Collagen products carry claims of youthful skin. This RD breaks down the beauty-from-within trend.
By Janet Helm, MS, RDN
This article is based on reporting that features expert sources.
What Is Collagen Good for?
Collagen is a bit like oat bran in the ‘80s. It’s being added to everything.
Already popular in supplements and sports nutrition products, collagen is now popping up in a wide range of packaged foods and beverages – popcorn, instant oatmeal cups, soups, protein bars, flavored coffee creamers, wellness shots, cold-pressed juice and even water.
This sought-after ingredient has become one of the fastest-growing categories of functional foods. The global collagen market is projected to reach $7.5 billion by 2027, with an annual growth rate of 6.4%, according to a new report by Grand View Research.
It’s hard to miss the collagen craze. You can order a hit of collagen at coffee shops and smoothie counters. You’re likely to see it show up in your social media news feed. Food bloggers are adding spoonfuls of collagen peptides to trendy recipes – from matcha lattes and smoothies to energy bites and chia pudding.
Entire cookbooks are now devoted to collagen, with bold promises of glowing skin, stronger joints, improved immune function, great gut health, sustained weight loss and a “younger you.”
That’s a lot of power given to an inferior protein.
What Is Collagen?
Collagen is a protein – but it’s considered an incomplete protein because it lacks tryptophan, one of the nine essential amino acids.
Even so, collagen goes to work in our body in many powerful ways. Collagen is the body’s most abundant protein. It acts as a building block of bones, tendons, ligaments, skin, hair and nails. Collagen comes from the Greek word glue because that’s essentially what it does. Collagen forms our connective tissue and works like a glue that holds everything together.
Remember the Jell-O molds your mom used to make for the holidays? (Or, at least I recall those jiggly gelatin creations of my youth.) That was collagen going to work to help the fruit-flavored liquid transform into a spoonable dessert. You may not have realized at the time that the gelatin in the box was made by boiling bones.
The first inkling of what has become the current collagen trend was the promotion of gelatin capsules for strong nails. You can still buy those, but now it’s all about collagen – most often sold as powdered collagen peptides and collagen hydrolysates – and the claims are going well beyond nails.
If you search for collagen on Amazon, you’ll find over 7,000 results. Collagen products are no longer just showing up online and in grocery aisles, they’re also crowding the shelves at beauty supply stores like Ulta and Sephora. Touted as beauty supplements, they promise to boost beauty from the inside out – claiming to improve skin elasticity and firmness and nourish hair, skin and nails.
Even Bobbi Brown has expanded her famed makeup line to include beauty supplements with collagen, and Gwyneth Paltrow is selling collagen superpowders to stir into drinks for glowing skin.
What Does the Research Say?
It’s true that as we age, our bodies naturally start reducing collagen production. We can’t replace the collagen we lose as quickly as it breaks down. The most visible signs of our body’s decline in collagen are fine lines, wrinkles and sagging skin.
But will consuming more collagen actually help? There’s some evidence that collagen supplementation could be beneficial, however, many of the studies are small and partially funded by the collagen supplement industry.
A 2014 German study found that women aged 35 to 55 who took 2.5 or 5 grams of a collagen powder dissolved in water daily for eight weeks experienced significant improvement in skin elasticity. A U.K. industry-funded study published in the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging found that women who took 50 mL of a liquid collagen supplement daily for 60 days experienced a noticeable reduction in skin dryness and wrinkles and significant increases in skin firmness after 12 weeks compared to those who took a placebo.
A 2019 review of eight studies including 805 patients concluded: “Preliminary results are promising for the short and long-term use of oral collagen supplements for wound healing and skin aging. Oral collagen supplements also increase skin elasticity, hydration and dermal collagen density.”
Before beauty became so big, collagen was promoted for joint health. After all, collagen is a major component of our connective tissue.
A study conducted at Penn State involved 147 male and female athletes. Half of them took a liquid formula that contained 10 grams of collagen hydrolysate, and the other half took a liquid placebo. After 24 weeks, the collagen group had less joint pain at rest, and when walking, standing, lifting and carrying objects, compared to the control group.
I reached out to one of the country’s leading protein experts to see what he thought of the existing studies and find out if the collagen claims are really solid. Does collagen really work?
His answer: maybe.
Donald K. Layman, professor emeritus in the department of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois, told me the data is vague, but there could be a possible mechanism behind the claims.
“Collagen contains a very high content of glycine and arginine. These two amino acids may have an effect on stimulating growth hormone or other growth factors and tissue repair,” he told me via email.
So even though collagen is a poor quality protein, it may have unique effects on connective tissue repair because of the high amounts of these two amino acids, which are unique to collagen. For comparison, the whey protein that’s popular in protein shakes and sold as powdered supplements may be a complete protein, but it contains substantially less glycine and arginine.
What You Should Know
If you want to try collagen, choose a product without added sugars or flavors. Powders that are tasteless and odorless are best for adding to smoothies, coffee and other recipes.
Look for peptides, hydrolysates or hydrolyzed collagen on the label. That simply means the collagen has been broken up into shorter chains of amino acids to help it be absorbed. Aim for at least 10 grams a day, which appears to be the functional dose, Layman says.
Check labels to find the source of collagen. There are two main types of collagen:
Marine collagen, made from fish.
Animal collagen, made from cows (bovine), pigs (porcine) or chicken.
Increasingly, you’ll see “grass-fed” and “pasture-raised” also touted on the label, though there’s no evidence this source of collagen is in anyway different or better.
An emerging trend is so-called plant-based collagen, but there’s actually no collagen in those products. Instead they contain certain vitamins, herbs and other ingredients that supposedly aid collagen development in our body – but there’s no real science to back that up.
You may see the type of collagen on the label, identified as 1 through 5, based on the source and purported function. Some types are marketed for skin, such as type 1, while others are promoted for joints, often type 2. However, it’s unlikely that the type of collagen claiming to help different parts of your body are going to work exactly that way. Nice marketing, but collagen doesn’t really know where to show up to do its job in just the place you need it most.
Even so, there appears to be little risk of consuming collagen. The research has not shown any adverse reactions to collagen during the investigations. That’s good, although it may pose a danger to your pocket book. Collagen products can be expensive – take, for example, the Goop collagen drinks for $95.00 and tubs of collagen peptides powder for over $200.
Make Your Own Collagen
Better yet, why not try collagen the old-fashioned way and make your own long-simmered bone broth. You’ll find lots of recipes online for making bone broth in your slow cooker or Instant Pot. While you’re at it, add in loads of vegetables. And just keep moisturizing.
The U.S. News Health team delivers accurate information about health, nutrition and fitness, as well as in-depth medical condition guides. All of our stories rely on multiple, independent sources and experts in the field, such as medical doctors and licensed nutritionists. To learn more about how we keep our content accurate and trustworthy, read our editorial guidelines.
Donald K. Layman, PhD
Layman is professor emeritus in the department of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois.