Are These Asian Vitamins the Key to Great Skin?

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Photo: Paul Edmondson/Mint Images/Corbis

Can a Hello Kitty drink keep you looking young? If it contains edible collagen, maybe. For the past two decades, Asian beauty companies like Shiseido have produced beauty supplements made with a digestible form of collagen, the youth protein naturally found in skin. You can find edible collagen in vitamins, candy, and drinks (the Hello Kitty one was a special edition) at supermarkets and convenience stores across Asia.

Now, collagen is slowly become a buzzword Stateside. Pressed-juice company Juice Generation is looking to find a vegan collagen they can add to drinks starting this fall. GNC sells "gourmet collagen soft chews" called NeoCell Collagen Beauty Bursts. And a company called Vida Glow offers a marine-based collagen powder you can add to food or water that comes in two flavors, regular or blueberry. The Cut talked to nutritionists and dermatologists to find out whether consuming collagen can actually keep you looking young. Here's what you need to know.

Collagen gives you baby-face. There are five main types of collagen in the body, but we're talking mostly about type 1, which is found in skin. Collagen is a protein associated with giving your skin youthfulness or baby-face (not to be confused with this guy). When you are born, your skin contains high levels of collagen, making it bouncy and firm. Gigi Hadid, for example, owes her full cheeks to having 18-year-old levels of collagen in her skin (though genetics also play a part). As Dr. Macrene Alexiades-Armenakas explains, as you age, “loss of collagen over time causes skin to become loose and wrinkles to form.” 

You already eat collagen on a daily basis (unless you’re a vegetarian). Collagen can be found in unprocessed meat and poultry products like chicken, beef, and pork, especially in cuts that include tendon. You can find it in meatballs, cheeseburgers, and the spicy beef-tendon soup at Han Dynasty. Some also believe that bone broth, the trendy soup of the moment, has high amounts of collagen from boiled-down animal bones. However, Dr. Alexiades-Armenakas is skeptical about the skin-care benefits of bingeing on pho: “You would not get natural collagens because the boiling would denature them, so they would be broken down.” The collagen often found in Asian beauty products frequently comes from animals, so vegetarians, beware. 

Fair warning: Kim Kardashian does not care about collagen supplements. Some collagen-supplement supporters have been optimistic about hydrolyzing, a new way to process collagen, that makes it more likely to be absorbed. Dr. Alexiades-Armenakas points to one scientific study that concluded that mice fed hydrolyzed collagen experienced reduced bone loss. But in general, doctors and nutritionists have historically been skeptical of collagen supplements. When you eat collagen protein, it gets digested into amino acids, which go into a pool of individual amino acids that your body decides to direct to its skin, hormones, or enzymes. Nutritionist Dana James says, “Collagen supplements have been seen as fairly useless. You can’t direct collagen into the skin.” And dermatologist Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi says, “If you take a pill or liquid capsule, stomach acids would break down any collagen fibers. I’m really skeptical, unless there is some type of coating or delivery system I have not heard about.” Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian’s dermatologist, Dr. Harold Lancer, says, “Not a single entertainment person has asked me about it. I have never seen an argument saying that it is real.”

You can eat other things besides collagen to preserve baby-face. “I emphasize natural nutrition to build collagen,” says Dr. Lancer, who advocates a low-carb and low-sugar meal plan, with 40 percent protein. Dr. Tanzi adds, “Foods with lots of omega-3s and salmon are good for slowing down the breakdown of collagen.” Omega-3-rich foods include halibut, oysters, eggs, soy, and dark leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, and Brussels sprouts. Avoiding foods known to inflame the skin, such as carbs and sugar, can also directly help prevent the collagen slow-down process. And, by the way, all those things you already know are bad for your health — the sun, cigarette smoke, stress, environmental damage — break down your collagen, too.

They probably won't kill you. Although most doctors aren’t convinced of the benefits of collagen supplements, they agree that taking them in the prescribed amount is largely safe (although perhaps not to your bank account). Dr. Lancer explains, “On a scientific basis, no, there is no benefit. But there can be an emotional, psychiatric benefit — people will take a supplement and believe it has a value, so that well-being component makes it valuable. If it’s a good product, well-made, and not contaminated, it probably doesn’t do any harm.” Dr. Alexiades-Armenakas says more simply, “It may not hurt and may possibly turn out to be helpful. We need clinical studies.” So, if you want to add a collagen boost to your green smoothie this fall, go right ahead.