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November 23, 2011

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The skinny on the craze for collagen

WHEN the weather is cold and dry, collagen treatments and supplements start appearing on store shelves - pills, powders, creams, liquids - the array is bewildering. Zhang Qian finds out what works.

Pig's trotters in sweet vinegar is a favorite dish in China, especially in cold, dry winter when the skin dries out. Apart from the rich nutrition and taste, trotters are favored by women who say the cartilage within nourishes the complexion because it's high in collagen.

Pharmacies, groceries and fast-food stores are filled with collagen products - pills, powders, creams, masks and supplement drinks. Some women take collagen injections to plump up the wrinkles on their face.

There's a bewildering array of collagen products and it's hard for laymen to know what's best. Doctors say long-term use of collagen supplements in pill or liquid form (with tiny molecules) is probably most effective, and eating collage-rich foods may be helpful because the digestive system breaks the molecules down to make them bio-available.

External application of creams is generally less effective, according to Dr Wang Yifei, dermatologist at Yueyang Hospital attached to Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

"I won't say external application won't work at all, but it depends on how small the molecules are, the smaller the better," he says. Treatment needs to be regular and long-term to see any significant effects or reduced signs of aging.

Collagen, a protein, makes up about one quarter of the body's protein and occurs naturally in humans and animals. It is needed for bones, organs, connective tissue and healthy skin.

Collagen is the major component of the epidermis, which helps preserve water and keep the skin supple and elastic. Collagen production reaches its peak at age 20-25 and then starts to decline.

By age 45 reduced collagen production is evident in drier skin, lines and wrinkles. Generally the skin of a person 50-60 years old contains no more than half the collagen in the skin of those 20-25 years of age.

Dry skin and reduced collagen production is also caused and worsened by prolonged exposure to the sun, environmental pollution, smoking, over-washing with strong soap, too much hot water and too much rubbing.

Replacing collagen is recommended for people older than 25, Dr Wang says.

Chinese tradition focuses on making up for nutrient and energy losses through food therapy, in other words, eating what you need.

Pig's trotters, which are rich in collagen, is high on the list. The skins of pigs, chicken and fish are also good, as are white fungus and some kinds of seaweed.

E jiao, which is made from donkey skin in a complicated process, is a popular reinforcing ingredient believed to aid in collagen production.

The size of the collagen molecule determines the effectiveness of the treatment, Dr Wang says.

The big, naturally occurring collagen molecule cannot be directly absorbed by the skin, but the digestive system breaks it down so that it can be absorbed. Hydrolyzed collagen is a form of supplement that is easy to absorb and often recommended.

"Eating food that contains collagen and is high in amino acids can also help boost the body's production of college," Dr Wang says.

Chicken, eggs, dairy and soybeans are on the list.

To keep the skin nourished continuously, small, long-term, regular doses are recommended. Dr Wang recommends using the smallest recommended dosage in package instructions, adding that not all packaging information is reliable; some products that are advertised as being high in usable collagen may actually not be very effective.

He warns against taking too much, since that can burden the digestive system.


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