At a recent dinner with girlfriends, our conversation took an odd turn (no surprise) and I learned that half the group swore on the magic of drinking collagen. WTF, my friends are actually cray, I thought. I can barely stomach the smell of my boyfriend's protein powder shakes, so why on earth would I intentionally sprinkle collagen in my morning smoothie or juice? Don't our bodies already make collagen, and could too much of a good thing be, well, bad?
Apparently, I'm alone in my hesitation, because drinking collagen peptide powders has become a popular trend in the wellness community. But is the practice truly beneficial to your skin (will it make me look younger?) or is it just a beauty hoax? We asked experts if drinking collagen is worth the fuss, and found out that there are a few things you might want to know before investing in the trend.
What is collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in skin, making up an impressive 75-80% of the organ, says New York City-based dermatologist Debra Jaliman, MD. Along with elastic tissue, collagen is found in the dermis, or middle layer, of skin that gives it its fullness and plumpness.
Collagen is also found in bone, tendons, ligaments, organs, muscle, blood vessels, and hair, and is the main component of our connective tissues, says Health's contributing nutrition editor, Cynthia Sass, RD. "It’s often referred to as the 'glue' that holds the body together," she explains.
Consuming collagen is nothing new: humans have been doing it for centuries. Gelatin is the cooked form of collagen, and is obtained by boiling the skin, cartilage, and bones of animals in water. It's often used as a thickener for fruit gelatin and puddings (think: Jell-O), and in cakes, yogurt, marshmallows, ice cream, soup, bone broth, and even vitamins as a coating and for capsules. Needless to say, you've probably been eating collagen in unexpected ways all your life.
We know what you're thinking: Why should I care? One word: wrinkles. Put simply, collagen keeps our skin full and youthful-looking. Unfortunately, there's also an enzyme in skin called collagenase that breaks down bonds in collagen; although our bodies make new collagen every day, after age 25 we lose more collagen than we produce (eek!), explains Dr. Jaliman. That's when you start to see fine lines, wrinkles, sagging skin, and weakened joints.
Are there collagen benefits for skin and hair?
Because we break down more collagen than we make as we get older, could chugging collagen peptide powders boost the amount of collagen in our bodies, turning us into real-life Benjamin Buttons? While collagen won't reverse wrinkles or give you baby soft skin overnight, it is possible to improve skin tone with collagen, some experts say.
"Collagen consumption can increase skin elasticity and help your body’s skin repair process, thus encouraging your body to form new collagen," Dr. Jaliman tells us. She points out that collagen drinks and powders have been shown to have antioxidant properties, and antioxidants protect skin by limiting the production of free radicals, which can damage skin cells.
As a result, these powdery drinks could help repair damaged skin, since antioxidants promise environmental protection and improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, as well as the texture of the skin, Dr. Jaliman says. A popular brand we like: Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides ($50; amazon.com), which disappear into your smoothies, leaving behind no noticeable taste.
While more research is needed, Sass tells us that some early studies do point to possible benefits, such as improved skin elasticity and reduced joint pain. One small recent study linked oral collagen peptide supplements to improved nail growth and texture; and a meta-analysis earlier this year on different types of supplements taken for osteoarthritis found that collagen had medium-term pain reduction effects, although not long-term. And in a study from 2016, oral collagen peptide supplements increased skin hydration after eight weeks and increased collagen density in the dermis after four weeks.
There may be some nutritional benefits, too. One serving of collagen powder provides some protein (up to 18 grams per two scoops), so if you're falling short it can be an easy way to sneak more in, Sass says. However, it won't pack as much protein as an alternative like whey protein powder, which will give you 40 grams of protein per two scoops, more than double that of collagen.
"Ingestible collagen, such as in shakes, supplements, or powders, does not have any major proven benefit over ingesting any other form of protein," says Rachel Nazarian, MD, a New York-based dermatologist and Fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology (FAAD). Your body absorbs and digests collagen into the basic building blocks of protein (amino acids), which are repurposed to support your skin, bones, and muscle. She tells us there's no evidence that shows that collagen is more successful at doing that than a basic protein shake. "And a protein shake is usually less expensive."
How to really boost your skin's collagen
Besides getting older, certain lifestyle choices (think: consuming too much sugar and alcohol, excess sun exposure, and smoking) can hinder your collagen production. But a healthy, balanced diet is an easy way to boost your skin's supply. To see real and lasting improvement, you need to consume enough veggies and fruit, healthy fats, and limit foods that fuel inflammation, such as sweets and processed products, says Sass. And as always, it's critical to drink plenty of water.
Using topical creams, such as vitamin A-based retinoids and peptides, can help boost the production of your skin's natural collagen, Dr. Nazarian tells Health. Two of our favorites: Drunk Elephant Protini Polypeptide Cream ($68; sephora.com), which is packed with a powerful mix of plant-derived growth factors; and Neutrogena Ageless Intensives Deep Wrinkle Moisture ($14; amazon.com), one of the most affordable and effective over-the-counter retinols you can buy.
The bottom line? While drinking powdery collagen bevvies might not give you the skin you had in your 20s, collagen peptides could improve skin's barrier function to help the production of collagen, Dr. Jaliman says. She prefers collagen supplements to powders. Her pick: NeoCell Super Collagen + C ($12; amazon.com), which helps correct damaged nail beds, thicken fine hair, promote a clearer complexion, and increase skin firmness and hydration.
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