A Guide To Collagen Supplements: Benefits For Hair, Skin & More

mbg Health Contributor By Gretchen Lidicker, M.S.
mbg Health Contributor
Gretchen Lidicker earned her master’s degree in physiology with a focus on alternative medicine from Georgetown University. She is the author of “CBD Oil Everyday Secrets” and “Magnesium Everyday Secrets.”
Medical review by Marvin Singh, M.D.
Integrative Gastroenterologist
Dr. Marvin Singh is an Integrative Gastroenterologist in San Diego, California. He is trained and board certified in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology/Hepatology.
A Guide To Collagen Supplements: Benefits For Hair, Skin & More

Photo by W2 Photography

Collagen has long been used in topical creams and serums, however, the more beneficial way to support your skin's natural collagen levels is actually through supplementation. It's one of the most natural ways to look healthy and vibrant from the inside out—and very easy to incorporate into your routine. 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 broken down, digestible forms of collagen (derived from things like fish and cows), usually in a powered form. These are often referred to as hydrolyzed collagen, collagen hydrolysate, collagen peptides, or gelatin. Here's a quick breakdown of what these terms mean:

  • 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. 
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What are collagen supplements' benefits for skin?

More and more, research is showing that collagen supplements support the skin in a few key ways.*

1. It promotes 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.

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As the production slows, collagen supplementation can help support the body's natural production.* "It can manage skin wrinkling, providing the skin one of its basic ingredients to stay firm and taut," says Taz Bhatia, M.D., an integrative medicine physician and mbg Collective member.* The research shows that these collagen peptides are able to support skin elasticity and dermal collagen density.* How? Well hydrolyzed collagen peptides have been shown to help promote your body's natural production of collagen and other molecules that make up the skin, like elastin and fibrillin.* 

Not only that, but research is starting to show that these hydrolyzed collagen peptides are absorbed more easily by your bloodstream and body than normal sized collagen molecules.* “Hydrolyzed collagen is predigested so it does not go through that first-pass digestion in the GI tract,” says board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D.* “The collagen fragments can be absorbed as-is and circulate throughout the body to exert their effects.”*

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2. Supports skin hydration.* 

Studies and clinicals done on collagen supplementation and skin hydration show 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, 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 significantly smoother appearance of wrinkles.* 

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What are the benefits for hair and nails?

While the benefits on the hair are not as widely studied as of yet, 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, of 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.* “Amino acids are the building blocks cell membranes and for keratin, the material that hair is made of,” Zeichner explains. 

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2. It may help manage oxidative stress.* 

Oxidative stress is one of the main contributors to hair aging. 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.*

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. As collagen supplements can support overall skin health, they can also support scalp health.*

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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, it helped support their nail health, including better growth rates, reduced breakage, and improved appearance.* 

What are the full-body benefits? 

In addition to promoting healthy hair, skin and nail growth, collagen supports bone health and stabilizes the microbiome, leading to a healthy gut.*

1. Supports gut and digestion health.*

One of the reasons collagen supplements have become so widespread are the gut health benefits.* 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.*

2. Manages joint health.*

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 many patients that take collagen supplements and says, "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.  

For the most health benefits, look for a grass-fed bovine collagen supplement, which contains collagen Types I and III, the types of collagen that are vital in promoting overall health.* If that's not an option for you, marine contains Type I and II, but not the essential III. Both Type I and Type III are found in more parts of the body, including skin, joints, bones, and the gut. Type II, on the other hand, is primarily found in cartilage.

1. Grass-fed bovine

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. You should also consider how those cows were raised and what they were fed—both for your health and the health of the environment. Always seek out a bovine collagen supplement from an established company that sources their product from humanely raised, grass-fed, or pasture-raised cows.* And as with any supplement, only use those that have been tested for safety and efficacy.

2. Marine

Much of the marine collagen sold today is derived from fish like cod or snapper, specifically the skin and scales of these fish.We recommend looking for clean, wild-caught sources from a company that has independent nutritional and quality testing. 

Other ingredients to look for:

Some collagen supplements have additional ingredients. Here's why a few common ones are added to your collagen powder:

Vitamin C

Vitamin C plays a major role in collagen formation in the body and is a vital molecule for skin health.* It is included in collagen supplements to give your body's natural collagen production additional support.*

Hyaluronic acid 

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 support skin hydration.*

Biotin 

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. Biotin is 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?

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."

Dendy Engelman, M.D., an award-winning NYC dermatologic surgeon who is well-versed in 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.*

The bottom line:

Adding a collagen supplement to your diet can offer a host of benefits that include healthier skin, hair, nails, gut, joints, bones, and muscles.* Grass-fed bovine collagen contains the essential collagen types I and III for the most full-body benefits.* Collagen supplements that include other actives to support hair- and skin- health, like vitamin C and biotin will only up the benefits.

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