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.”