Collagen powder and protein powder are often discussed in tandem. It's understandably easy to get confused about the difference: They both contain amino acids, they both support protein levels, and they're both mainstays in the world of wellness.
But if you've never tried them in the past, it can be hard to tell whether collagen or protein powder is the better option for you. Here, we break down the specific benefits for each.
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Are collagen powder and protein powder interchangeable?
The short answer: No. "What makes proteins different is their amino acid content," says Albert Matheny, R.D., CSCS. "Collagen has a very different set of amino acids than a typical animal or plant-based protein powder."
In general, "collagen powder and protein powder are different products with different nutrition profiles, different ingredients, and different goals," says Scott Keatley, R.D. Ultimately, which powder is right for you depends on the benefits you're looking for.
3 benefits of collagen
Collagen powder is newer on the market and offers many benefits for overall health, including the following:
1. It's good for your skin, hair, and nails*
Collagen powder can support the growth of your hair, skin, and nails, which are mostly made up of a hardened protein called keratin, Keatley explains.*
Keratin is mostly made of the amino acids (building blocks of proteins) alanine, leucine, arginine, and cysteine. "These are going to be the majority of amino acids found in collagen powder," Keatley says. Many studies have confirmed that collagen supplementation is good for overall skin health, too.
Some collagen powders also have vitamin C, which helps add structure and firmness to hair, skin, nails, and other connective tissues, he adds.*
If you're looking to give your hair, skin, and nails support, collagen powder may be a better option for you—especially since whey proteins (which are often found in protein powder) have been linked to breakouts.*
2. It can support joint health*
"Having the building blocks of these [cartilage] tissues—namely, collagen—is vital to the ability to support joints," says Keatley. So, if you have joint issues or tend to do workouts that put a lot of pressure on your joints, collagen powder might be worth considering.*
One 24-week study done on athletes found that those who took collagen supplements experienced less severe joint pain over time.*
As for fully restoring damaged cartilage, it's not clear at this time if our bodies can fully do that (one 2019 human study suggested it may be), but if it is possible, having adequate collagen levels would be critical, notes Keatley. Just keep in mind that this research is still in the early stages.
3. It can support bone health*
"Studies have shown that women who take collagen have lower levels of the hormones that promote bone breakdown as compared to those only taking calcium supplementation," Keatley says.* These same women also had better bone mineral density, which is the amount of bone mineral in bone tissue.*
Taking collagen can help provide your body with more amino acids that are needed to repair your bones, among other things, Matheny says.*
"There are, of course, many other nutritional factors involved, but by taking collagen, you are ensuring that the amino acid component of the reactions and physiological processes required is met and not limited," he says.*
3 benefits of protein powder
There are specific benefits of protein powder—here are some important ones to keep in mind:
1. It can help with muscle gains
Protein powder contains complete proteins, which can help you build up muscle, along with regular weight training, Matheny says.
Protein powders generally include the amino acids leucine, valine, and isoleucine, which are known as branched-chain amino acids. "They play a large role in muscle protein synthesis and growth and repair of muscle tissue," Matheny says.
Again, if you want to use protein powder to build muscle, it's important to tweak your workout as well. Research has shown that taking protein powder can improve both your aerobic and anaerobic workouts, when it's combined with resistance training, but taking protein powder alone won't increase your strength.
2. It's a good option for a vegan diet
Not all protein powders are vegan, but there are plenty of plant-based options on the market if you're on a vegan or vegetarian diet. (While there are plant-based collagen offerings, the best benefits come from grass-fed collagen, whereas with protein powders, the source isn't as important.)
In a perfect world, you'd focus on getting your protein from food first, Keatley says (think tofu, edamame, quinoa, sprouted grains, and wild rice). "But protein powder can be used for those with a low protein diet to ensure they are getting these specific amino acids," he says.
3. It can help fill you up
Protein powder contains calories, which can "add to your meal while providing the building blocks for just about everything in your body," Keatley says. While protein powder shouldn't be used as a meal replacement, adding it to meals can help you feel fuller longer. "That may decrease snack intake later in the day," Keatley says.
The bottom line
Protein powder and collagen powder are not interchangeable, thanks to their differing amino acid profiles. Protein powders tend to be better for those following a vegan diet or who are strictly interested in muscle gains. However, if you're looking for a supplement that has more full-body benefits, a collagen supplement might be right for you.*
Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, relationships, and lifestyle trends with a master’s degree from American University. Her work has appeared in Women’s Health, Prevention, Self, Glamour, and more. She lives by the beach, and hopes to own a taco truck one day.