Here's the science behind those popular pills, powders, and gummies.

Mackenzie Dunn
Oct 02, 2020 @ 1:32 pm
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Despite what you may have heard, people with dark skin need to wear sunscreen, and shaving your hair won’t make it grow back thicker. In Myth Busters, we debunk common beauty misconceptions and set the record straight.

Most of us will do just about anything to get firmer skin, longer hair, and stronger nails. So it’s no surprise that when collagen supplements—in the form of powders, pills, liquids, and gummies—were marketed as being able to do things like plump up sagging skin, diminish wrinkles, and make our hair and nails healthier, they became popular fast. But if you think about it, how can something you ingest internally have such drastic effects on your external appearance? We’re already aware of topical creams and lotions that profess anti-aging properties, but the world of beauty supplements is still fairly new, so we have questions. To get to the bottom of whether or not collagen supplements actually work (and how), we talked to two dermatologists who set the facts straight.

What is collagen?

“Collagen is one of the main structural components of our skin and bones,” explains Shereene Idriss, M.D., a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist. According to her, it keeps our skin supple and our joints healthy. Our bodies use building blocks called amino acids to create muscle, bone, cartilage, skin, hair, connective tissue, and more. And while there are many types of amino acids, the most abundant kinds in our bodies make up collagen. In short, collagen is the most abundant protein in our body.

What are collagen supplements?

Collagen supplements may be available in several different forms, but their purpose is the same: to support our natural collagen production.

“Collagen supplementation of these proteins [is] all the rage,” says Diane Madfes, M.D., F.A.A.D., a New York City-based dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. If you have a healthy, protein-rich diet, your body is already creating collagen naturally. However, Dr. Madfes tells us that our collagen breaks down between 1 and 5% every day, and our ability to replenish these proteins decreases even more as we age. That’s why “increased protein supplementation—whether through product-based supplements or diet—helps to support this normal breakdown and repair process,” explains Dr. Madfes. This is exactly what collagen powders and pills are designed to do.

How do collagen supplements work? 

As for how the supplements themselves work, Dr. Madfes says that most of the ones on the market contain “hydrolyzed collagen” (also known as collagen peptides), which is a broken-down form of collagen that’s more readily used and absorbed by the body. Hydrolyzed type I collagen is extracted from hides, bones, or fish scales—so if you think you can find an effective vegan collagen supplement, think again. “It doesn't matter whether it’s in a powder, liquid, or gummy, the hydrolyzed form is key,” says Dr. Madfes. “This is because it must have adequate absorption from our gut into the bloodstream in order for protein to build at the dermal level in our skin.”

Does regularly taking a collagen supplement help improve hair, skin, and/or nail health? 

Here’s where the jury is still out. While the possible benefits of collagen supplements are wide-ranging, the science behind it is not. There have been some promising results in a few studies; for example, one 2019 study found that 10 mg of collagen dipeptides taken over 56 days resulted in significantly more improvement in skin moisture, elasticity, wrinkles, and roughness. Another 2018 systematic review of the dermatological applications of oral collagen also saw promising preliminary results that suggest that supplements could increase skin elasticity, hydration, and dermal collagen density. But while there are several studies that suggest early evidence of collagen affecting the skin, the evidence for collagen’s effect on hair and nail health is largely anecdotal. 

Some doctors are wary about the idea that something that is digested in the gut could have such effects on the external features of our body. One 2002 study found that hydrolyzed collagen, which is the type found in most powders, is broken down significantly by the enzymes our gut, meaning it would lose potency by the time it was able to deliver possible benefits to the skin, hair, or nails. Ultimately, there isn’t enough data to determine whether or not collagen supplements provide noticeable effects, though research is ongoing.

Additionally, Dr. Madfes points out that collagen alone is not the answer, as vitamin C and copper are needed for the firmness and strength of our collagen fibers, meaning that the production of collagen is actually more complex than simply taking a supplement.

According to Dr. Idriss, when it comes to the results from these supplements, "There's no conclusive answer." She believes that better, non-biased studies are still needed to really see the effect on skin and hair health, since many of the conclusive studies come from brands that sell their own collagen supplements. In her opinion, when it comes to anti-aging, you’ll notice firmer skin, more bounce, and better volume with in-office procedures such as micro-needling, Ultherapy (non-surgical skin tightening), and heat devices that are designed to stimulate collagen production within the dermis. 

It’s also important to note that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration does not currently monitor collagen powders for safety or efficacy, so if you’re looking to test out a dietary supplement, check if a credible group like the NSFUL, or USP has tested it for safety.

Ultimately, it's up to you if you want to try collagen supplements, but as long as you're regularly eating healthy meals made up of different types of protein (plant-based, animal-based, or dairy-based), they're probably not all that necessary.