Collagen Supplements: Are They Worth the Hype?

About a month ago I finally got around to getting my haircut. This is a big deal being a new mom and it was the first time I’ve been to a salon in over a year. While I was waiting for my appointment, I noticed something different about the lobby of the salon since the last time I had been in.  It was full of supplements. More specifically, collagen supplements promising thick, beautiful hair. Shelves full of them.  It seems to me that collagen is having it’s 15 minutes of fame. If you hang around social media at all, you’ve probably seen a ton of ads or sponsored posts for collagen supplements. Everyone is stirring collagen powder into their morning coffee or reaching for a cup of bone broth at lunch.  Apparently, you can even get popcorn with collagen powder sprinkled on it? *facepalm*

Aside from strong, healthy hair and nails, collagen supplement companies also claim their products will leave you with more hydrated skin, better joint health, and fewer fine lines and wrinkles.  I have to admit, the last two promises captured my attention.  As another year passes, I can’t help but notice all the extra lines on my face and cracking noises my knee makes whenever I walk up stairs (yikes).  I’d love to say that I’m ready to embrace aging gracefully and display every character line with pride, but screw that – I’m too young to give in without a fight.  Plus, my vanity is taking the better of me.  In hopes of slowing the clock on my aging and quieting my creaking knee, I thought I would take a look at the research behind collagen supplements to see if they are worth the hype. 

Let’s take a look, starting with what collagen is and where it comes from.

What is Collagen?

Collagen is a protein that provides strength and structure to our skin, hair, nails, joints, connective tissue, and even our digestive tract.  In fact, it’s the most abundant protein in the body.  Collagen is also found in the same parts of animals (so skin, nails – or hooves rather, fur, etc.) as well as in fish scales and skin.  If you eat food products with made with gelatin (Jello, for example), or drink bone broth, you’ve already tried a food source of collagen.  Gelatin is the result of boiling animal skin, cartilage, and bones and contains collagen; in bone broth, collagen leaches out of the bones during cooking.  The good news is, if Jello and bone broth aren’t your thing, you don’t need to start chowing down on cow hide or fish scales to get collagen – your body already makes it for from the protein you eat.  Any food containing protein (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, etc.) could potentially end up being used by the body to make collagen.

There are 5 different types of collagen but type 1 and type 3 are of most interest to those looking to improve their skin health (my hand is waaaay up), as these are the types that contribute to the structure of collagen.  Type 2 is of interest to those looking to improve joint health (also me).  If you end up deciding to take a collagen supplement, you might want to read the label and choose the type best suited to your needs.  When you eat collagen, either in the form of a supplement or from a food source such as bone broth or salmon skin, your body breaks it down into amino acids.  Your body does this with any type of protein you eat.  The amino acids then travel around your bloodstream for your body to use for a variety of jobs, including making collagen.  So, the question is: will taking collagen supplements result in better skin and joint health compared to eating a diet adequate in protein?

Collagen Supplements

Most collagen supplements contain type 1 collagen in hydrolyzed form (hydrolyzed meaning partially broken down, so easier to digest and absorbed faster).  Some supplements are a combination of several types of collagen.  As collagen naturally comes from animal sources, you may have already guessed that there are no vegan forms of collagen supplements.  Those that are comfortable eating fish can find supplements derived from marine sources (fish skin and scales), which would contain type 1 collagen only.  Supplements are available in capsule or powdered from.  The powdered form is tasteless, allowing you to mix it into anything hot or cold, including your morning coffee.  (Hmmm…what would you call a cappuccino with fish scales?  A pescaccino?).

Now that we know what collagen is and what to expect a supplement, let’s look at what the research says.

© Yulia Lisitsa /Adobe Stock

Evidence for Improved Skin Health from Collagen Supplements

I gotta say, there’s not much.  Most studies to date have been conducted on animal models (just because it works for Mickey Mouse, doesn’t mean it will work for you) or in vitro (human cells in a petri dish) – not what I would consider high level evidence.  However, there are a few studies using human participants, two of them were even randomized controlled trials.  In a randomized trial, participants are randomly assigned to the treatment group, reducing potential for bias.  When a control is used, only one group gets the treatment (in this case collagen), and the other doesn’t get any treatment (or is given a placebo).  This allows researchers to compare the results and increases the likelihood that any observed outcome in the treatment group was due to the treatment provided, although it’s not a given.  A randomized control trial is considered to be a higher quality type of study, so I looked at these in more detail.

In one 12-week long study, 71 women tried marine collagen and most noticed decreased wrinkles around the eyes, as well as enhanced moisture and skin elasticity.  While that seems promising, and it’s good that this was a randomized control trial, the sample size was small, the study didn’t last very long, and we don’t know if the researchers adjusted for any other factors that could explain the results, such as quality of diet, use of sunscreen, etc.  The outcomes they measured are also highly subjective.  The second study I looked at tested two forms of collagen hydrolysate.  It was a bit shorter in length, lasting only 8 weeks, but the outcomes were similar.  Participants noticed improved moisture, elasticity, wrinkles and roughness.  Again, the outcomes are subjective, so there’s a possibility of the placebo effect explaining the results, the study length was short and the sample size was small.  In both these studies, none of the participants noted any adverse effects from taking the supplements.

The last study I looked at was 12 months long, with only 35 participants. 1 dropped out because of abdominal pain during the trial, which may or may not have been due to taking the supplement.  Most participants reported an increase of firmness and elasticity after regular use of the supplements, but there was no control group used in this trial.

So yes, there is some evidence showing in the short-term, collagen supplementation might improve the appearance of wrinkles for some people.  We aren’t looking at a large body of research that indicates collagen is the magic anti-aging bullet we all hope it is. Darn. Also, I should clarify that “some people” means women.  I guess because we don’t care about men having wrinkles so we don’t conduct research studies to find ways to reduce them in men?  I’ll leave that there for you to ponder. 

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Evidence for Improved Joint Health from Collagen Supplementation

So, what about my creaky knee?  Well, there’s a bit more research on collagen supplementation with regards to joint health.  Enough so that there was a recent systematic review and meta-analysis that included collagen as a treatment for osteoarthritis. The review included the results of 7 studies investigating collagen and found in the short-term (less than three months) supplementing with collagen might provide moderate improvements in pain and function for people with osteoarthritis. I suppose if I was experiencing pain from osteoarthritis I might give collagen supplements a try to see if it helped me. Fortunately, just noise and no pain (knock on wood).

What One Supplement Company Claims

I did have a chat with a lovely salesperson from one of the popular supplement companies about their products and the research behind them (I won’t disclose the company, because I didn’t disclose the fact that their comments might end up in a blog post).  The health claims on their website for collagen supplements included promoting collagen formation, enhancing skin clarity and smoothness, increasing the body’s natural moisture level, helping to maintain firm skin, and supporting a healthy glow.  All this sounds great – I mean, who doesn’t want to maintain firm skin or support their healthy glow (whatever that means), but it didn’t line up with the research I found, so I thought I would ask what specific research they had used to support these claims.  Who knows, maybe there were some good studies that I hadn’t found?  A way to assess a healthy glow is intriguing in and of itself. 

I was provided one study.  I followed up by asking if they were using this single study to support all of their claims or if this was just one example of a study they used.  It was acknowledged that there are no longitudinal studies conducted with their product (or any collagen supplements for that matter), but this was one study that showed promising research. The study shared with me was from 2014, and the 69 participants only noticed improved skin elasticity with the supplement after 8 weeks of use.  What about the glow?
I was reassured that there is a lot of anecdotal evidence from the company’s “fans” supporting the benefits, and was reminded that the health benefits “have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration [and] this product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.”

So they have a product that doesn’t seem to have good evidence that it actually works, but a bunch of fans say that it does.  And, for the low price of $25.00 I can have a two week supply to “help keep [me] looking and ultimately feeling [my] best.”  I should have gone into the supplement business.

© Vasyl /Adobe Stock

A Collagen Promoting Diet?

As a dietitian, it’s my preference to recommend a food-first approach to improving health, whenever it’s possible. Given that there’s limited evidence supporting collagen supplementation for skin and joint health, I’m more interested in what types of foods a person can eat to help the body make and preserve its own collagen.  So what can you do to help promote your body’s natural production of collagen?  Ensuring adequate protein intake from foods you enjoy will give your body the amino acids needed to build, and repair collagen as needed.  Choosing a protein containing food (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes) at each meal or snack, should cover this for most people.  If you are unsure if you are meeting your protein needs, contact a dietitian to help.

In addition, vitamin C plays a vital role in forming collagen’s structure.  It’s also an antioxidant, so it will help prevent breakdown of collagen from free radical damage.  Including a variety of vitamin C containing foods such as red bell peppers, broccoli, mango, kiwi fruit, or strawberries can boost your body’s natural ability to boost collagen.  (And no, you don’t need to go out and by a vitamin C supplement either – just eat your friggin’ fruits and vegetables).  Limiting your intake of highly processed foods and alcohol can also help preserve your collagen.

The Final Verdict: Not Worth the Hype

Looks like I’m not going to be stocking up on collagen supplements any time soon.  There’s just not enough evidence there for me to justify the expense. The studies that do show some benefit were done on a small number of people and only in the short-term.  There also doesn’t appear to be any options for those following a vegan diet. 

The good news is the risk of harm appears to be low for most people, so if after reading this post, you think you want to give collagen supplements a try, I would recommend looking for a high-quality one: grass-fed beef for bovine collagen and wild-caught seafood for marine collagen.  Supplements aren’t regulated to the same degree as food is in Canada (or the US), so there’s greater risk for contamination compared to food.  In Canada, look for an eight-digit Natural Product Number (NPN) on the label. This indicates the product can be legally sold in Canada and is safe to use when you follow the instructions on the label.

Another consideration – if you think you’ll replace your regular protein powder with collagen, you should know that collagen is not a complete protein (meaning it is missing some essential amino acids).  Not a big deal for most people if you are getting your protein from a variety of sources. If you are taking protein powder for medical reasons or athletic training, you’ll have to ensure you compensate for this somewhere else to ensure your nutrition therapy or training recovery needs are being met.  For example, if you put protein powder in your smoothie and plan to switch to a collagen-based type, use cow or soy milk as the liquid to ensure you are getting a complete protein as part of that meal or snack.  Some companies make a collagen-whey combination powder, so that’s another option.

For everyone else, save your money and spend it on the best quality protein, vegetables, and sunscreen you can afford.

What are your thoughts on collagen supplements? Have you tried them? Do you think you might try them in the future?

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