This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Collagen is everywhere in your body. It’s a ubiquitous, essential protein that provides structure to cells that make up connective tissues: It adds elasticity to skin and builds the cartilage in joints. Still, as you age, your body produces less collagen, and companies are seemingly capitalizing on this fact. Right now, collagen supplement pills and powders are everywhere, as well—US sales of the products rocketed up by more than 30 percent in 2017, hitting $46 million, and its global market is valued at nearly $4 billion.
Supplement brands claim that taking collagen either in pill or powder form can improve the health of your hair, skin, nails, and joints—but like many products that claim to be a cure-all, the benefits of ingesting it are often overblown, and there isn’t much evidence to say that it can actually do anything.
The protein has been used in cosmetics and skincare for years—but as an injection, to help smooth wrinkles, says Shari Lipner, an assistant professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. “The trend of actually ingesting collagen is much more recent, and there’s a lot less evidence to support it,” she says. Lipner means ingesting it for beauty and health reasons; gelatin is the cooked form of collagen and people consume that fairly commonly as it's an ingredient in yogurt, pudding, gummy candy, and marshmallows and is used to make pill capsules. (So, in case you were wondering, collagen is definitely not vegan.)
Can taking collagen improve my skin, hair, and nails?
In theory, it makes sense to take collagen supplements to replenish what’s naturally lost as you age, Lipner says. But to serve its intended purpose, ingested collagen would need to be able to be broken down into its component parts, pass into the bloodstream, and somehow get into your skin. Some companies say that their supplements are “absorbed by the body quickly”—and while there’s some laboratory work suggesting collagen that’s ingested does end up in skin of mice, it’s only been shown to get as far as the bloodstream in humans, and that’s as far as we know it goes, Lipner says. “The steps to get it to the skin haven’t really been studied. Since there are so many steps involved, it’s unlikely you’re really building collagen [in the skin] by ingesting it.”
Some studies have found that collagen supplements improve skin elasticity and moisture compared to a placebo, but Lipner notes that they were small and only followed people taking the supplements for a few months, at the longest—and many were funded or run by companies who sell collagen themselves. “We need larger studies, that follow people long term,” she says. Overall, there isn’t nearly enough evidence for dermatologists to recommend collagen supplements to protect against and reverse skin aging, she says.
“I generally tell patients that we should use what there’s actually evidence for, in terms of skin aging,” Lipner says, referring to things like sunscreen and retinoid products. People should also eat a healthy diet and avoid smoking. And despite some claims, there’s no evidence to say that collagen can improve the health of hair or nails, she says.
Can taking collagen help with joint pain?
There’s slightly more support for the use of collagen supplements to treat joint pain, including pain from osteoarthritis, though study results are mixed, and still controversial. As with skin, the theory is that ingested collagen will make its way to the part of the body where it’s needed—in this case, the joints, says Kris Clark, assistant professor of nutritional sciences and director of sports nutrition at Penn State University. Research in mice shows that the protein, when it’s ingested, can spur collagen production in joint cartilage. Randomized and controlled research studies have found some benefit for symptoms of knee osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, but more work is needed to know for sure.
In 2008, Clark conducted a study which found that college athletes taking 10 grams of collagen saw more improvement to their activity-related joint pain than a control group taking a placebo. “People were really interested in the results because it was a well-controlled study,” she says, but adds that there haven’t been efforts to replicate or build on the finding since. But after the study was published, Clark recommended that Penn State athletes start taking collagen supplements in order to try to prevent joint pain. There wasn’t any evidence from the study to say that collagen would do anything as a preventative treatment, she noted, but it also wasn’t harmful.
“The conundrum is, it can’t hurt me, and it’s not that expensive,” even though there isn’t much evidence saying if it actually helps, Clark says. While very large doses might cause an upset stomach, taking collagen isn’t generally going to cause any harm, she says.
Based on the limited evidence showing benefit, some doctors might be comfortable with patients who experience joint pain trying dietary supplements, Clark says. And if doctors are supportive, patients might make additional positive choices. “When someone makes the decision to spend money on dietary supplements, and the nurse said ‘sure, give it a try,’ it says that individual is willing to work on their health,” she says. “If they’re willing to do that, there’s a good chance they’ll do something else”—like exercising more regularly, or eating better. Such supplements can’t replace evidence-based practices, but if they’re not doing harm, they might push patients toward a healthier lifestyle, she says.
Are collagen supplements safe?
Collagen supplements, like all supplements, though, aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Although there isn’t evidence to say taking collagen is harmful, Lipner says she still wouldn’t recommend it, at least not until there's more information about its long-term effects. Some experts are concerned about the possibility of heavy metals being retained in the animal bones and tissues used to make collagen supplements, and some brands do lay out their metal testing practices.
If you’re still looking to take collagen to smooth your wrinkles—despite the lack of scientific support that the protein will actually improve your skin—Lipner says you can try actually eating it. Choosing foods that are already rich in collagen, like broths, beans, or meat, might be a better alternative to supplements since they provide other nutrients, minus the additional cost of an unproven powder.