connective tissues,” Dockery says. Eggshell membrane also delivers a different mix of collagen types, including types V and X, in addition to the type I necessary for skin development and maintenance.
Closing the Deal
Eggshell membrane is “also a sustainable ingredient that’s safe and minimally processed,” Dockery adds, which should appeal to America’s reluctant nutricosmetic consumers. But to truly close the deal, supplement manufacturers must provide not only safety, sustainability, and scientifically backed efficacy, but novelty in product delivery and format to attract consumers’ notice.
“We feel that incorporating collagen into functional delivery systems like drink mixes and chews is a natural progression for the nutrient,” Mulligan says. As an example, she points to her company’s Beauty Infusion drink mixes. “We’ve created the first delicious line of flavored drink mixes that infuse collagen and other beauty-stimulating nutrients into an easy-to-consume drink mix that can be added to liquids like juice or water.”
Clardy notes that portability and convenience score points, too. “Products consumers can carry or that are easily incorporated into meals and beverages” will expand the market, she believes. “Collagen-loaded stick packs; powder-, liquid-, or jelly-based shots; gummies and chews; and other alternative delivery formulations will continue to grow in popularity.” A particularly novel alternative is the sipping straw that Nippi developed in partnership with Unistraw (Singapore). Using the latter’s Unistraw delivery system, the Inner Beauty Sip Straws are filled with TruMarine collagen beadlets that dissolve as the consumer sips a beverage through them. The product attracted enough buzz to become a finalist for the SupplySide Editor’s Choice Awards in the nutricosmetics category at last year’s SupplySide West show.
That kind of buzz may pique consumers’ curiosity and draw them closer to nutricosmetics after all. As Clardy says, “The good news is that the U.S. nutricosmetics market offers tremendous expansion potential. New and creative product launches are continuing to grab consumers’ attention, while specific demands will help shape and define this category in the future.”
1. Proksch E et al., “Oral intake of specific bioactive collagen peptides reduces skin wrinkles and increases dermal matrix synthesis,” Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, vol. 27, no. 3 (February 2014): 113-119.