Collagen Supplements - Yay or Nay?

collagen supplements
First Posted on January 13, 2021 in:anti-aginginsights & debunksscience deep dive

2020 was the year for stay at home self care, which pretty much led to a huge hunt for all things diet and wellness including collagen ingestibles. In fact, there’s so much collagen stuff out there that there’s even recipes like collagen cupcakes.... 

But seriously, as of Jan 2021, is there any data suggesting to give collagen a look? Strap in folks, we gotta try to organize a little chaos here. We’ll walk you through what data to look at, what products to avoid, and what to look for in your collagen supplement purchase.

What the Data Says

There's actually quite a bit of data out there on oral collagen supplements, but we ended up having to filter out a lot of it. This is our criteria for selecting relevant studies to help make a case for using collagen supplements:

  • Must be a human clinical - These give the best case scenario and are much more applicable than a mouse model or petri dish.
  • Must have testing on face and not just on forearms. We found studies that tested only on forearm. Though this gives us some sense of hydration and maybe a hint at elasticity, people spend money on collagen supplements for anti-aging and we want to know if these actually help with things like fine lines and wrinkles.

Ok with that out of the way, let’s look at four findings:

  1. The Ingredient Naming Scheme: Hydrolyzed collagen, collagen hydrolysate, and collagen peptides can be used interchangeably to refer to "small chunks of collagen". However, the actual amino acid profile of these collagen bits and collagen source (beef, chicken, fish) can still differ despite similar ingredient names.
  2. What does it do for your skin: One relevant study we found was a double blinded, placebo controlled small study of 36 participants. Subjects were post-menopausal women and were evaluated for skin elasticity on cheek. The cool thing is that they found that those that had taken 5 grams of hydrolyzed collagen (amino acid profile not specified) daily for 4 weeks showed significant improvements in skin elasticity and continued to show those improvements 4 weeks later after stopping use. Ok so hydrolyzed collagen seems to do something...
  3. The Type of Collagen Peptide Might Matter: This should really come as no surprise to peptide skincare users, but recent studies have shown that the type of collagen peptide in oral supplements actually matter. These more helpful dipeptides are referred to as bioactive peptides. One team did a double-blind, placebo-controlled study comparing collagen hydrolysates rich in bioactive dipeptides (proline-hydroxyproline and hydroxyproline-glycine) to collagen hydrolysate with lower bioactive peptide content and a placebo. The test subjects (n=85) were required to take 5g daily for 8 weeks. Both types of collagen hydrolysates were found to be effective in reducing wrinkle area and skin roughness. However, the collagen hydrolysate rich in bioactive peptides were found to be significantly more effective in treating wrinkle depth and reducing the number of wrinkles.
  4. Some brands have clinically tested their product: There are a few notable brands out there that have actually tested their specific blend of collagen + vitamins + extracts. A great example of a good, thorough analysis is Elasten, a German collagen supplement drink. They perform a randomized, blinded, placebo controlled clinical of (n=72) to measure skin elasticity, skin roughness, and density. On top of that, they even did another clinical study of n=60 and used confocal laser scanning microscopy to map and measure collagen structure over 12 weeks. Gold star! Just keep in mind that because these are specific blends, these results only pertain to their specific blend. Different suppliers can synthesize their peptides and create their blends differently and the data doesn't translate to all types of hydrolyzed collagen. 

While You’re Shopping, Consider Skipping Over

  1. Mysterious Collagen: You think skincare is unregulated, the more terrifying thing is that nutraceuticals is even more of a circus. There’s practically no reason for supplement brands to disclose just what kind of ingredients you’re getting. It also doesn’t help that the ingredient labeling is even more vague with lots of overlap. With that lack of transparency, you can actually go ahead and narrow down your shopping purchase by staying away from products that don’t disclose any real info on the type of collagen they’re using. If you’re asking things like, “is it collagen? Is it collagen peptides? Is it just bone broth?” Yeah.. just go ahead and move on. Trust me, even throwing these brands out, there are plenty of others we still have to sift through.
  2. Vegan Collagen Supplements for Vegan Diets: For those looking for a non-animal derived collagen option, it’s going to be a challenge. We’ve found that a lot of vegan collagen brands usually use “pro collagen blends”, which aren’t actually using collagen and will use vitamins, extracts, and sometimes just pure amino acids at very low levels. There’s also a subset of vegan collagen brands that use plant protein stating it’s plant-based collagen, but be wary this doesn't mean it's the same thing. Absolutely look for clinical studies to back these blends up. 

*An example of a mysterious collagen label.  We pulled this from a "Collagen-from bone broth" powder supplement. We recommend skipping over this and looking for hydrolyzed collagen/collagen peptide labeling.

Curious to Try?

While there’s still a lot more studies needed and a lot more transparency required, we do acknowledge that the studies do show potential. Unfortunately, what’s being tested and what’s being sold doesn’t directly translate mainly due to the fact that hydrolyzed collagen can be produced with various processes leading to different amino acid profiles. Also add on the fact that ingredient labeling doesn’t really provide any clarity, and suddenly shopping has become very difficult. So if you’re curious to try, mange your expectations, and just keep these four things in mind:

  1. The easiest thing you could do is buy products that have done their placebo controlled clinicals like the Elasten drink or Peptan. But these can get expensive and are not always readily available for purchase.
  2. For the rest of us, know that instead of stressing over what type of collagen peptide you're getting, just focus on getting enough of it. Find a product where the serving size and hydrolyzed collagen amount check out. If they provide an amino acid breakdown, extra brownie points.
  3. Results (if any) take time and also money - Remember that it can take up to 12 weeks of consistent daily intake before seeing any results. So keep that in mind for your expectations and budget.
  4. Give brands with more transparency more weight. Because the supplement world is highly unregulated and ingredient labeling can be even more of a hot mess, a safer bet is to choose brands that have done their own testing or have more transparent labeling.

*An example of a better label with clear ingredient name and amino acid profile breakdown 

The Takeaway

  • Hydrolyzed collagen, collagen hydrolysate, and collagen peptides all mean "small chunks of collagen". However, different collagen suppliers can have different manufacturing processes resulting in hydrolyzed collagen with varying amino acid profiles.
  • Some studies suggest that hydrolyzed collagen can help improve skin elasticity and hydration anywhere between 4-12 weeks.
  • New studies are showing that specific bioactive peptides can provide even better results including wrinkle reduction and skin roughness. But we haven’t seen a lot of dipeptide-rich collagen products out on the US market yet.
  • The supplement industry is a bit of a zoo. Look for hydrolyzed collagen in the 5-20g department and give major bonus points to brands that do clinical studies or have transparent labeling. 
  • If you’re vegan, this is an extra challenging product category for you. Be skeptical of vegan collagen products.

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