The market for dietary supplements is extremely profitable, and the industry shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, the supplements industry is projected to exceed $361.4 billion (yes, you read correctly, billion with a b) by 2032.
It makes sense; people are more concerned than ever with preventative health, and the focus on diet as a factor in well-being has grown. Also, taking a supplement or two (or three, or four, or ten) gives a consumer a sense of control over their own health. This can be especially true for people with chronic conditions, who often wrestle with refractory symptoms and the side effects of prescription treatments.
Eczema (atopic dermatitis) is one such condition. This chronic skin disorder can be severe, and even with the best treatments, residual symptoms can remain. Supplement makers have taken note, and there are numerous products marketed to eczema sufferers.
Of all these supplements, collagen seems to be enjoying a heyday. A quick Google search will yield pages upon pages of ads explaining how collagen supplements can help with eczema symptoms. A consumer can choose between marine collagen (collagen derived from sea life) or bovine (cow-derived) collagen, then choose whether they want it in tablets, powders, or liquids.
What Is Collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein found in your body. The word is derived from the Greek roots kolla, meaning glue, and gen, meaning “producing–” a good description for this protein, which is found extensively in connective tissue. Collagen is a tough, fibrous protein that gives connective tissue form and strength; it also supports regeneration of cells. It gives the skin elasticity and firmness and helps it heal more rapidly.
Cells called fibroblasts are responsible for collagen synthesis within the body. Outside the body, collagen can be found in the bones, skin, and cartilage of cattle and pigs; gelatin, which is widely used in food preparation, comes mostly from cowhides. It can also be found in jellyfish, fish scales, and sea sponges.
There are at least 28 different types of collagen, each with its own unique qualities determined by the “arrangement” of its amino acids. Over 90% of the collagen in the human body is Type I collagen; fibroblasts in the skin synthesize both Type I and Type IV collagen.
Does My Skin Need Collagen?
Collagen synthesis is clearly an important part of the skin’s health. But can this “glue-producing” protein really help eczema?
In a word, yes. Collagen is an important part of your skin’s barrier function. Inadequate collagen synthesis can lead to problems ranging from dryness to poor healing. Mutations on the COL6A6 gene, which is responsible for the synthesis of collagen, correlate very strongly with eczema.
As necessary as collagen is, though, is it helpful to get it through supplements? Well…the jury hasn’t yet reached a verdict.
From the Inside Out
For decades, collagen has been a heavily-touted ingredient in nail treatments, shampoos, conditioners, and moisturizers. These products were supposed to prevent split ends, plump out thinning skin, and prevent brittle nails–collagen was a miracle protein, a glow-up in a bottle.
The hypothesis underlying these products seems pretty sound on its face: your skin, nails, and hair need collagen to maintain vitality, so why not put the collagen directly where it’s needed?
It isn’t that simple, though. Remember how we said there are 28 known types of collagen in the human body? Well, those different types all play different roles. Getting collagen exogenously (from sources outside of the body) doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get the type of collagen you need to address your exact needs. In addition to that, collagen molecules are usually too large to penetrate the skin.
This isn’t to say that there is no value to topical collagen; some studies suggest that it does offer some protection for vulnerable skin. Other studies have found that topical collagen applications correlate to faster healing for wounds and abrasions. Both of these are clearly beneficial during an eczema flare when the skin needs all the help it can get.
Multiple studies suggest that topical collagen will not help the body synthesize endogenous collagen; it’s far better, researchers say, to provide the body with the tools it needs to synthesize its own collagen. This means eating a diet high in vitamins A, C, E, and D–and possibly supplementing those vitamins.
What about taking collagen supplements by mouth? That’s a little bit trickier to suss out. In early studies on age-related collagen loss, collagen supplements seemingly offered negligible benefits. Earlier studies on collagen supplementation and eczema suggested the same. Collagen breaks down too rapidly in the digestive tract for oral supplements to offer any clear benefit to eczema sufferers, say some researchers.
Recent studies, though, seem to show a link between collagen supplementation and improved healing time/reduced inflammation in eczema patients.
A 2017 study led by the Japanese Institute for Investigative Dermatology found that eczema patients taking collagen tripeptides had lower blood levels of inflammatory cytokines and chemokines than eczema patients who did not supplement. While the study didn’t definitively prove that collagen supplements help eczema flares, it suggests that they could, if given within the right parameters.
In 2022, a Canadian study found that marine collagen, which is taken from fish, jellyfish, and sponges, contributed to improved skin barrier function and faster healing of the skin. The reason for this seems to be that this kind of collagen stimulates the migration of fibroblasts. We already know that fibroblasts play a key role in collagen synthesis; they also act as “flying squads,” migrating from their source to deal with damaged tissues. This migration is inhibited in eczema-prone skin. Marine collagen seems to enhance the dermal fibroblasts’ ability to migrate from the dermis to other layers of the skin as needed during eczema flares.
The study’s authors note that marine collagen peptides have a smaller molecular weight than most traditional bovine collagen supplements. This means that they are more easily absorbed by the body’s tissues.
To Supplement or Not To Supplement
Should you be supplementing? It’s the million-dollar (or $360 billion dollar) question in healthcare today. In the case of eczema, the answer seems to be a very strong “probably.”
The most promising studies in recent years have focused on hydrolyzed collagen, most especially marine collagen. This makes a difference: collagen molecules are usually too large to be easily absorbed. Hydrolysis breaks collagen down into peptide chains that are more soluble. Look for supplements containing “hydrolyzed collagen,” “hydrolysate collagen,” or “collagen peptides” for best results.
Don’t forget that there are almost 30 known types of collagen. Marine collagen in particular seems to be an excellent source of Type I collagen–the type of collagen most abundant in the skin.
You shouldn’t casually take supplements of any kind, including collagen. Talk to an experienced, board-certified dermatologist before adding any new supplement to your daily routine. Supplements could possibly interfere with other medications you are taking; discuss this fully with your care provider.
Also, collagen supplements can contain allergens. Those of us with fish or shellfish allergies in particular should read supplement labels carefully, especially when it comes to marine collagen. Fillers in supplements can often be allergenic, too: wheat, soy, and corn starch are just a few common filler ingredients that are known to cause allergies. Read the labels carefully, especially the allergen information, before using a supplement.
Be Realistic: Does Collagen Help Eczema?
The goal of supplementation isn’t just to randomly slap some collagen onto a damaged system, but to stimulate your own body’s collagen synthesis and fibroblast migration. For this reason, collagen supplements should be regarded as one small part of managing your eczema.
A diet rich in vitamins A, C, D, and E will give your body the building blocks required to synthesize collagen, repair damaged skin cells, and improve skin barrier function–all important aspects of managing eczema. Speak to your doctor about supplementing with these vitamins if you don’t think you’re getting enough of them in your diet.
Collagen supplements show a lot of promise, but there are no guarantees. There are multiple factors at play in eczema, and they differ from one patient to another. This is definitely a case of YMMV–your mileage may vary. If you do decide to supplement, don’t expect immediate results. Give it some time; keep a journal and take photos (same light every day) over time to track your skin’s response to supplements.
Eczema has no cure. Flares can happen to the healthiest among us, whether we supplement or not. When they do, SmartLotionⓇ, our eczema cream, is there to help tame the redness and itch that make eczema so draining.
SmartLotionⓇ is formulated with prebiotic ingredients that support a healthy microbiome and optimal barrier function. Because of this, it can effectively treat inflammation with a lower dose of hydrocortisone (0.075%) than most eczema creams–bringing you relief without the threat of topical steroid withdrawal or skin atrophy.
Ultimately, collagen supplements should not be regarded as a miracle treatment, but as part of an empowered self-care regimen. If you decide that they’re right for you, you should still avoid your triggers, moisturize regularly, and follow your doctor’s treatment plan. Be confident, and be prepared–SmartLotionⓇ will be on standby, ready to help you with any residual eczema symptoms.