Everyone’s talking about the collagen pills and powders said to enhance your skin, hair and nails, but are they worth the money?
Viscous, slightly slimy collagen drinks first became ‘a thing’ on the back of a trend for eating collagen-rich bone broth (thanks, Gwyneth) and a 2013 study that found collagen supplements have a discernible effect on skin.
The interest died down after a while, but has surged again over the past year, probably thanks to the Covid-induced thirst for self-care, and another study in 2019, which showed ‘promising’ results overall.
With those results (better-hydrated skin, thicker hair, stronger nails), buying one of the many collagen drinks, powders and capsules currently flooding the market seems a no-brainer; even Jennifer Aniston has got in on the act as chief creative officer of ingestibles brand Vital Proteins.
Unless, that is, you heed the skincare and nutritional scientists declaring them a hoax. ‘If you understand the basic biochemistry of how proteins work in the body,’ says nutrition therapist and author Ian Marber, ‘you will be very suspicious of collagen supplements.’
In short, the jury is out on whether their often butt-clenching prices are worth paying. So what should you look for, if anything, if you want your collagen supplement to yield results?
What is collagen and what does it do?
Collagen is a type of protein that forms connective fibres in tissues such as skin, joints, cartilage and bones, providing cushioning, bulk and support (think juicy, firm skin).
It only exists in animals (including humans), so cannot be derived from plants, and accounts for 30% of all the body’s protein and 75% of protein in the skin. It begins to deplete from age 25, leading, eventually, to creaky joints and sagging skin.
Collagen-rich foods (fish, beef, chicken, eggs, dairy) will help top up your body’s stores, but only in a roundabout way. The large collagen molecules can’t be absorbed into the bloodstream, so the body breaks them down into tiny amino acids, which it then uses as building blocks for body tissues.
‘But this goes for any dietary proteins, including those from plants, such as tofu, seitan and beans,’ says Marber. ‘Once broken down into their component parts, they get distributed to replenish the protein and tissue that’s most in need. So while eating plenty of protein is important for healthy joints and skin, eating lots of collagen isn’t a direct route to a more collagen-plumped face.’
What are the benefits of taking collagen?
Ingestibles, however, aim to provide a shortcut to collagen regeneration. They’re made up of collagen hydrolysate, a substance derived from (look away now if you’re squeamish) cartilage, skin and other connective tissues of fish, cows, pigs or chickens, and composed of collagen peptides.
These are little chains of amino acids that will signal to the body to make collagen specifically. Clever. But, the catch is that these peptides have to make it to the small intestine whole to be absorbed by the bloodstream, where they can signal effectively.
Unfortunately, their journey through your stomach acid will turn most of them back into amino acids (switching the shortcut into a detour) and, according to some manufacturers, defy the entire purpose of your average peptide-based supplement.
However, the claim by most brands is that if you ‘flood’ the body with enough peptides (10g or10,000mg daily is what the 2013 study used), a good enough number will get ‘through’ to do their collagen-boosting work. It’s why 10g is the dose recommended by most aesthetic doctors who favour collagen supplements.
‘Research papers involving this dosage do show benefit, but I’ve also given it to many, many patients with excellent results,’ says Dr Sophie Shotter, medical director atIlluminate Skin Clinics.
Collagen powder and collagen supplements
Yet other experts say the 10g ‘rule’ is selling you a pup. ‘It doesn’t matter how many peptides you swallow; if they reach the gut unprotected, they’ll get broken down in 30 to 90 minutes,’ says pharmacist Pupinder Ghatora of Ingenious Beauty.
You need an acid-proof vessel to ferry your peptides safely to your small intestine for them to work, he says, which is what his Ultimate Collagen+ ‘enteric’ capsules, are clinically proven to do.
Elsewhere, Your Zooki Collagen Zooki Liposomal Collagen uses liposomes (micro-bubbles of phospholipids), which are claimed to encourage safe passage of collagen peptides to the bloodstream.
Many, but not all brands provide co-factors required for collagen formation and healthy skin function alongside their collagen peptides– and this, says Shotter, is crucial.
‘Hydrolysed collagen on its own will not do much – you need additional micronutrients to enable your body to produce collagen. Vitamin C and MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) are particularly important.’ Kansha Alchemy Advanced Super Skin Nutrition has these, plus hyaluronic acid (HA) and astaxanthin alongside CoQ10, alpha lipoic acid and a host of other ‘enablers’.
Do collagen supplements really work?
Says Marber: ‘It’s the amino acids, especially when you make them easily digestible and concentrated in the form of meat stock (or, yes, bone broth), gelatin (sugar-free jelly!) or protein powder, such as Form Nutrition Superblend vegan protein, that will replenish tissue including collagen.’
So why, he wonders, would anyone pay a massive mark-up for collagen peptides (which, by the way, can only be derived from animal sources)? Maybe it’s because most of us who have dabbled, including many at Team Red, report fresher-looking skin and noticeably stronger nails and hair.
Shotter, too, confirms seeing, ‘remarkably improved skin integrity, firmness and barrier strength in my patients. All sure signs, she says, that these supplements can contribute to increased collagen production.
This article originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of Red.
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