Whenever you have issues with your skin, particularly issues with your face like acne, it's understandable that you'd dig for any answer you can find. Skin issues are irritating, damaging to the self-esteem, and unpleasant to bear. They can also be painful and can lead to picking and scratching, which further exacerbates the problem.
What possible options do you have to fight off acne? One such option may be collagen. Will the protein supplement help, or is it just another false promise by health supplement companies looking to make a buck? Let's dig into the science and find out.
What Causes Acne?
First up, before we can understand whether or not collagen can help you fight off acne, we need to understand what acne is and how it develops.
Acne is essentially a minor skin infection. The pores in your skin grow clogged with oils, dirt, dead skin cells, sebum, and assorted stuff your skin comes into contact with, whether it's makeup, lotions, or environmental contaminants. When your pores clog up, they aren't able to release their own natural oils. Bacteria build up beneath the clog, feeding, and growing, and turning into a tiny localized infection, characterized by a swollen and pus-filled pore called a zit.
Acne is most common around puberty when bodily hormones are going wild. Hormonal acne is largely caused by your body producing uneven levels of various hormones, and instructing parts of your body to either work harder or slack off, out of balance. Specifically, it's usually a high level of androgens like testosterone causing your skin to produce too much sebum or oil, and clogging up your pores.
Adult acne can be caused by hormonal issues, but it can also be caused by oxidative stress, diet, and poor skincare routines. Failing to wash your skin thoroughly enough can cause acne, as can not changing your pillowcase frequently, wearing masks without cleaning them or washing your face in between uses, and other such causes. Essentially, anything that presses something dirty against your face, or reduces your ability to clean your skin, can lead to acne eventually. Additionally, some medications, such as lithium, testosterone, and corticosteroids can all lead to acne.
It's worth mentioning that there are more serious forms of acne that can cover your skin and become much more irritating and painful. If you have acne and none of the usual self-care treatments (like salicylic acid, soap and water, and gentle cleansing) don't work, you should probably see a dermatologist or a doctor about it. It's possible that your acne is caused by a worse skin problem, or is actually an allergic reaction to something you're using on or around your skin.
There are a few myths about how acne is caused. It's worth going over a few of them, so you can eliminate them from contention as possible solutions.
- Eating greasy foods or chocolate does not cause or affect acne. No studies have shown a link between the two.
- Acne is not necessarily caused by poor hygiene. Having acne does not mean you're not washing your face enough; in fact, acne can be caused by excess cleansing, which leaves your skin open to potential infections.
- Makeup generally doesn't cause acne. Oil-based cosmetics, and makeup left on for too long, can cause clogged pores that lead to acne, but generally, if you use non-oily cosmetics and remove makeup regularly, you won't see these issues.
So, with that out of the way, let's talk about collagen.
What Does Collagen Do?
Let's give you the rundown. Collagen is an animal protein, found specifically in animal cells. It's the protein that makes up tendons, cartilage, and bone, and it's found throughout the body in blood vessels, and even in the skin. It's that fact, that collagen makes up a huge portion of the composition of your skin, that leads people to believe that more collagen = better skin.
Collagen is very well studied, for two reasons. First, because it's extremely abundant in the body and in many of the animal proteins we consume on a daily basis around the world. Second, because it has been readily abundant and easy to study for thousands of years. It's not like modern medicine, where it has only been synthesized within the last few years or decades. It has always been around, and will always be around.
Collagen has a ton of beneficial effects that have been studied and proven by science. We wrote an article that goes into greater detail about them here, but for now, we'll summarize the salient points and you can read deeper later.
- Collagen has been proven to bolster the natural elasticity of your skin, an effect that helps mitigate the effects of aging.
- Extra collagen can help build the "scaffolds" your body uses to promote wound healing, and can help your body heal a little bit faster and with a little less scarring.
- Collagen, in the form of cartilage, helps keep your joints lubricated and thus free from pain and inflammation.
- As a protein, collagen can be broken down into its component elements and used by the body for any purpose it needs protein, such as building additional muscle mass after working out.
- As a component of many of the harder parts of your body, including bones, teeth, and nails, collagen can help strengthen and heal those parts of the body when you take it.
One thing to mention here is that collagen, even collagen peptides, are very large molecules. Thus, they cannot naturally penetrate the skin. Adding collagen to something like a skin cream or lotion will do absolutely nothing for you. You have to eat it if you want to get any benefits from it whatsoever.
Additionally, there's some skepticism as to whether collagen specifically is helpful for all of these purposes, or if any protein will do. After all, when you eat collagen, it's not like your body just ferries it into a special sack in your body labeled "collagen". Rather, your body breaks it down into components, like vitamins and amino acids, and uses those to rebuild elsewhere, including building additional whole collagen. It might sound inefficient, but that's how the body works.
Can Collagen Help with Acne?
So, back to the original question. Can collagen help with acne?
The answer is, probably not directly, but more likely indirectly.
What do we mean? Well, directly, acne isn't really affected by collagen. Acne is an infection of a pore, not a wound, not damage to the epidermis, and not any form of tampering with your skin's elastin. Taking collagen on its own doesn't do anything to combat the bacteria that cause acne, nor does it affect the sebum production in your skin that can lead to clogged pores in excess.
However, we can think of some of the causes of acne, and ways that collagen might impact them.
First of all, one of the causes of acne is a poor diet. Foods rich in carbohydrates throw your body's hormones out of balance, from insulin on up. If you're eating something relatively healthy, like protein (which collagen is), you're not eating carbs in its place. Not only does this help you lose weight and suppress your appetite, it gives your body healthier forms of fuel to burn to keep you going throughout the day.
Another cause of acne is over-cleansed, dry skin. If you have very dry skin, you may find that you get acne more than people you know who have oily skin naturally. The reason is simple; dry skin lacks the sebum barrier that normally protects your skin from dirt, grime, and bacteria. That same sebum that clogs your pores is keeping bacteria out, normally.
There is evidence that suggests that collagen can help keep skin moist and healthy. This doesn't necessarily cure acne, but it can help prevent you from getting acne in the future. Thus, you would want to take collagen as an every-day supplement rather than a treatment for acne.
Another potential benefit comes not from the collagen itself, but from collagen supplements. Many collagen supplements are made up of more than just pure collagen peptides; they have additives, including vitamins and minerals your body needs to help regulate skin health. Be sure to check out our various collagen supplements like this one!
Another of the causes of acne is inflammation. Collagen itself isn't an anti-inflammatory, but it does do two things. First, some supplements come packaged with anti-inflammatory ingredients alongside the collagen. Second, it can be fuel for your body to help with healing and addressing the cause of inflammation.
Any acne treatment will need to treat the acne itself, if for no other reason than to keep you from picking at it and making it worse. That said, collagen as a supplement can help keep your skin healthy and prevent future acne flare-ups, or make them less bad when they do flare-up. Your results may vary, of course, depending on your skin type, your supplement type, and a variety of environmental and dietary factors.
How to Get Collagen
If you want to try taking collagen to help you with acne, or even with overall skin health, to prevent wrinkles, or to benefit your body in other ways, you have a lot of different options.
First, you should decide between pure collagen and collagen with additional ingredients. Pure collagen is the best option if all you want is the protein and peptides themselves. This is ideal if you're already taking other supplements with vitamins and minerals, so you can avoid doing anything that overdoses you on any one vitamin or mineral that can have harmful side effects. Collagen with additional ingredients can be a good idea if it's your only supplement, or if it's one of a few and you've made sure it doesn't overlap on anything harmful.
Next, you should make sure to avoid topical creams of collagen. Creams and skin care lotions can be a good part of your hygiene, but collagen doesn't add anything to the mix when you use it. No, not even collagen peptides; they're still large protein molecules, and that's more than your skin will allow in.
The next choice you need to make is the form you want your collagen to take. You have several options here.
- Powder. A collagen powder is easy to mix into something else, like a smoothie or shake if you want to add the protein and peptide supplement to something else you're already eating. It's mostly flavorless, already broken down, and readily available for your body to absorb and use.
- Capsules. A capsule is usually a gelatin shell that contains collagen powder. This is designed to be easy to swallow and dissolves in your stomach to release the collagen. Ironically, gelatin is itself a form of collagen, so you're getting just a tiny bit more collagen by eating a capsule than you would by opening it and eating the powder. Capsules are good for quick supplements you take on the go, or when you don't have something to mix the powder into.
- Broth. Most organic collagen you get is extracted from connective tissues and bones from animals. You can buy this already extracted in the form of a bone broth, or you can make it yourself. Next time you cook a ham or a turkey, boil the bones for a while and make your own broth! It's delicious and beneficial, though it takes some time to make.
We discuss these in greater detail here, along with another form you might not have considered, but which isn't relevant to acne.
All forms of taking collagen – at least those that have you eating or drinking the substance – perform more or less equally well. Your body will happily break down and use any collagen you give it through the digestive system, so you can use whichever delivery method is most convenient for you.
Will collagen cure your acne? Not directly. Can it help keep your skin healthy so you don't get acne as often or as bad? Absolutely. It's not a miracle cure, but it's a healthy ingredient, so your body can certainly use more than what you're likely getting on a daily basis.