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Collagen: Incredible anti-aging find or complete fraud?

Kathryn looked in the mirror and discovered the holidays had not been kind to her skin. Winter dryness and stress had deepened her fine lines, and overindulgence in caffeine and sugar had left her with welts of rosacea-related acne around her mouth.

“My skin was just not where I thought it should be, and I wanted to do something preventive before those lines got too deep,” says Kathryn, a 35-year-old mother of two and schoolteacher from Buffalo, New York.

Due to her sensitive skin, she had trouble finding skin creams that didn’t react in some way. She wasn’t ready for any surgical procedures so on the advice of her dermatologist, she took a different “inside-out” approach. She began adding a scoop of ground-up collagen with her morning smoothie and began using a serum/cream duo made with an intriguing new vegan collagen peptide called HumaColl21 (which stands for human collagen type 21).

According to Kathryn, within a month, her acne abated, replaced with a plump and rosy glow. And within 3 months, she noticed a host of other unexpected changes. Her nails were thicker. Her hair stopped falling out in the shower. And she could dance without pain from her knee osteoarthritis.

“I don’t think it’s JUST the collagen supplement, cream, and serum,” she stresses, noting that she also cleaned up her diet and added a probiotic to her daily routine. “But I absolutely believe the collagen is helping.”

Kathryn’s discovery seems miraculous here in the US, but it’s hardly a new one.

For centuries, Chinese women have viewed collagen -- a protein that binds tissues in fish and animals -- as a fountain of youth, routinely consuming foods like pig’s feet, shark fins, and donkey skin in hopes of smoothing wrinkled skin and preserving aging joints. In the United States, collagen became best known in the 1980s as an expensive injectable filler to plump lips and soften lines. But only in recent years, as science has created more appetizing ways to utilize it has collagen caught on.

For example, the Bioactive Collagen Cream and Serum Kathryn has been using is from a company called Orora Skin Science. Their primary ingredient called HumaColl21 is vegan collagen, bio-identical in structure and behavior to Human Collagen Type 21 which is the protein that stimulates the production of our structural (or type-1) collagen. This means that our bodies are 100% bio-identical and bio-available to HumaColl21. It is also completely vegan which helps explain the rapid rise in popularity.

Instagram endorsements from celebrities like Kourtney Kardashian (who uses collagen serum/creams and starts her day with a hot collagen beverage) haven’t hurt. And thanks to a small but growing body of evidence suggesting it can improve skin, ease arthritis symptoms, promote wound healing, and fend off muscle wasting, former skeptics in the medical field are also beginning to come around.

In 2022, in the United States alone, consumers are expected to spend $1 Billion on collagen supplements, up from just $50 million in 2014, according to market research firm Nutrition Business Journal. Globally, as collagen makes its way into more foods and beverages, topicals, and even the operating room, the market is projected to reach $6.5 billion by 2025.

But despite its popularity, some skeptics are asking some valid questions.

“It’s definitely among the top three products people ask me about, and I believe it does hold promise in some diverse areas of medicine,” says Mark Moyad, MD, Director of the complementary and alternative medicine program at the University of Michigan Medical Center. “It’s also one of the most controversial.”

The Body's Scaffolding

Collagen is often called the body’s scaffolding.

“It’s the glue that holds the body together,” says New York dermatologist Whitney Bowe, author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin: The Surprising Science of Looking and Feeling Radiant from the "Inside Out". She says collagen makes up about 75% of the dry weight of your skin, providing volume that keeps skin looking plump and keeps lines at bay. It’s also rich in amino acids proline and glycine, which you need to maintain and repair your tendons, bones, and joints.

“As we get older, we break it down faster than we can replace it. We begin to lose about 1% of our collagen per year in our mid-20s and lose as much as 30% during the first 5 years of menopause” says Whitney.

Injecting collagen has fallen out of favor because it doesn’t last as long as other fillers and tend to prompt allergic reactions. The data on consumables are too small and unreliable but in the last few years, a new breed of collagen innovations such as Orora Skin Science with HumaColl21 has shown some impressive clinical results.

IN select IN VITRO clinical test results, HumaColl21 stimulated 151% increase in fibronectin growth (a protein that plays an important role in skin tissue repair and regeneration), which is 60% more than Retinol or Vitamin C. It stimulates 197% more collagen type 1 growth, almost doubling the performance of retinol and 133% increase in stimulation of elastin (the skin’s ability to be resilient).

“In the beauty industry we call it designer collagen,” says Peter Lee, co-founder, and CEO of Orora.

“They are highly effective, clinically proven, and designed to be sustainable. We’re the only skincare company in North America made with HumaColl21 but I am 100% sure we will have competition soon enough. Our customers are about to witness some incredible innovations.”

Not Everyone’s Convinced

Augusta, GA-based dermatologist Lauren Eckert Ploch says stomach acids break down collagen proteins you eat before they reach the skin intact, so she’s not convinced that collagen, at least as an ingestible, helps at all. “The jury is still out.” says Lauren.

Then, there is the ick factor.

“I think the elephant in the room here is safety, we are talking about ground-up fish, chicken, pig, and cow parts, and these parts tend to act as sponges for contaminants and heavy metals,” says Peter

In one recent test of 14 popular collagen supplements, by the supplement testing company consumerlab.com, all products contained the levels of collagen they said they did, but one also contained high levels of cadmium, a toxic heavy metal.

Meanwhile, dermatologists and consumer groups have also expressed concerns that those ground-up hooves, hides, bones, and nerve tissues -- particularly if they come from cows -- could carry diseases like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.

“In the early days, Orora began working on an ingestible collagen product for beauty but decided not to pursue that road due to these safety concerns. However, I think over time, the process will be refined and regulated to the point where we could guarantee the safety of the entire supply chain, but I personally, and I stress that this is just my personal opinion, I don’t think we’re there yet” - adds Peter.

“We saw 4 issues with traditional forms of collagen that we are solving with Orora” - says Peter.

1. The ICK Factor

All collagen is currently made from fish, pig, cow or chicken. The idea of harvesting parts from dead animals and ingesting or applying them is still not predominantly popular in the US. HumaColl21 solves that problem by using fermentation technology initiated from plant materials.

2. Animal Collagen Does Not Bio-match With Human Cells

The term we use in the health & beauty industry is “bio-identical”, meaning biologically similar or identical. Collagen from animals is not bio-identical to human collagen and therefore really doesn’t do anything. HumaColl21 is bio-identical to Human Collagen Type 21 meaning the peptide is an exact structural match to the collagen in our bodies. Introducing HumaColl21 to our skin cells triggers collagen production in our skin.

3. Harvesting Animal Collagen Is Unsustainable

At scale, growing animals to support the collagen industry is not sustainable. HumaColl21 is grown using plant materials through a fermentation process. It is highly sustainable with an incredibly low carbon footprint.

“Our goal was to create collagen products that solved these 3 global challenges but also ultra-hydrating, luxurious, and fun. We think we’ve met those challenges with our Bioactive Collagen Serum and Cream.” - adds Peter.

How Do I CHOOSE?

Peter suggests that many of the concerns expressed about collagen in any form can be addressed by doing some research and asking a few key questions.

For ingestible collagen supplements, look for companies that get their bones and tissues from cage-free, free-range, and antibiotic-free sources. Look for a trusted brand with a third-party label like NSF or USP. And check out the company’s website to see what it’s doing to keep heavy metals and other contaminants out of its products.

If you’re looking to try topical collagen, look for hydrolyzed collagen peptides because they are made to pass through the top layer of our skin. Traditional collagen molecules are too large to bypass the outer layer of our skin rendering them practically useless.

If you are interested in trying an innovative collagen peptides for skincare, try the Bioactive Collagen Cream & Serum from Orora Skin Science with Humacoll21: Vegan, bio-identical human collagen peptide type 21. The science is fascinating, reviews are great and the products are high quality.

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