Scrolling through social media, one could get the impression that taking supplements can fix just about anything. However, when you look closer at the evidence, you’ll find that the majority of them just don’t work. In a possible exception to this rule, collagen supplements have been receiving a lot of attention lately, and there are studies that suggest taking them may actually improve skin elasticity.
In the past, our stance has been that collagen supplements are just expensive protein powder, given the lack of evidence for its benefits. But with the release of more recent studies, as well as a renewed interest in it, we felt it worth taking a closer look.
What to know about collagen supplements and clinical trials
There are a number of clinical trials that suggest taking collagen supplements can help improve skin elasticity and hydration. This includes studies where half the participants received a placebo, and the people involved in the study didn’t know who received the placebo until after the experiment and analysis had ended.
Generally speaking, designing studies in this way can help eliminate unconscious bias. Even when we are trying our hardest to be impartial, wanting a specific outcome can often influence us in subtle and hard-to-detect ways.
However, as Michelle Wong, a cosmetic chemist who regularly debunks beauty myths on Instagram, noted in an email to Lifehacker, “Most of the clinical trials were sponsored by supplement companies, which introduces an element of bias.”
Current theories for how collagen might work
One of the main reasons I’ve been so skeptical about taking collagen supplements is that during the process of digestion, it’s just going to get broken down into its individual amino acids, like every other protein out there. Taking a collagen supplement with the idea that it will somehow magically make its way to your skin doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
However, there are other ways in which ingesting collagen might have an effect. As Wong explains, collagen contains a large proportion of the amino acid hydroxyproline, which is unique to collagen and isn’t found in any other protein sources we eat.
One of the current working theories is that this acts as a signal, one that tells our body to increase the amount of collagen it produces, and to stop destroying some of the collagen we already have. At minimum, this is a possible mechanism that makes a little more sense.
Should you take a collagen supplement?
There is often a big difference between clinical trials and real life. In the case of collagen supplements, what is given during a trial and what is in the bottle of collagen protein powder you just bought may substantially differ.
As Wong explains, “[Collagen supplements] can be hydrolyzed using many different methods. This breaks up the collagen in different ways, which means the individual peptides found in each supplement can be very different.”
With all that said, would it be worth taking a collagen supplement? Given how expensive some of these supplements can be, the benefits may not outweigh the cost. If you are only taking collagen out of the hopes it will improve your skin, a more cost-effective approach might be to concentrate on regularly wearing sunscreen and using retinoids, which is known to work.
After all this, our stance is still that collagen supplements are mainly just expensive protein powder—albeit with a little more evidence for some added benefits.