If you took every fad supplement on the market, you probably wouldn’t have any appetite left for food. And you’d probably go broke.
Knowing which dietary supplements are worth your time and money can be difficult when the information you find is heavy on big claims and light on evidence. When it comes to collagen supplements — one of the trendiest, currently — it’s hard to know if what you’re seeing is hard facts or misinformation. But the latter shouldn’t push you away from collagen entirely.
When push comes to shove, collagen is a protein — the most plentiful protein in your body. It’s in your muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, organs, blood vessels, skin, intestinal lining and other connective tissues.
And there is some evidence that supplementing your diet with collagen can have health benefits. But it isn’t a cure-all. Read on to make sense of one of the most popular supplement types on the market.
There are many different collagen supplement types, and understanding everything you see on the labels can be daunting. In addition to being available in pills, powder, gummies and sometimes liquids, here are some of the collagen supplement varieties you may run into:
In its natural state, collagen would be difficult to digest (and hard to mix into your smoothie!). A process known as hydrolysis breaks the collagen down into more dissolvable compounds known as amino acid peptides. The terms hydrolyzed collagen, collagen hydrolysate and collagen peptides all refer to collagen that has undergone hydrolysis — they’re all used interchangeably.
The most common source of collagen supplements is beef, or bovine. But beef isn’t the only game in town. Some collagens are marine-derived (made from fish skin and scales) and others are made from poultry.
Because collagen is naturally-occurring in the animal world, you won’t find vegetarian or vegan supplements with collagen in them (unless the collagen is grown in a lab). You can, however, find many “collagen building” supplements that are derived from plants. These include compounds that reportedly increase your body’s production of collagen (you might also check out vitamin C if you’re into this).
Products labeled as multi-collagen have more than one type of collagen in them. Most often, it’s some combination of the three most common collagen types: I, II and III.
There is a lot we don’t know about how collagen supplements work. What we do know — or, at least, what’s suggested by the available research — is that when taken orally, collagen supplements are thought to enhance fibroblasts, which are individual cell networks in the skin that naturally produce collagen. It’s believed that oral collagen supplementation kickstarts these fibroblast cells, which in turn produce more collagen, which in turn improves the structural properties of the tissue collagen influences, including things like skin, bones, organs, tendons, ligaments, etc.
However, there are still some missing pieces of the puzzle.
There is no evidence, for example, that ingesting collagen directly produces collagen for our skin or joints to use. However, there is evidence that collagen supplementation can help support our skin and joints.
Due to this evidence, it’s believed ingested hydrolyzed collagen does play a role in collagen production in the body, even if it isn’t clear how.
While there are things we still don’t know about collagen supplementation, there is evidence that it may provide several potential benefits.
Much of the research on collagen hydrolysate involves its effects on the skin. Understandable, considering collagen makes up 75 percent of your skin’s dry weight and its production begins waning when you’re only 20 years old. One meta analysis of 11 existing studies found supplementing with collagen increases skin elasticity and hydration, and boosts dermal collagen density.
As a connective tissue present in and around the joints, it makes sense that collagen could affect joint health.
A few studies have connected collagen supplementation with improved body composition or increased muscle mass. One such study found young men who took 15 grams of collagen peptides over a period of 12 weeks while resistance training experienced increased body mass, fat-free mass and muscle strength when compared with those taking a placebo.
There is also some research on the effects of collagen supplements on hair and fingernails. However, we know collagen plays a role in the development of these tissues. One study found collagen peptides may improve nail growth and decrease nail breakage, though overall, this is an area that needs more research.
Search the web a little and you’re bound to see claims that we haven’t yet mentioned here. There’s a reason for that. There are many claims made about collagen supplements that aren’t currently supported by scientific evidence.
In general, there is no clear scientific evidence that collagen can:
Does that mean it doesn’t do these things? Not necessarily. The scientific process is a long one. Proving a supplement has certain benefits takes time, effort and attention from scientists. These unproven benefits just haven’t received that (yet).
And of course, those are only some of the current claims about collagen not backed by science. We're sure if we looked a little harder, we'd find a ton of other unverifiable claims about collagen supplementation.
You may hear of people who have experienced positive but yet-unproven benefits with collagen supplements. Maybe they’ve noticed a better night’s sleep or easier weight loss, and good for them! But until these benefits are proved out in a scientific setting, their experiences are personal and anecdotal.