The Collagen Trials

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Collagen’s one of those terms people are comfortable using, even if they shouldn’t be. It’s a good candidate for one of those zippily-edited late night show bits where Jimmy Fallon stands outside and asks passersby to define something fundamental to our vocabulary but yet somehow strangely elusive. What’s the difference between primaries and caucuses? Or, what’s a calorie? You try to answer and you realize the comfort with which you drop term in conversation is not the same as fact. “Uhm, it’s like, how much like energy is, like, in there?”

With collagen, my mind immediately associates it with squishiness. The nice plump, squishy part of the skin. More collagen makes more squishiness. (Right?) My research told me a bit more—that it’s found deep in the dermis all throughout the skin, and more concentrated in connective tissues like tendons and ligaments. That it’s what leaches out in your bone broth after three days on the boil. And it’s the chief ingredient in a few products I was testing at the moment—one topical, the Mizon Collagen 100, and one internal, Minerva Pure Gold Collagen Drinks. For weeks, I’d been marinating in the stuff. And I liked it.

This all came from a personal need, a professional inquiry, and an editor who encouraged a deeper dive than just the first page of Google results. For a while, I’ve had a creeping feeling that my skin’s starting look thinner and a bit craggier in a way that an extra layer of moisturizer can’t quite address. I instinctively felt collagen must be the answer, that it might act as caulking for my emerging lines. Oh, and the squishiness—more of that please.

The initial testing phase began with supplements. Because I like to keep my experiences experiential, I opted for a drink. PURE GOLD COLLAGEN, it says. Inside, it’s pinkish, viscous, and that just-slightly-too-much quantum of a double-shot. Knock it back in a staggered one-and-a-half gulps, and you get that sort of pre-nausea you can see in Neo’s eyes after he takes the red pill. There’s a sort of, “What have I done?” feeling to it. The collagen seems to have come courtesy of tilapia.

Results-wise, there were some developments that couldn't be chalked up to a topical serum. Curiously—and perhaps psychosomatically—enough, I felt like certain areas of my face were plusher, jellier. When I brushed sleep out the inner corners of my eyes, there was a bouncier, cushier touch to those little triangular ducts. My fingernails shone like they’ve been buffed. Cuticles and chapped lips healed right up. It felt like there was more of me, right where I wanted it.

But subjectivity can’t go unchecked forever. And that’s why the wise beauty editor will often direct the enthusiastic researcher (that’s me) to go out and “get a quote”—usually in the form of an off-the-books visit to a dermatologist I could never otherwise afford. For this assignment, that role was played by Dr. Amy Wechsler, who charms out of a Central Park-adjacent practice on the Upper East Side. The waiting room is one of those demure, understatedly decorated affairs that just smells like you just missed Julianne Moore.

I had my putative results, my earnest if not overly technical research, and my newly casual approach to the term “fibroblast,” which I thought would come in handy. Amazingly, Dr. Wechsler confirmed my initial instinct about squishiness. “Collagen gives our skin its plumpness,” she said, laying it all out, and gently if obliquely diagnosing my creeping skin blah-ness. “We start to lose collagen probably around age 18, actually—it starts to slowly diminish.” It’s at this point I realize I’m 10 years past my own #PeakCollagen. Human agency plays a part though. “There are things we do to our skin or that we’re exposed to that break down collagen more quickly than in the normal aging process.”

At which point I started prattling on about my products and my collagen serum. I expected her to be impressed.

“I don’t think collagen serums work,” Weschler said. I tried to put myself back in my chair. “I’m very skeptical. There are a lot of serums and creams on the market that say they do a lot of things and it’s just marketing.” The collagen molecule is notoriously large, and can’t penetrate the dermis, which is where you need it. This is not to say any benefit you might see from a collagen product is psychosomatic or, worse, non-existent. “There might be some collagen products that are good moisturizers. And if your skin is well-moisturized, it’s going to look great—it’s going to be healthier, look younger—but it’s not because you absorb the collagen.”

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Collagen as the great anti-aging hope fell out of favor a few years back. Injectables were taken off the market, having suffered the twofold trouble of requiring an initial allergy test (being usually derived from pig) and, once injected, only lasting about three months. It was upgraded and replaced en masse by hyaluronic acid fillers like Restylane and Juvéderm, which required no tests and have more adjustable results. So, if you’re taken with the Kylie look, the injections you thought you were saving up for aren’t collagen at all.

In fact, the only collagen injections you can get today are of your own collagen. And at a hefty price. There’s a company called LAVIV (that’s la-veev) that Weschler says she’s worked with before to clear up otherwise-resistant acne scarring in patients. Here’s how the process works: After three behind-the-ear biopsies, the lab’s able to grow up your own individual fibroblasts, which live in the dermis and make collagen and elastin (told you fibroblasts would come into it). These fibroblasts then get injected back into a scar site, and your own skin works to produce more of itself, right where it needs it. Dr. Wechsler says she only turns to this process after she exhausts both topical and laser treatments. “It’s prohibitively expensive,” she says.

So if you can’t eat it, you can’t apply it, and you can’t afford to inject it, preservation is paramount. Wechsler suggests a holistic approach to prevent breakdown, one which she did indeed write the book on. “Sleeping enough, no smoking or secondhand smoke, wearing sunscreen—a good broad spectrum one and reapplying it—being really conscious about sun exposure, and keeping your stress level—or cortisol—down as much as possible.” Essentially exercise, sleep, and sex is what I’m hearing.

After the interview, I rushed home for my 4pm collagen feeding, even though the doctor shook her head when I mentioned the practice—“Again, you can’t eat collagen”—feeling a little silly for buying so readily into everything every time. But where would this industry (and, for that matter, my skin) be without a little faint hope and off-label experimentation? If we only did things that had been put through a 20-year trial, wouldn’t we still be 20 years behind? I’m not talking about living dangerously—I’ve still never even eaten that blowfish sushi—but is the hope of topical collagen providing anything beyond moisturization pure delusion?

Because the Mizon Collagen Serum I’d been using was changing more than just my mind. Other creams and serums might be chalked up to also-ran moisturizers, but this stuff is like sterling collagen—92%—and goes on slippery, the tiniest bit synth-y. Then it absorbs like a dream. It is eye-area rehab in a jar (well, ampule). A little bit of this stuff around your circles, morning and night, and you look as rested as a '90s model who now has lots of time to consider her vibrational wavelengths and shit. I used it on my whole face at first, but really saw big things happening in the eye area, and devoted it just to that spot. It’s damn hard, with all the eye creams I’ve been through, to imagine that there’s nothing special to this one.

So I reached out again to a slightly more sympathetic expert, though still plenty skeptical one—Peach and Lily Founder Alicia Yoon. Consider it a second opinion for my wounded illusions. Upon further reflection, it wasn’t very good for my vanity to see two women with such incredible resumés and skin in the same week. All in the pursuit of unlined foreheads everywhere…

Turns out the Korean market isn’t so easily baited-and-switched as this stateside one. “Consumers are very skincare-savvy in Korea, and many of them understand that collagen is likely not used by the skin as collagen itself, but it's an excellent humectant, which helps skin stay healthy,” says Yoon. And she hopes to get collagen through the skin, despite its molecular girth. “Micronized marine collagen is small enough to be absorbed by the skin, and there aren't any studies yet that show that ‘chopped up’ collagen can be used by skin cells to build collagen, but this is popular nonetheless because of the moisturizing properties. Some claim that their skin seems to be getting firmer faster than what might be from just well moisturized skin and stick with this religiously. Skincare is all about consistency, and if collagen is something that is making a positive impact on your skin and you can stick to it because you like how it feels, I say, it's worth it.”

A girl after my own heart.

For those interested in a measured, hybrid approach, there’s the high-tech natural route, here pioneered by Kat Burki (I was already a devotee before going full collagen Columbo). She makes a serum that smells just like your most redolent middle school memory, Bath and Body Works’ Cucumber Melon. It’s a clear gel that absorbs quickly and lets you power on to your next moisturizing step. Ms. Burki’s kept herself abreast of the collagenous reckonings of late, using keratin, a collagen derived from algae. No delusion here: “Collagen used topically is primarily for cosmetic benefits such as improving the texture of the skin and temporarily filling in fine lines and wrinkles,” Ms. Burki wrote to me over email. Here’s where she pivots into pure beauty gold: “Our [Marine Collagen Gel] utilizes collagen boosters so you not only get the cosmetic benefits of the lift and fill of the collagen ingredient, but the ingredients such as plant stems cells, silk amino acids, and reishi mushroom have proven effect to increase your own collagen production.”

That pivot is indicative of the paradigm in which the new wave of collagen products find themselves—in pursuit of preserving your own collagen, while throwing some actual tiny-molecule versions in for good moisturizing measure, and adding supporting ingredients that urge your own collagen to remake itself in its own image. I’m here to tell you that my own turnover rate is skyrocketing. I don’t want to go back to a de-collagenated serum ever. I don’t mind starting the next 20-year collagen trial, right here, right now. It can’t hurt. And if you’re interested in becoming part of the trial, start with the Mizon. And together we’ll protect our dermal share. The collagen of the future is here—and it really is your own.

—Trace Barnhill

Photographed by Tom Newton.

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