Collagen 101: What the Research Says, Myths and More
Talk of collagen seems to be everywhere these days. Beauty magazines tell us that it’s the secret to glowing skin, lustrous hair and unbreakable nails. Exercise enthusiasts tell us that it can enhance our workout while reducing joint pain. Diet blogs tell us it might even help with weight loss.
A simple trip to the drug store yields collagen products across every aisle, from face creams to powders and protein bars.
But what is collagen? And, why are some talking about it as the modern-day fountain of youth?
This article provides the basics about this important protein and reviews some of the initial, promising research on collagen supplements, as well as some of the claims that aren’t supported by current evidence.
What Is Collagen?
Collagen is a protein that all mammals — including people — produce. It serves as a building block for our hair, skin, nails, muscles, tendons and even blood vessels. It’s actually the most abundant protein in humans, making up 75 percent of the skin’s dry weight and 30 percent of our body’s total protein mass. Collagen itself is made up of amino acids, most notably glycine, proline and hydroxyproline.
As we get older, our bodies naturally produce less collagen and sun damage can further decrease our collagen production. This decrease in collagen may account for some of the classic signs of aging in many people — like loss of muscle tone, sagging skin or aching joints.
We may be able to improve our collagen production through the nutrients in our diets. Protein-rich foods like meat, poultry, seafood, dairy and beans are good sources of glycine, proline and other amino acids. The process of making collagen also relies on vitamin C, which can be found in citrus fruits.
Today, there are also a number of products that contain collagen as a dietary supplement. Collagen supplements are usually made from the skin and bones of animals and fish and are available most often as powders, but are also sold as gummies, capsules or even protein bars.
Why Are People Supplementing with Collagen for Beauty Purposes?
Even in the crowded field of vitamins and supplements, it seems like collagen is getting all the attention with headlines touting its benefits and celebrities hyping their favorites on social media. And, products made from or with collagen aren’t limited to pills, powders or skin creams — there are pillow cases, clothing and even a Japanese beer.
If the celebrity hype isn’t convincing enough, just look at the Google data. The number of people searching Google to learn more about collagen has more than tripled in the last three years, and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon.
All of this attention may not just be attributable to social media influencing, however.
As it happens, there is some evidence suggesting that taking collagen supplements may help promote glowing skin, lustrous hair and strong nails, as well as support the health of joints and muscles.
However, there's also a lot we don’t know — or at least haven’t studied — about collagen yet, and we think it's important to go over this stuff, too.
Collagen Supplements Can Promote Your Skin’s Natural Glow
Good skin is one of those things that’s hard to explain, but we know it when we see it. A lot of us are seeking ways to improve the glow of our skin.
When researchers try to quantify the things that make skin look good, some of the things they look for include elasticity (its ability to go back to normal after its been stretched), hydration or moisture, roughness and wrinkles (some studies actually measure the depth of wrinkles).
One study evaluated the effects of taking a collagen supplement on various age-related skin factors. Sixty-nine women ages 35 to 55 took either a 2.5g or 5g collagen supplement or a placebo once a day for eight weeks. At the end of the study, the skin of the group taking the supplement had improved skin elasticity compared to the placebo group.
Another study gave participants — 64 women aged 40 to 60 — a 1g collagen supplement or placebo once daily for 12 weeks and found that participants who took the supplement had significantly higher skin-hydration values after six weeks, and improved overall elasticity and skin wrinkling after 12 weeks vs. the placebo group. At the end of the study, the supplement group also scored higher on a visual assessment of skin wrinkling.
The results of two clinical trials published together also measured skin hydration and added a measure of collagen density in the skin after eight weeks of supplement use. It found improvements in both for participants who were given a supplement compared to those who took a placebo.
Collagen Supplements May Promote Shiny Hair and Strong Nails
There’s some emerging research out there that indicates collagen supplements may help keep your hair looking lustrous and shiny, and your nails strong. While more research is needed before any conclusions can be drawn about how collagen supplements may improve hair and nail health, the evidence is promising.
One study enrolled 15 women with self-perceived hair thinning. They were randomly assigned to take a collagen supplement or a placebo twice a day for six months.
At the end of the study, participants in the collagen supplement group reported having shinier hair and bonus improvements to their skin as well.
In another study that focused on nails, twenty-five participants took a 2.5g collagen supplement daily for six months. At the end of the study, doctors examined the participants and found an overall improvement in participants' nails. The researchers concluded that the supplement increased nail growth by 12 percent and decreased the frequency of breakage by 42 percent. It is important to note, however, that there was no placebo group in this study for comparison.
Collagen Supplements May Support Joint and Muscle Health
Collagen supplements may complement our exercise routine in addition to our beauty rituals. Research suggests that they may support joint and muscle health.
In a 2006 study from Penn State University’s Department of Nutrition and Sports Nutrition for Athletics, researchers looked at 147 student athletes who were considered “high-risk” for joint deterioration.
The 24-week study showed that athletes who took a 10g dietary collagen supplement daily showed a statistically significantly lower risk of joint pain at rest, when walking, when standing, when carrying objects and when lifting as compared to a placebo group.
Another study tested dietary collagen’s potential effects on muscle recovery. In a group of 20 men who took 20g of collagen peptides daily, researchers observed moderate muscle recovery and improved soreness within 48 hours following exercise. Not bad, collagen. Not bad.
Other Things to Know About Collagen
Collagen Supplements Are Mainly Animal-Derived
One word of caution: as mentioned earlier, most collagen supplements are made from parts of animals or fish, so they may not be safe for people with seafood allergies. This also means that most genuine collagen supplements are not vegan or vegetarian friendly.
Despite what some of the hype would have you believe, collagen supplements are not a cure-all for any possible ailment under the sun.
Some of the popular — unsubstantiated — claims about collagen supplements include:
They can help treat skin conditions like eczema and acne
There is currently no evidence that collagen supplements can treat medical skin conditions like eczema or acne.
Collagen supplements burn fat
There are dietary supplements out there claiming to harness the supreme power of collagen to help burn fat off your body faster than water on a hot plate, but there isn’t research indicating this is true.
Collagen supplements can help you sleep better
There are some sleep supplements on the market that claim to unlock the hidden benefits of collagen to help you get a better night’s sleep.
Generally, these products claim that because of collagen’s glycine content — an amino acid that’s been shown to play a role in sleep quality — it’s an excellent sleep inducer.
Only, there’s no scientific evidence out there to back up the claim that collagen contains enough glycine to impact sleep.
Collagen can treat “leaky gut syndrome”
There are also supplements on the market that claim collagen can help treat “leaky gut syndrome.”
The first problem is that “leaky gut syndrome” isn’t a thing — at least, not to the mainstream medical community.
The second problem is that even if “leaky gut syndrome” were a real thing, there’d still be no scientific proof to back up claims that collagen can help treat it.
Additionally, even when we’re talking about benefits of collagen that have been shown in research, we have to keep in mind that the studies are small and usually look at one specific supplement or formulation. We need more expansive research to confirm all of these results.
So, there you have it.
Collagen. It’s a naturally occurring protein that the body makes to help keep our body’s connective tissues in good working order.
However, as we age, our body’s natural collagen production decreases, making our bodies more prone to injuries and other unfortunate signs of aging.
In recent years, we’ve seen a rise in the popularity of collagen supplements and cosmetics. These products come in all types of powders, pills, creams and balms.
Collagen supplementation has been shown to provide some legitimate benefits that include promoting skin, hair and nail health, and supporting muscle and joint health.
However, as with most other health supplements, not all the claims made about collagen are supported by research, and you should be aware of them before you decide to buy into it.