Collagen: ‘Fountain of Youth’ or Edible Hoax?
In 2018, thanks in part to a small but growing body of evidence suggesting it can improve skin, ease arthritis symptoms, promote wound healing, and fend off muscle wasting, U.S. consumers are expected to spend $122 million on collagen products. That’s up 30% from last year, according to market research firm Nutrition Business Journal.
But as it’s gotten more popular, there have been questions about how well it works and concerns about its safety.
“It’s definitely among the top three products people ask me about,” says Mark Moyad, MD, director of the complementary and alternative medicine program at the University of Michigan Medical Center. “It’s also one of the most wacky and controversial.”
The Body’s Scaffolding
Collagen — a protein that binds tissues — is often called the body’s scaffolding.
“It’s the glue that holds the body together,” says New York dermatologist Whitney Bowe, author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin: The Surprising Science of Looking and Feeling Radiant from the Inside Out.
“Just in the last few years, there have been some impressive studies showing that ingestible collagen can indeed impact the appearance of skin,” says Bowes.
One 2014 study of 69 women ages 35 to 55 found that those who took 2.5 or 5 grams of collagen daily for 8 weeks showed a lot of improvement in skin elasticity, compared with those who didn’t take it. The science is truly in its infancy.
Another found that women who took 1 gram per day of a chicken-derived collagen supplement for 12 weeks had 76% less dryness, 12% fewer visible wrinkles, better blood flow in the skin, and a 6% higher collagen content.
But Moyad, author of The Supplement Handbook: A Trusted Expert’s Guide to What Works and What’s Worthless for More Than 100 Conditions, says many of the studies done so far on collagen are small and at least partially funded by industry.
“The science is truly in its infancy,” he says. “There’s a lot of conflict of interest, and not enough quality control.”
But he, too, believes it may hold promise.
Other dermatologists question how well it will work.
Augusta, GA-based dermatologist Lauren Eckert Ploch says stomach acids break down collagen proteins you eat before they reach the skin intact. “It is unlikely that someone would see any benefit from it.”
All that said, doctors have their concerns.
“I think the elephant in the room here is safety,” says Moyad. “We are talking about ground-up fish, chicken, pig, and cow parts, and these parts tend to act as sponges for contaminants and heavy metals.”
While little evidence exists yet to suggest that collagen supplements could lead to heavy metal contamination, several collagen supplement companies — aware of these concerns — have begun to advertise how they test for heavy metals and keep them to a minimum.
“At the time of manufacture, heavy metal testing is done and the product is approved for human consumption once it passes all testing,” says a page on the Great Lakes Gelatin site. The company says its limits for arsenic are below the standards set by government agencies.
Meanwhile, dermatologists and consumer groups have also said they were concerned that those ground-up hooves, hides, and nerve tissues — particularly if they come from cows — could carry diseases like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.
In 2016, the FDA prohibited the use of some cow parts in dietary supplements to “address the potential risk” of the presence of BSE. (Human consumption of BSE-infected meat has been linked to neurological disorders.) The FDA exempted gelatin — a key collagen source — from the ban, “as long as it is manufactured using specified industry practices.”
But Valori Treloar, a Massachusetts dermatologist and nutritionist, says dietary supplements are not regulated as rigorously as drugs.
“I think collagen is interesting and there is some data out there suggesting benefit, but I prefer for my patients to eat food,” she said, noting that a homemade stock using bones from chicken, fish, or beef can be a good source of the protein.
How to Choose
If you are interested in trying collagen, doctors agree that it’s important to choose wisely.
Look for companies that get their bones and tissues from cage-free, free-range, and antibiotic-free sources.
“It might help, and it probably won’t harm, unless you are not being diligent about quality control,” says Moyad.
Look for a trusted brand with a third-party label, like NSF or USP.
And steer clear of fancy mixtures that combine collagen with probiotics, fiber, or other additives, which could interact with the collagen and change how well it works.
Mora says she did that, and she’s convinced it has helped her.
“My goal is not to look like I am 20, but rather to look good for my age,” she says.
At 60, she believes her skin care routine is working.