Collagen is a beauty and fitness industry darling. This all-important protein for our skin and connective tissue naturally occurs in the body, but selling it back to us is big business — the supplements yielded nearly two billion dollars in profits in 2021 alone. That’s because collagen helps our skin, muscles, tendons, cartilage, and bones maintain their structure and function.
Found in high-end skin creams like La Mer, products containing collagen have become ubiquitous, with collagen touted as something of a miracle ingredient in creams, supplements, and protein powder. Claims of collagen’s powers range from “more youthful looking skin” to joint pain relief. But does science support these claims? Inverse spoke to experts from the fields of orthopedics, nutrition, sports, and dermatology to separate collagen fact from fiction.
What is collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body, accounting for about 30 percent of all our body’s protein. Like all proteins, collagen is formed by multiple smaller units called amino acids. It is a core building block of our skin, essential for its structure, hydration, and elasticity. More generally, collagen strengthens tissues and enables body parts to withstand stretching.
“Collagen is the scaffolding upon which the rest of the organ tissues and systems form,” Vedant Vaksha, an orthopedic and arthroscopic surgeon in New York, tells Inverse. “It’s a very important part of the connective tissues that we have in every part of our body, be it bone, skin, tissue, or blood vessels. Even the brain has collagen.”
There are five primary types of collagen:
- Type I: Most of your body’s collagen falls under Type I. This collagen is densely packed and provides structure for skin, bones, tendons, and ligaments.
- Type II: Found in elastic cartilage, the second variety of collagen supports your joints.
- Type III: This collagen is found in muscles, arteries, and organs.
- Type IV: The fourth kind of collagen is found in some layers of your skin.
- Type V: This variety of collagen is found in your eye’s cornea, hair, the placenta, and in some layers of your skin.
The connection between collagen and aging
As we age, we produce less collagen. Because the skin is more visible than bones or tendons, collagen loss in the skin may be the first clue collagen production is decreasing. Some people may see a more noticeable change in their skin sooner than others; a 2015 study published in the journal Biomolecules revealed that collagen production drops most quickly in people who experienced “excess sun exposure, smoking, excess alcohol, and lack of sleep and exercise.”
“In general, we lose approximately 1 percent of collagen per year starting in our 20’s,” Jeffery Hsu a dermatologist in Illinois, tells Inverse. “As this loss continues, we lose structural integrity of the skin, which manifests as lines, wrinkles, and sagging.
When collagen production slows during aging, the layers of the skin change from a “tightly organized network of fibers to an unorganized maze,” the study authors found. Environmental exposures like sun and smoking reduce the thickness and strength of collagen fibers in the skin, leading to wrinkles on the skin’s surface.
Collagen in the skin is not the only collagen affected by the aging process. Conditions like arthritis and osteoporosis occur more frequently in older groups in part because of decreased collagen production.
Which is precisely what the beauty and wellness industry capitalizes on: If we’re running low on collagen, what can we do to bolster it?
Collagen supplements: Skin deep?
There are two types of collagen products typically sold under the banner of skincare: topical collagen products and oral supplements.
Topical collagen creams and gels likely don’t work the way you think — or even as they’re marketed.
“Just because you apply topical collagen on the skin does not mean it will be absorbed and integrated into the skin. This is because collagen molecules are very large, too big to bypass the epidermal protective layer of your skin,” Hsu explains.
But if you shelled out your hard-earned cash for a fancy collagen-infused moisturizer, don’t despair.
“Topical collagen is known to be an excellent moisturizer,” Hsu says. “Reports of immediate improvement in fine lines and wrinkles from applying topical collagen are most likely from the moisturizing effect, not the instant addition of collagen to the skin.”
The benefits are real, he says, but temporary.
There are other topical products that might help boost the body’s collagen production, Juliya Fisher, a dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon in New York, tells Inverse.
“In some skincare products [collagen] has been coupled with ingredients like Vitamin C or retinols and these are known ‘collagen boosters,’” Fisher says.
“These ingredients are probably the ones doing the heavy lifting in terms of improving the skin.”
Smaller fragments of collagen called collagen peptides may be better able to penetrate the skin, Fisher adds, but that hasn’t been conclusively established yet in research.
Hsu and Fisher feel similarly about oral collagen supplements selling themselves as part of a skincare routine.
“The data on oral supplements isn’t the strongest,” Fisher says, noting that a few studies show some skincare benefits but they need to be replicated before she would definitively recommend the supplements.
“There is no clear scientific evidence either way,” Hsu agrees, but he adds an extra note of caution:
“Most experts feel that oral collagen supplements will unlikely have a significant impact on skin quality.
“Collagen supplements are large molecules that once ingested, will be broken down into protein fragments and their amino acid components. In other words, the collagen supplement you eat or drink will no longer be in collagen form.”
Also, he points out there’s no way to direct protein fragments to go to the skin; they may end up going to your muscles, joints, or other organs.
“Unless you are severely protein deficient, taking collagen supplements is unlikely to improve your skin,” he says.
Collagen for bone and muscle health
As an orthopedic and arthroscopic surgeon, Vaksha knows collagen is essential for muscle, joint, and bone health, but says the jury is still out on collagen supplements. Again, a dearth of research is part of the issue.
“There have been some smaller studies in rats and even some in humans that found collagen supplements have some benefits, but we really need large, replicable randomized, placebo-controlled studies to know for sure,” he says.
Carmen Young, an assistant professor in the Nutritional Sciences at the University of Arizona and a sports dietician tells Inverse there are clues to collagen supplements’ efficacy for bone and muscle health.
“There have been studies on collagen shown to increase muscle mass and has been shown to aid in arthritis-related protection of joints,” she says.
“A lot of the studies done on collagen and sports performance and muscle health so far have been smaller trials and have shown short-term benefits, so be sure to stay skeptical and consult with a registered dietitian.”
“Collagen supplements” typically don’t contain collagen itself, Vaksha explains, but instead contain amino acids, which are the building blocks of collagen and collagen peptides. Collagen peptides are made from amino acids, but instead of continually building to become a protein, peptides are just one chain of amino acids.
For example, a 2021 study published in the journal Nutrients evaluated the effect of collagen supplements in 180 active men and women between the ages of 18 and 30 years old. The participants had “exercise-related knee pain but no diagnosed joint disease” and took 5 milligrams of “bioactive oral collagen peptides for 12 weeks.”
The researchers found that there was some improvement in activity-related knee pain among the participants who took collagen peptides, but there was no improvement in the mobility of the knee joint (though the authors note that most of the participants had “unremarkable” knee joint mobility to begin with, so there wasn’t much room for improvement).
If you do decide to try collagen supplements, Young recommends using a supplement that’s third-party tested.
“Supplements are not regulated by the FDA, so this third party testing helps to ensure quality and safety standards of supplement products.”
Is it worth taking collagen?
Vaksha doesn’t necessarily see any harm in trying a collagen supplement for a joint or muscle-related problem, but he stresses that most of the building blocks of collagen are amino acids typically found in a balanced diet.
“The essential amino acids are important in our diet to make any protein and there are multiple types of diets that provide amino acids to us, whether it be a meat-based diet or a vegan-based diet,” he says.
For collagen specifically, the most important amino acids are glycine, lysine, proline, and arginine. Vitamin C is also critical for the formation of collagen.
“A meat-based diet is one of the best ways to get these amino acids, but there are vegan sources also which are rich in these amino acids, like legumes, nuts, beans, and cabbage,” Vaksha says.
Eating vitamin and nutrient-rich diet may be the more effective and budget-friendly approach to building collagen.
Young and Hsu agree.
“I like to take a ‘food first’ approach, so I would always recommend food sources of collagen first. These foods also provide nutrients other than collagen,” Young says.
“For most of us, taking collagen supplements offers little benefit over eating protein-rich foods such as nuts, eggs, or meat,” Hsu adds.