Collagen supplements seem to be taking the world by storm, but what is collagen actually good for? Collagen-enriched powders, drinks, tablets and functional foods boast multiple health benefits, including stronger bones and healthier joints. Yet, one of the main reasons why these products are popular is their promise of youthful skin and prolonged beauty.
“Collagen is the structural protein that gives our skin bounce and also makes it feel firm,” says Nina Prisk, a cosmetic nurse at Update Aesthetics. “But as a natural part of the aging process, our collagen levels decline, and as they do so this impacts the appearance and feel of the skin, which, in time begins to wrinkle and sag. For years people have been keen to try and replace some of this lost collagen in a bid to keep skin looking and feeling healthy.”
Stopping the aging process in its tracks is the dream of many. But does collagen live up to the hype? And is there enough evidence to back up these claims? Before you rush to buy your collagen supplement, keep reading to find out what collagen is, where it comes from and what science says about its potential health and beauty benefits.
What is collagen?
The word collagen comes from the Greek language and means ‘glue’ – and for a good reason. According to an article published in the Annals of Medicine, collagen refers to a family of proteins that are the primary structural component of connective tissues, such as skin and cartilage. It’s the most abundant protein in the human body and its primary role is to ‘glue’ it together.
There are 28 types of collagen, each one categorized on its amino acid composition. About 90% of the collagen in the body is type 1, which is found in the skin, tendons, internal organs and organic parts of bone. The vast majority of the remaining collagen in the body is made up of the following types:
- Type 2: Found in the cartilage
- Type 3: Found in the bone marrow and lymphoid tissues
- Type 4: Found in the basement membrane (thin sheets of collagen that surround most types of tissues)
- Type 5: Found in the hair and the surfaces of cells
If the body struggles to produce collagen efficiently, it can manifest in a range of health problems, including chondrodysplasia, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, Alport syndrome, Bethlem myopathy and some cases of osteoporosis, arterial aneurysms and intervertebral disc disease. Collagen production also declines with age and exposure to factors such as smoking and UV light.
“Our collagen levels start dropping from our mid 20s,” says Prisk. “Even though this process is natural it can get speeded up by lifestyle and environmental factors, such as sun exposure and poor diet.”
Where does collagen come from?
There are many ways of administering collagen, but not all of them are effective. “Applying collagen topically on the skin isn’t ideal because collagen doesn’t absorb well,” says Prisk. “In the past injecting collagen was used in medical skincare, however that is no longer as popular because in general it didn’t last as long as fillers and in some cases caused a reaction.”
Nutrition remains the most important factor in the production of collagen. To get the components it needs, first the body needs to break down dietary protein into amino acids. The amino acids are what build the various types of protein in the body, including collagen.
“Many foods contain the nutrients needed to form collagen, such as salmon, leafy greens, eggs, berries, pumpkin seeds, and more,” says Prisk. “However many people don’t get enough of these in their diet and so for those wishing to supplement their collagen further, supplements can be an option.”
What is collagen good for?
Collagen supplements are widely marketed to consumers for purported benefits in wrinkle reduction, skin rejuvenation, skin-aging reversal, and skin plumping. The claims may sound grandiose, but a significant body of evidence suggests they may be true.
According to a comprehensive meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Dermatology, hydrolyzed collagen supplementation shows favorable results in terms of skin hydration, elasticity and wrinkles. These findings were consistent across all 19 studies included.
“Specific collagen supplementation has many benefits for skin as it can be effective at stimulating the fibroblasts, which are the collagen producing cells,” says Dr Emma Hughes, a consultant doctor and Pura Collagen expert. “Supplements are definitely a cost-effective way to see long-term results if taken consistently.”
Does collagen help hair growth? Hair’s main component is a protein called keratin, which structurally is similar to collagen. Collagen molecules are primarily made up of three non-essential amino acids: proline, glycine, and hydroxyproline. Prolin is also the main precursor of keratin. In theory, eating foods rich in proline should provide your body with the building blocks it needs to create hair.
However, there’s a shortage of studies that would prove this claim and many researchers are sceptical about the connection between collagen consumption and hair quality. What’s more, many scientists warn against believing in such unsubstantiated proclamations, as shown in an article for the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology.
Nevertheless, it’s possible that collagen can still help with hair growth. Collagen can act as an antioxidant and fight damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals form in the body in response to stress, environmental pollutants, smoking, alcohol, poor diet and many other factors. If there’s too many of them, the body enters into a state of oxidative stress, which can lead to cell DNA damage and many chronic diseases.
According to a review published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science, oxidative stress is harmful to hair follicles and is one of the reasons why elderly adults are sensitive to excessive hair loss. As such, collagen supplementation could have a beneficial effect on hair growth and maintenance, but more research is needed to confirm this.
One of the most researched aspects of collagen supplementation is its effect on joint health, particularly among professional and recreational athletes. Repetitive impact and excessive mechanical resistance can have a detrimental effect on musculoskeletal health over time. A significant body of evidence points to collagen consumption as a way to alleviate these issues. For example, a systematic review recently published in the Amino Acids journal demonstrates how collagen peptide supplementation can increase the rate of collagen synthesis and decrease perceived joint pain among athletes.
Many studies have also investigated the effect of collagen supplementation on the onset and progression of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. These chronic conditions cause the collagen in joints to break down faster than it can be replenished, which results in joint pain and decreased mobility. Many studies have pointed out that ingesting collagen can help with the symptoms of arthritis, like in the meta-analysis published in the International Orthopaedics journal. However, collagen is not likely to begin regrowing itself to reverse arthritis, even after a person takes oral supplements, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
On the other hand, surgically inserting collagen into arthritic joints may prove to be a promising treatment for arthritis, according to a 2018 study published in the journal PLOS One.
Collagen supplements have been shown to help with joint health, but there’s also evidence that they can have a positive impact on bone health as well. According to a review published in Dental Materials Journal, collagen peptides derived from the skin, bones and scales of fish may help regulate the proliferation of osteoblasts (bone-growing cells) and the synthesis of collagen-modifying enzymes in humans. They may also promote healthy bone mineralization processes, preventing potential cracks and breakages.
Other types of collagen supplements have also shown promising results. A study published in the journal Nutrients investigated the effect of 12-month daily oral administration of 5g collagen peptides on bone mineral density in postmenopausal women. The findings suggested that this intervention resulted in increased bone formation and reduced bone degradation among study participants.
Still, there is conflicting evidence. A study in the Maturitas journal tested the effect of collagen hydrolysates obtained from gelatins on bone metabolism markers in postmenopausal women with low bone mineral density and found no significant improvements to their bone structure.
Collagen has been successful for treating wounds and has been used to do so for more than 2,000 years, according to a study published in BioMedical Engineering OnLine. The collagen is applied topically, often with other structural proteins and antibiotics, to promote healing and prevent infection.
Should you take a collagen supplement?
When considering this, it is important to first factor in how your diet and lifestyle are affecting collagen production in your body. If you have a poor diet, smoke or tend to spend long hours in the scorching sun without applying sunscreen, adding a supplement may not produce any significant health benefits. In this case, focusing on lifestyle change, rather than supplements, may be a great first step to improving your skin and joint health.
If you decide to try collagen supplements, make sure that the product you choose provides a good absorption of active ingredients.
“I recommend choosing a supplement with bioactive collagen peptides, which are able to partially survive the digestion process without breaking down,” says Hughes. “These surviving peptides are used by the body to stimulate specific collagen producing cells within the tissues, leading to beautiful, youthful-looking skin and healthy, stronger joints for longer.”
Your supplement should also feature high-quality ingredients. “I recommend looking for collagen blends that are clean – i.e. free from fillers, stabilisers and sweeteners – that use patent hydrolysed collagen peptides, and products that utilise key supporting ingredients like vitamin C and biotin that support the body’s natural collagen production,” says Hughes.
She also emphasizes the importance of consistency. “Most collagen supplements are designed to be taken daily. Consistency is key to maximise the health, wellness and beauty properties. If you stop taking collagen regularly, the body’s production of collagen will slowly revert back to its natural rate,” she says.