Collagen has long been part of the white noise of cosmetics marketing for me. However, the buzz has become so loud I had to see what all the fuss was about. The most abundant protein in the human body’s connective and conjunctive tissues, collagen is the scaffolding for our skin, joints, muscles, tendons, bones, teeth, nails and hair. With age and environmental factors, collagen production decreases and natural enzymes break it down. Our skin loses elasticity, wrinkles appear and sagging begins around our 20s. It’s no wonder, then, that collagen is being touted as the fountain of youth. K-beauty: the ugly face of South Korea’s obsession with the way women look You’ve probably seen masks, creams, lip plumpers and serums containing collagen. Oprah Winfrey, 65, is said to use SkinMedica’s TNS Recovery Complex, a gel that goes on after cleansing and before moisturising and which promises a host of benefits, including improved skin elasticity. But it’s not just about face cream. Collagen has been used as an injectable skin plumper for decades, although it has been eclipsed by more effective wrinkle eradicators. It’s big business, with beauty retailers such as Sephora listing more than 360 collagen products. Excitement over ingestible collagen hit fever pitch last year, with beauty bloggers waxing lyrical about powders added to their smoothies, and even coffee creamers. Former American first lady Michelle Obama, whose skin is perpetually glowing, apparently uses collagen, too. The 55-year-old’s facialist, Jennifer Brodeur, espouses the virtues of collagen supplements, such as withinUs’ TruMarine Collagen. It is the latest ingredient to fuel the multibillion-dollar beauty supplements market. Ironically, the region targeted for the biggest growth in supplements is Asia-Pacific, where we’ve consciously consumed collagen for hundreds of years. Bird’s nest soup is a Chinese delicacy precisely because it is rich in collagen and vitamins. Eu Yan Sang sells a bottled bird’s nest with pearl powder and collagen. In Japan, restaurants advertise collagen-infused dishes and drinks for better skin. Indeed, some Western doctors recommend home-made bone soup as the best way to ingest collagen. The promise of collagen in facials is hardly new, but the “penis facial” that American actress Sandra Bullock swears by has thrust it into the headlines. Officially known as the Hollywood EGF facial, it includes a serum with an “epidermal growth factor” derived from what are euphemistically called neonatal fibroblast cells, aka circumcised baby foreskin. In more grisly examples, collagen also comes from corpses and aborted foetuses. However, the main sources are the cartilage, bones and hides of cows, pigs, fish and certain plants. As it’s not regulated, consumers rarely have the opportunity to verify whether the collagen is free from pesticides, antibiotics or heavy metals. Vegan, halal and kosher labelling is also not guaranteed. This is where my contrarian nature kicks in. First, celebrities and bloggers are a self-selecting group of beauty and wellness-obsessed individuals with unparalleled access to the latest treatments. Many of them also happen to regularly have fillers, Botox, laser and other cosmeceutical treatments. Second, collagen isn’t the only ingredient in the products and procedures. Vitamin C, retinol, chemical peels, LED, radio frequency and microneedling are often mentioned, too. It’s no coincidence that they are all thought to promote the production of collagen. Third, its efficacy remains unproven. The research is scant and mostly conducted by the brands themselves. Fourth, collagen molecules are too large to be absorbed deeply enough into the skin to stimulate new collagen production. Further, when collagen is digested, it is broken down into amino acids like any other protein. There are other ways to try to reduce collagen degradation naturally and inexpensively. A healthy diet could help produce collagen, with protein-rich foods as well as vitamin C, zinc and copper. As if we haven’t heard it often enough, our best anti-ageing defence involves sunscreen, regular exercise, not smoking, a diet low in sugar and a skincare routine. So, collagen isn’t the fountain of youth. Have you tried snake oil?