Fashion & Beauty

The Truth About Collagen

January 22, 2023



By Valerie Monroe

For nearly 16 years Valerie Monroe was the beauty director at O, The Oprah Magazine, where she wrote the popular “Ask Val” column.

If you’re interested in feeling happier about your appearance—especially as you age—you might like reading what she has to say about it. For more of her philosophical and practical advice, subscribe for free to How Not to F*ck Up Your Face at

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I’LL TAKE A QUESTION from the lovely, wide-eyed, open-minded consumer in the front row, frantically waving her hand.

Q: Is it worth paying more for a serum or moisturizer with collagen listed high in the ingredients list?

A: I can tell from the question you’ve educated yourself about two things. First, you know that collagen, a protein, is one of the building blocks of skin, giving it strength and elasticity that helps it look plump and youthful. Levels of collagen decrease in maturing bodies; the result in our face is akin to what it looks like when a dog pulls stuffing out of a pillow. To extend the home decor metaphor: What once was a pillow is now, in extreme cases, a drape.

You also know that a product’s ingredients are listed from highest to lowest concentration. So you may understandably think if you see collagen waving its assets high atop the ingredient flagpole, you’re getting your money’s worth in the effectiveness department.

But you would be wrong. Simply put, topically applied collagen cannot penetrate the outer layer of skin, says Kavita Mariwalla, MD, a West Islip, New York, dermatologist.

Years ago when I was a functioning beauty editor, there was a skincare line I liked a lot. The brand had a terrific research and development story and solid science behind it. Some time after it debuted, the company introduced a product they claimed contained collagen. I knew collagen couldn’t be absorbed topically, so I asked a friend at the company why they were adding the ingredient. “The marketing people say it will boost sales,” they said with a dead-eyed look I will never forget.

That’s pretty much the lousy truth. The good news: There are topicals that can penetrate the stratum corneum (the skin’s outermost layer) with the downstream effect of building collagen, says Mariwalla. These include retinoids (vitamin A derivatives like Retin-A, for example) and certain blends of peptides (amino acids). Select injectable fillers (called biostimulatory) can also achieve the same thing, as well as some ultrasound devices like ultherapy and sofwave.

Did I say good news? Well, kind of. Personally, I’ve used a prescription retinoid for around 18 years and I think it’s helped reduce sun damage from my teens and improved my skin’s texture. Prescription retinoids and other topicals (Mariwalla mentions Neocutis Bio-Gel) can be expensive, so you have to weigh effect against cost. Keep in mind no topical OTC product is likely to make a huge difference in your skin. Some can definitely improve clarity and texture, and increase the moisturization that helps reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. But a silver bullet against sagging? Not so much.

My advice when it comes to in-office treatments: Have a frank conversation with your doctor about what you can expect to see after one or a recommended series of treatments. By frank I mean: “Doctor, if I had only [however much you can spend] left to my name, would you recommend this treatment? If not, what can you do to give me the best bang for my buck?”

Another small piece of advice? Please read or reread this. Then do exactly as your heart desires.

4 thoughts on “The Truth About Collagen

  1. mary says:

    What a clear and honest appraisal: the sad news and the good news! Sad: collagen cannot penetrate the skin! Good: which of the topicals DO penetrate the skin with the result of actually building collagen! Thank you for this very trustworthy information from this very trusted writer!

  2. Val Monroe says:

    Barbara, Madeline, if you can find a reputable study that supports the notion that ingestible collagen has a positive effect on the skin, please let me know. To my knowledge, there’s very little research showing that ingested collagen reaches the skin in any meaningful way. On the other hand, I don’t think ingesting it is harmful. It’s a popular trend in Asia.
    There’s your no-answer answer!

  3. Barbara Kreger says:

    Can you tell us something about ingestible collagen ?

  4. Madeline Rogers says:

    What about ingestible collagen? I have an acquaintance who flogs it. Your thoughts??

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