A Guide To Collagen Supplements: Benefits For Hair, Skin & More
Collagen has long been used in topical creams and serums to promote skin elasticity and fight wrinkles, and for the past few years it's become the go-to ingredient for smoothies and coffees. And for many of us looking for the most natural way to look healthy and vibrant, supplementing with collagen is definitely intriguing. Here, everything you need to know.
What are collagen supplements?
Collagen is a family of proteins that are actually the most abundant proteins in the animal kingdom. There are at least 16 different types, and each helps make up the structure of our skin, bone, cartilage and muscle. Collagen is made by our body throughout our lifetime, with the purpose of helping tissues be more elastic and withstand stretching (aka it keeps skin looking young and supple). It also decreases with age, and your natural levels can be depleted from environmental factors, such as sun damage and high-sugar diets.
Collagen supplements are frequently seen as a white powder and have become very trendy of late. Collagen supplements are broken down, digestible forms of collagen (derived from things like fish and cows). These are often referred to as hydrolyzed collagen, collagen hydrolysate, collagen peptides, or gelatin. Because of the often interchangeable words, there's a bit of confusion with the terminology surrounding collagen supplements—as it's often considered interchangeable—so here's a quick breakdown:
- Hydrolyzed collagen: Collagen that has been broken down into collagen peptides or gelatin through the process of hydrolyzation. All collagen supplements, to a degree, have been hydrolyzed. These are often also called collagen hydrolysate.
- Collagen peptides: Collagen that is fully broken down into digestible, short chains of amino acid chains, aka peptides.
- Gelatin: A form of collagen supplement that has not been fully hydrolyzed and therefore will "gel" in recipes.
What are collagen supplements' benefits for skin?
There are plenty of anecdotal claims about how collagen supplements can benefit the skin. And increasingly the research is catching up to support these claims—and not always in the ways you might think:
1. It supports your skin's natural collagen and elastin production.
The two main layers that make up the skin are the epidermis and the dermis. The dermis contains fibroblasts, which are cells that produce elastin and collagen. For the skin to function normally and appear youthful, the structure of the dermal layer must be maintained, but as we age the structure suffers because aged fibroblasts produce less collagen. This results in visible signs of aging, which are usually most prominent on the face.
Our body produces collagen throughout our lifetime, but the production slows, and so the theory is that collagen supplementation will help support the body's natural production. Taz Bhatia, M.D., an integrative medicine physician and mbg Collective member, actually takes a collagen supplement and loves it: "It can halt skin wrinkling, providing the skin one of its basic ingredients to stay firm and taut."
The research suggests this to be true as well. Rather than the collagen peptides traveling through the gut lining and reaching the skin, the thought is that they help support your body's natural production of collagen and other molecules that make up the skin, like elastin and fibrillin.
2. Supports skin hydration.
A few studies and clinicals have been done on collagen supplementation and skin hydration, showing that with regular use, it supports your skin's hydration levels. One double-blind, randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial found that participants' moisture levels in the skin were seven times higher than those who did not take the supplements.
3. It smooths the appearance of fine lines.
Likely due to a combination of the above factors, a few clinicals and studies have shown that collagen can support skin elasticity and potentially make fine lines appear smaller. One double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial found that when a small group of women took a collagen supplement that was also formulated with hyaluronic acid and a few other actives, they reported a significant reduction in the appearance of wrinkles.
What are the benefits for hair and nails?
While the benefits on the hair are not as widely studied as of yet, theoretically collagen might help hair health in a few key ways:
1. It provides essential ingredients for hair.
Hair is mainly made up of the protein keratin and structural lipids. For the body to build keratin, it needs several types of amino acids, many of which are part of collagen peptides. In fact, the main amino acid in keratin is proline, which is found in collagen peptides as well. The theory follows that if you ingest these amino acids, they can help support your natural levels of these essential ingredients.
2. It may help oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress is one of the main contributors to hair aging. And recent studies have even shown that free radical damage—namely, from air pollution—can contribute to hair loss. Certain collagen supplements may act as an antioxidant and help neutralize free radicals from oxidative stress and overall inflammation. However, much more research is needed in this area.
3. It may support scalp health.
Your scalp, we often forget, is simply your skin, just with more hair follicles. And thus what is beneficial to your skin, is beneficial to your scalp. Research has shown time again that a damaged scalp leads to hair issues, like thinning and loss.
4. It supports nail health, reducing brittleness.
Along the same lines of skin and hair health, one study found that when patients took collagen daily for 24 weeks, their nail health improved, including better growth rates, reduced breakage, and improved appearance.
What are the full-body benefits?
Bhatia even praises collagen for its ability to improve bone health and stabilize the microbiome—promoting a healthy gut.
1. Supports gut and digestion health.
One of the reasons collagen supplements have become so popular is the purported benefits for supporting gut health. Research has found that one of the main amino acids in collagen, L-glutamate, supports the intestine by neutralizing oxidative stress. Additional research shows that collagen supplements may help those with digestion conditions support gut health. However, there needs to be much more research done in this area.
2. Manages joint health.
And while reduced joint pain may seem like a strange benefit, remember that collagen is found in connective tissue all over the body, not just in the skin. William Cole, D.C., IFMCP, a functional medicine expert and mbg Collective member, has a bunch of patients that are taking collagen supplements, saying "not only do they notice their skin becoming brighter, nails becoming stronger, hair becoming more luminous, but they often experience less joint pain." A recent study showed that when athletes who previously suffered joint injuries regularly took collagen, their overall joint health was supported.
There are two types of collagen supplements: marine and bovine.
Like any supplement, the best sources of collagen are those that have been used in research studies and have been evaluated for their safety and efficacy.
Much of the marine collagen sold today is derived from fish like cod or snapper, specifically the skin and scales of these fish. This option is more beneficial for those following a pescatarian diet.
Bovine collagen is present in the connective tissue, bones, cartilage, and hides of cows. The collagen from cows happens to be similar to the collagen we have in our own bodies. Three types of collagen—Type I, Type II, and Type III—comprise about 90% of all the collagen in the human body, and bovine collagen supplements typically contain Type I and Type III.
What are the other ingredients to look for?
Have you ever wondered why some products have additional ingredients and others don't? Here's why a few common actives are added to your collagen powder:
Vitamin C plays a major role in collagen formation in the body and is a vital molecule for skin health. It seems to be included in these supplements to give your body's natural collagen production an additional boost.
Hyaluronic acid is another molecule found in the skin that works to keep it plump and well hydrated. Unfortunately, as with collagen, its production decreases as you age. Ingestible forms of HA have also been shown to improve skin hydration.
Biotin is a form of vitamin B—vitamin B7, specifically. Research shows that if you have low levels of biotin, it can actually lead to hair loss. It's thought to support healthy hair growth because it is involved in the production of keratin, the main component of hair. In one small study, women with thinning hair reported significant regrowth when supplementing with biotin as compared to those given a placebo.
What about using collagen topically?
According to experts, topical versions of collagen can also be effective, but they are really only a short-term solution and probably don't penetrate well enough to access the deeper layers of the skin. "Oral forms, by contrast, are designed to increase the body's natural collagen production, so it can fortify and build collagen at the dermal layer. Oral supplementation helps to deliver specific amino acids, which are considered the building blocks of collagen synthesis. This can only be achieved through oral supplementation," explains Maru.
Dendy Engelman, M.D., an award-winning NYC dermatologic surgeon who is well-versed in all things skin and aging, agrees with him. She explains that topical preparations help as a quick fix, but oral dietary supplements help support the skin structure from the inside out. They bolster the body's natural collagen production by being absorbed through the bloodstream and reaching the underlying layers first, offering a longer-term solution.
Ready to learn how to fight inflammation and address autoimmune disease through the power of food? Join our 5-Day Inflammation Video Summit with mindbodygreen’s top doctors.