Supplements, shampoo and gold face masks promising to “boost” collagen levels have become the latest trend to take over Instagram. And a number of celebrities swear by its supposed health properties, dousing their morning smoothies with collagen powder or smearing a collagen-infused cream over their faces. It’s even shown up in cauliflower-based wraps and been infused into martinis by Gwyneth Paltrow.
“There’s a collagen peptide that I’ve been loving — I’ve been seeing a difference!” Jennifer Aniston told Well and Good in 2016. “My nails are stronger and there’s a healthier, how do you explain it? A glow.”
So what is it, exactly, that causes that Aniston glow? And what exactly is collagen — and does it work?
Collagen is a protein and the building block in our bones, skin, cartilage and tendons, Zhaoping Li, a director at the Center for Human Nutrition at UCLA, said over the phone. As we age, collagen production slows and our skin and joints struggle to recover in ways they used to, resulting in inflammation, cartilage deterioration or worst of all, wrinkles, Stella Metsovas, a clinical nutritionist, added in an email. (In fact, Scientific American reported that after the age of 20, our bodies produce 1% less collagen with every passing year.)
Throughout the ‘90s and early ‘00s, injectable collagen evolved as the go-to cosmetic, non-invasive procedure for those wanting fewer wrinkles or fuller, poutier lips. In exchange for an injection of bovine collagen (repeated two to four times a year), patients received cosmetic peace of mind. Collagen can also treat conditions that have less to do with vanity: People dealing with arthritis have found benefits from collagen supplements in trials by reducing pain and joint inflammation.
And in recent years, a number of beauty products and health foods have incorporated collagen, touting its joint and skin-aiding properties. Collagen peptides, or dietary supplements using collagen, make up an almost $773 million industry, according to a 2018 estimate. But studies following collagen supplements and its use in beauty products are far and few in between, Li said. Among lofty promises like “thicker, fuller hair”or “stimulating cellular regeneration,” its effectiveness in such products remains unsubstantiated. Mic spoke with doctors and nutritionists to find out if any collagen products are worth shelling out the big bucks for.
Collagen eye masks might work — but not necessarily because of collagen
An influx of celebrities are showing off their gold, collagen-infused eye masks on social media. MZ Skin, endorsed by model Adriana Lima and Olympian Adam Rippon, is one of the more popular brands with its collagen-based hydra-bright golden eye treatment mask — which retails at $106 for a single pair. According to MZ Skin’s website, the mask contains hyaluronic acid, collagen and seaweed extract and its benefits include reduced eye puffiness, minimized appearance of fine lines and “restored” hydration.
Some studies suggest collagen may have some age-defying abilities. A 2009 study found that topical use of a collagen-binding peptide, or ingredients that help increase collagen levels, along with other chemicals like hyaluronic acid, revealed immediate and long-term improvements of wrinkles. And while hyaluronic acid has been shown to reduce wrinkle depth, studies specifically following collagen use and its effectiveness are rare. So while the product may improve your face, hyaluronic acid is probably playing the larger role here, according to Li. “There’s not really evidence with collagen,” Li said. “Any benefits are mostly because of the mask.”
Supplements are probably unnecessary
Collagen powders, like those made by Vital Proteins, advertise the ability to improve the quality of your hair, skin and nails, as well as improve digestion and boost joint health. And celebrities like Mandy Moore, Kourtney Kardashian and Busy Philipps have adopted collagen powders in their morning routines — but consuming extra collagen may ultimately be unnecessary.
“Extra unused protein peptides sitting around in the body will convert to and get stored as fat just like other excess calories.”
Most diets that consist of meat or fish supply us with enough amino acids to create collagen naturally, Li said. “As long as you’re not malnourished or in a cancerous stage, you really don’t have a deficiency from a dietary point of view to make enough collagen on your own,” she said. “For most people, it’s hard to prove taking an additional amount would actually deliver the claims we want it to believe.”
And adding extra collagen in the form of supplements may have an adverse effect, according to Jennifer MacGregor, a dermatologist. “Having extra peptides sitting around may not mean you make more collagen,” she said in an email. “In fact, extra unused protein peptides sitting around in the body will convert to and get stored as fat just like other excess calories.”
Collagen-shampoos may have benefits, but there are few studies that confirm its effects
A number of companies have boasted the use of collagen in their haircare products, claiming benefits of improved hair quality. Nexxus Emergecee Protein Treatment, used by Kim Kardashian West, incorporates marine collagen (collagen collected from fish) in the shampoo’s formulation. But according to Li, any benefits with regard to helping hair growth are unfounded and purely speculative.
“It’s not getting into your hair follicles to make your hair grow better. There’s no evidence,” she said. And studies following its impact could lean either way. “On the skin, there’s bacteria. And the stuff you add to the skin, including collagen, actually feed into bacteria, and those bacteria might have an impact,” she said. “But I have not seen any scientific study on it.”
Ultimately, collagen boosters may do more harm than good
According to Li, few individuals actually require collagen supplements, given a typical diet. “If you’re eating a pretty healthy diet overall, then it’s hard to imagine this will give you anything additional,” she said. “If someone has an extreme diet, and [is] lacking protein overall, any protein is good, including collagen protein.”
And despite marketing claims of “healthier” hair or skin, Leah Mark, a dietician, said in an email that collagen can contain unwanted chemicals, like heavy metals. Similarly, Li added collagen supplements produced in capsules could be dangerous. “Anything mixed in the capsule is heavily processed with compounds and chemicals, and without hard evidence that proves it works, I’d rather you not introduce chemicals [into your body],” she said. “Anything made into a capsule is no longer natural — and it’ll hurt your wallet.”