Collagen is a nutrient that's been splashed across the packaging of snack bars, bone broths, bottled waters, supplement powders, and even skin-care products for *quite* some time now. But if you've ever wondered what collagen is and whether it's something you need to be concerned about squeezing more of into your diet, you've come to the right place.
Simply put, collagen is the most abundant type of protein found in our bodies. It's used to create connective tissue (aka fascia)—and to keep it strong and resilient. Collagen is also a key component of our bones, muscles, skin, cartilage, and tendons. As a natural part of the aging process, our bodies will produce less collagen gradually over time, but lifestyle habits (such as sun exposure, smoking, and a lack of sleep) can also decrease collagen production.
Because the amount of collagen in our bodies does naturally decrease with age, some choose to look to collagen-rich products to up their intake. And largely due to its connection to healthy skin, hair, and muscles, collagen has been positioned as a sort of "fountain of youth" nutrient in some sectors of the food, skin-care, and supplement industries. While there's certainly nothing wrong with wanting to optimize your aging process in ways that feel good to you, should we really be this concerned about consuming collagen? Here, nutrition, health, and skin-care experts offer some much-needed clarity on collagen's real-deal benefits—as well as its limitations.
Collagen myths it's time to debunk, according to RDs and derms
Myth 1: Collagen is the *best* type of amino acid
Truth bomb: Our bodies don’t know the difference between amino acids, the building blocks of protein, so it doesn’t directly realize what source they're coming from. They may be from an animal protein, like chicken or fish; a plant-based option, such as beans or tofu; or those amino acids may derive from a collagen peptide powder or a bowl of bone broth. “Since the body doesn’t register amino acid source upon consumption, and instead only takes into account the overall amount of and variety in amino acid profile, there isn’t any preferential treatment based on protein's origin,” says registered dietitian Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN.
According to Harris-Pincus, while it’s totally fine to include collagen as part of a well-rounded, healthy diet, it's vital to also be consistently consuming a variety of protein-rich whole foods so you aren't missing out on any vital nutrients—amino acids included. A recent study found that eating a variety of protein-rich food sources is directly linked to lower cholesterol and better heart health, too.
Myth 2: Collagen-rich products are specially targeted toward combating wrinkles
No matter what marketing says, you can't dictate or direct where you send the collagen you consume once it's in your system—so if you're supplementing with collagen to counteract the natural loss of it in your skin, there's no guarantee it's going to go there. “Our bodies are smart and know how to prioritize," Harris-Pincus says. "For instance, our bodies know that healing a wound or repairing damaged muscle will be more important than preventing a wrinkle from developing on your face due to age, and will thus utilize its necessary amino acids accordingly."
While collagen certainly won't reverse aging and isn't considered any form of cure-all for fine lines, regularly consuming it may offer some potential benefits in maintaining skin elasticity and texture. A systematic review which analyzed 11 studies across 805 patients found that collagen supplementation supported wound healing and skin aging, and increased skin elasticity, hydration levels, and dermal collagen density. “The same review found collagen supplementation to be generally safe and without any negative side effects,” says Harris-Pincus.
Many turn to collagen to reverse or prevent the appearance of aging, which isn't possible; however collagen may help to improve hydration in the skin and provide strength and help with skin cell repair. “This can slow down aging and make skin appear younger; however, it requires topical application, too,” says registered dietitian Trista Best, RD, LD, MPH.
TL; DR: It's all about managing expectations. “Generally speaking, collagen-rich foods and supplements may be slightly effective in delaying the aging process to some small extent, but they certainly shouldn't be relied upon for preventing wrinkles entirely," Best says. "Collagen does offer skin-enhancing benefits when used topically in particular, and at least won’t cause any harm—it just can’t be the foundation of your diet or skin-care regime."
Myth 3: Collagen powder and protein powder are the same thing
When it comes to adding protein to your post-workout routine, a collagen supplement will not be as effective as traditional protein powders—or, more importantly, eating more protein-rich foods.“Protein contains 20 amino acids, nine of which are essential, meaning they cannot be made by the body,” says Best. “Protein powders are considered 'complete' proteins because they are almost always formulated with all 20 amino acids. So yes, protein powder tends to be more ideal for you to consume post-workout for recovery [compared to exclusively consuming collagen] and is more effective at rebuilding muscle and meeting the requirements of those nine amino acids."
This is because collagen supplements aren't made with nearly the amount of amino acids that traditional protein powders are. “Collagen is not a complete protein, therefore it is not an ideal supplement for the purpose of increasing protein intake,” adds Harris-Pincus. “A complete protein, such as whey, is more fitting for a post-workout recovery snack, especially since it is high in [the amino acid] leucine, which is important for supporting muscle growth and repair.”
Myth 4: You can absorb collagen directly into your skin
Collagen, when applied to the skin, is too large a molecule to really be absorbed directly—so there isn’t too much depth in permeation. So when you see "collagen" on a skin-care product, it's most likely hydrolyzed collagen. “Hydrolyzed collagen is a broken-down version of the basic building blocks of collagen,” says Erum N. Ilyas, MD, MBE, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist and the CEO and founder of AmberNoon. “Some products may contain hydrolyzed collagen given that actual collagen is too large to be absorbed, and so theoretically this type may be better absorbed because of the smaller breakdown products of collagen. That being said, the extent to which this differs in comparison to other moisturizing ingredients is difficult to say for certain. I personally do not use collagen supplementation as part of my wellness routine, because it’s simply not essential for skin protection with age."
Myth 5: Adding collagen to water is the best way to consume it
“The reality is that the popularity of collagen water appears to be primarily linked to the marketing campaigns of various brands and the ease of consumption, as we are all seeking simple solutions to anti-aging,” says Dr. Ilyas. (Who can't relate?) She recommends not choosing collagen water over basic water (or over eating protein-rich foods) for its touted benefits. "Only drink it if you enjoy the taste," she says. “The collagen is of course ingested, spends time in the acidic environment of the stomach, and theoretically needs to be absorbed and transferred to the skin in order to boost skin’s support—but whether or not this process actually happens and the extent to which we’d like to benefit and see results has yet to be well-vetted or validated by legitimate scientific research."
Still confused about collagen? Here's a deeper dive into its benefits for your skin and beyond.
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