Is collagen powder a fountain of youth or just an overhyped trend?

Lecic / Shutterstock
Originally Published: 

The wellness world continues to be smitten with collagen. Sales of collagen powders and other supplements in the US reached $46.6 million in February 2018, jumping more than 30 percent from the year prior, per wellness data technology company SPINS LLC. These products often promise softer, more supple skin, stronger hair and nails, and beefier muscles. Do they really live up to these claims, though?

Experts tell Mic that there’s more evidence for some of these claims than others. Overall, though, the research on collagen supplements is still preliminary, so we can’t draw definitive conclusions about its effects just yet but it might be helpful to know in which direction you should throw your cash if you want to try collagen.

But first, a quick biology refresher. We already have collagen in our bodies; it's the primary structural protein in your body, making up skin, hair, nails, muscle, and other connective tissues, the Cleveland Clinic explains. Your body synthesizes collagen from amino acids, which it absorbs primarily from high-protein foods like meat, eggs, and milk. As you get older, your body becomes less efficient at producing collagen, resulting in wrinkly, saggy skin, and shrunken, weakened muscles.

Collagen supplements claim to turn back the clock. They’re made from cartilage, tendons, and other connective tissues (often from cows, pigs, or fish), which are heated, turning the collagen into gelatin, explains Jayne Seijin Joo, director of cosmetic dermatology at UC Davis Health. The gelatin gets degraded into hydrolysates, which can be further broken down into protein building blocks called peptides.

Can collagen supplements smooth my wrinkles, and strengthen my hair and nails?

For years, dermatologists used collagen injections to smooth wrinkles (before swapping them out with hyaluronic acid injections, which are less likely to trigger an allergic reaction), while collagen creams create a temporary lifting effect by pulling moisture toward the upper layers of the skin, explains Adam Friedman, a professor of dermatology at George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences. So while hooting collagen directly into your skin has been proven to be an effective way to tighten skin, whether collagen supplements have similar effects is less clear.

Yulia_Lisitsa / Shutterstock

Also, scientists still don’t know how much of an ingested collagen peptides gets absorbed from the gut into the bloodstream, or how much of it reaches the hair, skin, or nails, Joo says, although some animal and human studies suggest they do reach the skin. Research also has yet to determine whether the peptides are getting incorporated into the skin, or whether they’re stimulating other cells in the skin, such as fibroblasts, to make more collagen.

A recent review of 11 studies concluded that collagen supplements are “promising” for wound-healing and skin aging. But Friedman notes that many used different formulations of collagen, suggesting that such supplements are useful, but not which ones — for instance, collagen combined with another substance, versus collagen alone. Joo also notes that many studies on collagen supplements rely on subjects’ self-reported evaluations, rather than objective measures, of their wrinkles and other aspects of their skin’s appearance.

Friedman remains cautiously optimistic about whether collagen supplements can make skin look more youthful. “I think there is enough data to support that something is happening, but we need to figure out how to formulate it so it has benefits, and people aren’t just wasting their money.”

Can collagen supplements boost my muscle mass?

Despite fitness influencers promoting collagen powders on Instagram, evidence of collagen supplements increasing muscle protein synthesis is pretty scant. For starters, as in the case of skin, it’s unclear whether ingested collagen ends up in the muscles, says Katherine Beals, an associate clinical professor of nutrition and integrative physiology at the University of Utah.

Beals also points out that studies that suggest these products can increase muscle mass are often “methodologically flawed.” For instance, a majority involved giving subjects collagen supplements, say, an hour before they exercised, and demonstrated an increase in muscle protein synthesis over the next few hours — “but we don’t know if that acute change… will translate into long-term changes in lean body mass,” Beals says. Other studies pointing to the muscle-growing benefit of collagen compared it to a placebo, but of course, subjects who get supplements will perform better than those who get none at all. To gain a real sense of whether collagen can bulk up muscle, the researchers would have ideally compared it to other protein supplements.

Marco Govel / Stocksy

Plus, for a protein to promote muscle protein synthesis, it needs to contain all nine essential amino acids, the amino acids our body can’t make — but collagen lacks one of them, Beals says. Animal protein sources like whey and casein (both milk proteins), contain all nine.

“There are other supplements on the market that have a better research track record for improving muscle protein synthesis,” like the aforementioned milk proteins, as well as egg protein, Beals says. Studies have also shown that when these proteins get digested, the amino acids actually make it to the muscle and increase muscle protein synthesis, she adds.

Should I take collagen supplements?

Evidence that collagen supplements will make you look young and swole is still pretty thin, and since supplements aren’t FDA-regulated, brands don’t need to provide evidence to back their claims. So far, though, “no one has found any adverse effects,” Joo says. Collagen supplements may not help you — but they're not likely going to harm you, either. She suggests buying from a brand (such as Garden of Life) that sources their collagen from grass-fed, pasture-raised cows or pigs to help ensure a high-quality product, free of pesticides or other harmful substances Friedman agrees, noting that unless you have an allergy to collagen, it probably won’t hurt to take it.

If you want to preserve your collagen or help your body regenerate it, you could stick to methods that also enhance overall health and well-being. “I would make sure you’re getting a balanced diet, meeting the recommended dietary allowance for vitamin C”— 90 milligrams a day for men 19 and older, and 75 milligrams a day for women 19 and older—“and don’t smoke,” Beals says.