Do Collagen Supplements Work? Part Two of a Three-Part Collagen Series

Updated: Apr 15

Collagen is such a hot topic that I don't even get the question "do collagen supplements work?" Instead, people jump straight to "what's the best collagen supplement to take?" Brands have created such certainty through their crafty marketing leading consumers to believe that collagen is the magic bullet that will alleviate joint pain and help skin look younger. But does research support the marketing claims?

As a woman approaching the big 5-0 🥳, I also wanted to know—do collagen supplements help achy joints, prevent wrinkles, and preserve bones? We're about to dive in, BUT, before we talk all things supplementation, we need to address how to prevent collagen breakdown and support it naturally through diet and lifestyle. The most effective way to preserve joints, skin, and bone health is by adding more plant-based foods to your plate in addition to following some healthy lifestyle habits. So, before you move into supplementation visit Part One: How to Build Collagen Naturally.

Collagen Claims

Brands selling collagen supplements claim to help with leaky gut, support the immune system, prevent aging skin, balance hormones and relieve joint pain. Some brands almost seem too good to be true by claiming their product can reduce visible wrinkles and "plump" skin. This was the case for one company that stated their product can "drench and hydrate the skin," "reduces wrinkles," and "plump and fill out fine lines." The UK Advertising Standards Authority cited this company for miscommunication of claims that were not supported by their research. The company presented two research studies that were conducted using their product. One of the research studies was poorly designed and the other didn't show anti-aging or wrinkle-preventing effects despite claims they said came from that study. The company had to remove all claims from their website as a result.

Collagen is often sold as collagen peptide powders, capsules, or liquid. According to projections by Nutrition Business Journal, collagen supplement sales in the U.S. were predicted to reach $298 million in 2020—up from $73 million in 2015. In addition to the supplemental forms mentioned above, collagen is now being added as a functional ingredient to a variety of foods and beverages, including protein bars, teas, coffee creamers, and baked goods. Some collagen brands are even collaborating with food bloggers to create collagen cookbooks, promoting the addition of collagen powder to everything from smoothies to desserts to tacos.

Did I mention that it's a hot trend?

How collagen supplements work

We know that lifestyle factors and what you eat matter most when it comes to supporting collagen. Avoiding excess sugar, processed foods, fried foods and inflammatory foods while eating foods that are anti-inflammatory with all of the collagen-building constituents will help the body preserve and build collagen. Getting a little sun, but not too much, plays a big role. Not smoking or consuming excessive alcohol are also two important factors. So, if you're following all of those guidelines, will taking collagen supplements translate to more collagen production in your body?

Collagen supplements are in the form of peptides (also called hydrolysates), or smaller portions of collagen protein, that are easily absorbed. Collagen peptides have three important roles in supporting collagen. First, they serve as the building blocks for collagen production and other proteins in the body. Second, they also bind to the receptors on the fibroblasts that produce collagen and stimulate collagen production. Third, the peptides function as antioxidants, protecting existing collagen in the body from oxidative stresses that would cause it to degrade.

That said, all protein consumed, including collagen, is processed in your body the same way. It's broken down into smaller protein particles called amino acids. These amino acids are delivered to an amino acid pool where they hang out and wait to be used where the body needs them most. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and protein has many functions in the body in addition to building collagen. There's no guarantee that when you consume collagen, those amino acids from that collagen will directly build collagen in your body. For example, let's say you're taking collagen peptides for skin health then you cut yourself while in the kitchen (speaking from experience here). Your body may prioritize using that collagen for wound-healing over supporting skin health. Other ways protein or amino acids are used throughout the body include hormone, enzyme, antibody, and muscle synthesis.

Bottom line is that protein has a LOT of functions and those collagen peptides are most likely going to be used where your body needs them most.

With regard to collagen peptides acting as antioxidants, scavenging free radicals in the body, there are other foods that are antioxidant powerhouses — they're called plants! If you fill your plate with a variety of plant-based colors you'll have yourself an antioxidant extravaganza along with all of the nutrients needed to support collagen growth including vitamin C and A, two important collagen-supporting nutrients. Okay, back to the question: do collagen supplements work?

(If you want to skip the detailed essay below, the answer is maybe, but not at the expense of animals and ethics. Studies have been small. Many studies are supported by supplement companies. And many studies use more than just collagen on their subjects, like vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, that also play a huge part in collagen support.)

What does the research say?

As mentioned above, collagen supplements on the market contain hydrolyzed collagen, or peptides, the more absorbable form of collagen. The collagen in supplements is sourced from cows, pig, chickens, fish, and other marine organisms. Cow collagen is promoted for skin, hair and nails. Fish collagen is primarily type 1 and also promoted for skin. Chicken collagen is primarily type III and promoted for joint health. Pig collagen is marketed for skin health. There is no research showing that any one of these are superior to the other. None of them are ethical. Research studies may use any of the above to test the effects of collagen on skin, joints, and bones.

Collagen for skin health

Collagen is a major component of the skin and plays a key role in the strength and elasticity of the skin. The collagen already present in your skin and the amount of collagen you produce naturally decline with age. Companies selling collagen supplements claim their product will create younger-looking, supple skin. What does the research say?

One study, a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial, was conducted on 120 subjects who consumed either a supplement or placebo on a daily basis for 90 days. Subjects consuming the test product had an overall significant increase in skin elasticity. Here's the catch—the supplement included fish collagen, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and "other active compounds" that supported skin elasticity. With all of those constituents, it's tough to conclude that fish collagen was what helped in this study. The authors concluded that oral supplementation with "collagen bioactive peptides combined with chondroitin sulphate, glucosamine, L-carnitine, vitamins, and minerals significantly improved skin aging and joint health." Not sure about you, but I'm seeing more than just collagen on that list of nutrients that helped.

Another study looked at 33 women from Japan between 40 and 59 years of age. Eleven of the women received a placebo, eleven received Peptan-F (collagen sourced from fish) and eleven received Peptan-P (collagen sourced from pig). They found that women who took both types of collagen had significantly greater moisture in skin after four and eight weeks of supplementation. The same group conducted another study in 106 women, looking at the quality of collagen and found a significant improvement using 10 grams of Peptan a day in the quality of skin. Of note, the company who sells Peptan supported this research. The studies are small and we don't know about the women's lifestyle or dietary habits that could have contributed to better moisture and quality of skin.

Another study looked at the effects of collagen hydrolysate on skin elasticity and moisture in sixty-nine women between the ages of 35 and 55. One group took the collagen supplement twice a day for eight weeks, while the other group took a placebo. The group that supplemented with collagen hydrolysate found a greater improvement in skin elasticity compared to the group who took the placebo, but no improvement in skin moisture was found.

I found three other small studies that showed improvements in skin after supplementation with collagen and all three of these studies were supported by the collagen companies themselves, therefore I am going to forego reviewing them.

Collagen for joint health