Collagen (Topical): What Is It, Skin & Hair Benefits & Side Effects

Fact-Checker: Samantha Ward
This article was last updated on: April 6, 2023
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We’ve all been there—standing in the cosmetic aisle, scanning the shelves for a new skincare product, and feeling overwhelmed by the countless choices available. You pick up a promising-looking bottle and flip it over to read the ingredients list, only to be greeted by an array of unfamiliar terms and chemical names. It’s challenging to make sense of it all and determine which ingredients are truly beneficial for our skin.

One such ingredient that’s commonly found in cosmetic products is collagen. This protein, often touted for its myriad benefits, can be a source of confusion for many consumers.

In this article, we’ll delve deep into the world of topical collagen, exploring what it is, the skin benefits it offers, and any potential side effects (please note, this article isn’t looking at the nutritional benefits of collagen).

What is Collagen?

In the realm of cosmetics, collagen is a fibrous protein that plays a crucial role in maintaining the structure and elasticity of the skin. It is sometimes referred to as hydrolyzed collagen, soluble collagen, or atelocollagen. Collagen is derived from various animal sources, such as bovine, porcine, and marine, and can also be produced synthetically.

The primary purpose of collagen in cosmetic products is to provide moisturizing, conditioning, and anti-aging benefits. It works by forming a protective barrier on the skin’s surface, which helps retain moisture and improve hydration. In addition, collagen’s natural abundance of amino acids, such as proline and hydroxyproline, helps maintain the skin’s suppleness and elasticity.

Collagen is commonly found as part of a wider formulation of ingredients in various skincare products, such as creams, serums, and masks. It’ll usually appear on the INCI list as one of the following:

  • Collagen Amino Acids
  • Collagen Extract
  • Collagen Powder
  • Collagen Water
  • Hydrolyzed Collagen

It can also be purchased as a stand-alone product, typically in the form of a powder or liquid, which can be mixed with other skincare ingredients or taken as a dietary supplement.

In cosmetic formulations, collagen concentrations may vary depending on the specific product and its intended purpose. For example, a collagen-rich cream designed for mature skin may contain a higher concentration of collagen compared to a daily moisturizer.

Overall, collagen is a versatile and widely used ingredient in the cosmetic industry, known for its ability to support and rejuvenate the skin’s appearance.

Who Can Use Collagen?

Collagen is a versatile ingredient that is generally suitable for various skin types. It offers moisturizing and conditioning benefits, making it a popular choice for those with dry or mature skin. Its ability to improve skin elasticity and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles also makes it beneficial for individuals looking to combat the visible signs of aging. Additionally, collagen can be used by those with normal or combination skin, as it helps maintain overall skin health and hydration.

However, it’s essential to note that most collagen sources used in cosmetic products are derived from animals, such as cows, pigs, and fish. This means that traditional collagen-based products may not be suitable for vegans or vegetarians who avoid using animal-derived ingredients. Some alternative options, like plant-based collagen or collagen-boosting products containing ingredients like peptides and antioxidants, may be more suitable for those following a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle.

Collagen Doesn’t Replace Collagen

While collagen is known for its numerous benefits in skincare products, it’s essential to understand that it cannot directly replace or restore collagen levels in the skin. The reason for this lies in the molecular structure of collagen itself.

Collagen is a large molecule with a complex structure that prevents it from being absorbed through the skin’s outer layer. When applied topically, collagen can effectively form a barrier on the skin’s surface, helping to retain moisture and improve hydration. However, it cannot penetrate the deeper layers of the skin where collagen production occurs.

As a result, collagen in skincare products cannot directly replenish the collagen fibers within the dermis. Instead, it provides a temporary effect on the skin’s surface, offering hydration and improved texture. To stimulate collagen production and address age-related collagen loss, it is necessary to use other ingredients or treatments that can penetrate the skin’s deeper layers and trigger the body’s natural collagen synthesis.

Collagen Skin & Hair Benefits

Collagen offers various benefits, based on its official functions as a hair conditioning, moisturizing, and skin conditioning ingredient. Here are some of the primary advantages of incorporating collagen into your skincare routine:

  • Moisturizing: Collagen helps improve the skin’s moisture retention by forming a barrier on its surface. This barrier prevents water loss and keeps the skin hydrated, resulting in a plumper, more supple appearance. Adequate hydration is essential for maintaining overall skin health and combating the signs of aging.
  • Skin conditioning: As a skin conditioning agent, collagen provides essential amino acids and nutrients to the skin. This nourishment supports the skin’s natural repair processes, improving its overall texture and appearance. The conditioning properties of collagen also contribute to maintaining the skin’s elasticity and firmness.
  • Hair conditioning: While our focus is primarily on skincare, it’s worth mentioning that collagen also offers hair conditioning benefits. It can help improve hair’s moisture content, strength, and elasticity, resulting in smoother, healthier-looking locks.

It’s essential to note that the beneficial effects of collagen in cosmetic products are not permanent. To maintain these benefits, it’s necessary to use collagen-containing products consistently.

Collagen Potential Side Effects

It’s important to remember that side effects and reactions to cosmetic ingredients, such as collagen, can vary from person to person. Individual skin types, sensitivities, and allergies can all play a role in how a person’s skin reacts to a specific ingredient. To better understand your skin’s needs, it’s helpful to find your skin type.

Some potential side effects and interactions associated with collagen include:

  • Allergic reactions: Although rare, some individuals may experience allergic reactions to collagen, especially if they have a known allergy to the animal source from which the collagen is derived. Symptoms may include redness, itching, swelling, or rash.
  • Sensitivity or irritation: Some people may experience skin sensitivity or irritation when using products containing collagen. This can manifest as redness, itching, or a feeling of tightness or discomfort on the skin.

If you experience any of these side effects while using collagen or a product containing it, it’s essential to discontinue use and consult with a dermatologist or healthcare professional for further guidance. They can help you determine if the reaction is due to collagen or another ingredient in the product.

It’s important to note that adverse reactions to collagen are relatively rare, and generally speaking, the ingredient is considered safe and effective for most people. However, as with any cosmetic product, it’s essential to conduct a patch test before incorporating a new product into your skincare routine. This helps you identify any potential sensitivities or allergies in advance, reducing the risk of adverse reactions. For a step-by-step guide on how to perform a patch test, follow this patch testing guide.


Collagen is a valuable ingredient in the world of cosmetics, offering numerous benefits for skin and hair health.

Its moisturizing, conditioning, and anti-aging properties make it a popular choice for various skin types. However, it’s essential to keep in mind that collagen cannot directly replace or restore collagen levels in the skin, and its beneficial effects must be sustained through consistent use.

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