A word that is attached to a great many skincare products, and increasingly, it is also part of a large number of supplements that are now available to help support the bones and muscles – is collagen.
You’ve probably heard good things about collagen, and you may be doing a bit of research to see if what you’ve heard is true.
Or maybe you’ve caught snippets of positive mentions about collagen here and there and want to piece them all together. And that’s where we come in.
By the time you get through to the end of this article, all will become clear about collagen.
So, before you reach for the next wonder product, we can help you to understand exactly what collagen is and how it benefits your body, prior to deciding whether you need to begin taking it or not.
In this article, we’ll run through
- What collagen is
- How collagen works
- If collagen can be replaced
- The different types of collagen
- The evidence on collagen
- If collagen supplementation is for you
- 10 benefits of collagen supplements
- The link between collagen and cold weather
- The best sources of collagen
- Which foods contain collagen
- What impacts collagen
- All about lycopene and ceramide
- If collagen is a complete source of protein
- The best collagen supplements
What is collagen?
When we think about the way our skin naturally ages, one word that often crops up is ‘collagen’. But what is it exactly?
Collagen is a protein that occurs naturally in all animals and humans, contributing to around a third of the body’s total protein – which makes it the most abundant form of protein in the body.1
However, collagen is not just the key to firmer-looking and feeling skin.
It also has a wide number of other important uses throughout the body.
From your tendons to your gums – most hard and soft tissues in your body are primarily made up of collagen protein.
It is also found within the bones, skin, and ligaments in addition to blood vessels, the corneas and the teeth.
While it is typically known for providing structure to your skin, it is also vital in helping the blood clotting process as well.
There are four main types of collagen which support a number of systems within the body, but as we age, we not only produce less of it, but also a lower quality version of it.
This becomes more visible in the skin, but it is also evident in other ways, such as the fact that the cartilage within our bones begins to weaken.
After the age of 20, you produce around 1% less collagen in your skin each following year.2
This means that your skin becomes thinner and more likely to develop wrinkles from this point.
How does collagen work?
The exact biological mechanisms aren’t yet known, but scientists say collagen’s wrinkle-fighting abilities could be due to the fragmenting of collagen into small chains of amino acids and peptides.3
When your body breaks down collagen in the digestive system, the fragments of amino acids and peptides are absorbed into the bloodstream.
This then triggers the body’s natural production of collagen within the skin.
It’s worth noting that collagen acts as a kind of springy scaffold for your skin – holding it together, giving it structure and allowing it to bounce back after injury.4
Collagen also has a hand in scalp health, helping hair grow strong and thick, and keeping nails from splitting and flaking.
Chemically speaking, collagen is made up of strong strands of amino acids which are bound tightly together in a rope-like chain.5
These strong chains are what give young, healthy skin its resilience and plumpness.
Babies, children and teenagers produce collagen at a rapid rate as they grow.
This is one reason their skin is so smooth and wrinkle-free.
Unfortunately, as we age, our bodies slowly produce less and less collagen and the effects are reflected in the visible signs of chronological ageing.
These include wrinkles, sagging skin, thinning hair and weak, brittle nails.6
But is it possible to replace the collagen we lose as we get older?
Well, not exactly.
However, if you want to help protect the structure of your skin, minimise the appearance of fine lines and maintain the health of your hair and nails, collagen supplements might be able to help.
Collagen supplements contain collagen protein which has been broken down into shorter chains of amino acids, known as collagen peptides.
These peptides are thought to stimulate the natural collagen production in the body, leading to visible and tangible results over time.7
What’s in collagen supplements?
Collagen supplements are available as collagen pills, collagen shots, liquid collagen, collagen powder, collagen serum, and collagen cream.
There are even collagen powders that can be added to drinks.
There are three main types of collagen.
Type I is considered the best type for beauty as that’s the type known to be naturally present in hair, skin and nails.8
Type II collagen is most abundant in marine collagen, which comes from the bones, skin and scales of fish and other sea life.
What are the main different types of collagen?
While we just said that there are three key types of collagen, there are a fair few more than that in total.
In fact, there are at least 16 different types of collagen, however, people tend to refer to these five types as the main types:
- Type 1 – makes up 90% of the human body. This type of collagen is found in our skin and bones, blood vessel wall, connective tissue, and fibrous cartilage. It’s also present in scar tissue, and of all the different forms of collagen, this is the one that’s mainly linked to skin ageing – wrinkles, fine lines etc.
- Type 2 – you’ll find this in the cartilage between your joints. It’s got a good rep for helping ease joint pain and can be found in abundance in bone broth.
- Type 3 – there’s lots of it in our intestines, it helps create and improve the structure of our muscles, as well as our organs and blood vessels.
- Type 4 – is less common than collagen types 1 to 3 and helps our kidneys and organs function properly. This type of collagen is believed to help with wound healing.
- Type 5 – is found in some layers of skin, hair and the tissue of the placenta in pregnant women.9
What’s the evidence?
It can be difficult to keep track of the trends in wellness – and so-called ‘nutricosmetics’ be especially confusing with their blend of science and beauty.10
It’s easy to be sceptical, but the evidence behind collagen for skin and as a beauty aid is surprisingly solid.
Most research seems to have been conducted into the effects of collagen supplements on the skin.
Evidence for hair and nails is less strong, but this might simply be because less research exists into these areas.
Is collagen supplementation for you?
The passing of years will always show eventually, which isn’t a bad thing.
With age comes confidence and wisdom you could only have dreamed of at age 19 – which is something to be celebrated!
However, the evidence for collagen supplementation is promising, and as collagen is a naturally occurring substance within our bodies, it’s well-tolerated and very low risk.11
So why not find out for yourself what collagen could do for your skin, hair and nails?
What are the benefits of taking collagen?
Could there be a way to help regain some of the lustre of youthful hair, skin and nails as we get older?
Yes! Taking collagen supplements or upping the number of collagen-rich foods in our diet can deliver lots of positives like these.
We’ve listed 10 of the main ones below:
There is growing medical evidence that collagen may help fight the appearance of wrinkles.
A study published in the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging in 2014 on the collagen benefits for skin found 15% of those taking a liquid collagen beauty supplement with added vitamins and minerals had fewer facial lines and wrinkles after 60 days.
The study also revealed that 32% experienced improvements in photo-ageing – ageing caused by sun exposure – and for 39%, skin dryness decreased too.12
German researchers found a ‘statistically significant’ improvement in skin elasticity, and a positive influence in skin moisture and hydration levels, in those who took hydrolysed collagen supplements.13
Another study in the journal Skin Pharmacology and Physiology found a 20% reduction in eye wrinkles after eight weeks of taking collagen supplements.14
More recent research from 2019 published in Skin Pharmacology and Physiology that was also conducted in Germany, showed significant improvements in skin hydration, elasticity, and density after twelve weeks of taking oral collagen.15
There are now a number of collagen liquid supplements on the market which are taken on a daily basis in very small amounts in order to try to help support collagen production in the skin and stimulate the creation of other collagen-forming proteins.
Less joint pain
Cartilage, the tissue that’s responsible for protecting our joints, is made up of collagen, and therefore starts to decrease as we get older.
This means we can potentially be more at risk of developing joint disorders, such as osteoarthritis.
Research has found collagen supplements can stimulate tissues in the body to make more cartilage.16
In addition to this, a study conducted by the Current Medical Research and Opinion found that the 73 athletes who consumed 10g of collagen every day for 24 weeks experienced a lowered level of joint pain during both walking and at rest, compared to the group that did not take it.17
More muscle mass
Collagen is thought to help increase muscle mass and strength; however, these supplements should not be used as a substitute for a dietary protein that has been designed to balance blood sugar levels and fuel metabolic functions.
Around 1 to 10% of muscle tissue within the human body is made up of collagen, which helps keep muscles strong and working as they should.18
And according to research from the British Journal of Nutrition, collagen supplements can potentially contribute to muscle growth and encourage the creation of muscle proteins, such as creatine.19
It’s thought collagen supplements may have the ability to reduce the risk of heart-related conditions.
A study by the Journal of Atherosclerosis and Thrombosis published in 2017 looked into this and found the reason to be that collagen contributes to and maintains the structure of our arteries that are responsible for pumping blood from our heart and around our body.20
Not having enough collagen potentially means our arteries become weak and fragile over time.
Our bones are mainly made up of collagen, which gives them their structure and helps keep them strong.
The older we get, the less collagen we have in our body and the less bone mass we have too.
Seminars in Arthritis & Rheumatism compiled research that showed that taking collagen supplements may help maintain a healthy bone mass.21
Also, collagen has been shown to be beneficial in cases of joint pain and weakness, and it is believed that collagen supplements can also play a role in managing the symptoms of arthritis.
It has also been found to support healthy bone mineral density in older women.22
According to certain research, collagen contains the amino acid, glycine, which can potentially promote normal and healthy digestion.23
Stronger and healthier hair and nails
The benefits of collagen for hair are less well-known, but equally as impressive.
Multiple scientists have now studied how collagen can potentially help nails to grow strong and less brittle, and hair to grow.
An American study was published in 2014 which showed the potential for significant benefits of oral collagen on hair and nails.
An oral supplement that included collagen (along with hyaluronic acid, peptides and lipids) was given daily to 54 women aged 26 to 68.
The results showed statistically significant improvement in nail cracking and nail brittleness by nearly 80%, as well as with hair dullness, hair dryness, and nail softness after eight weeks.24
A longer trial conducted over 60 weeks revealed that after only nine months, 100% of participants saw an improvement in hair dryness, hair dullness, and nail peeling.25
The authors concluded that ‘beauty nutritional supplementation with peptides and lipids – the building blocks necessary for healthy skin, hair and nails – as well as hyaluronic acid and collagen… provides rapid, measurably significant, and long-lasting results.’
Heard about how collagen benefits your gut health?
Back in 2017, a study was published by Food & Function that found collagen peptides (a more bioavailable form of collagen) to inhibit the breakdown of the lining in the intestines.26 In addition to this, Clinical and Experimental Gastroenterology conducted research on this topic in 2012.
It found that gelatin tannate supplements naturally contain collagen to promote anti-inflammatory responses in the gut. 27
Another claim in which there’s limited research to back it up is the thought that collagen can help with weight loss because it can potentially speed up people’s metabolism.
Additionally, a specific type of collagen from a Skate fish has been found to reduce body fat in humans – according to a 2019 study published in the Marine Drugs journal.28
Reduce recovery time
Collagen does bolster the connective tissue, which supports your active muscles, meaning that injury recovery time can be reduced.
An article in the Amino Acids journal that was published in September 2021 backs this idea up, as it concluded that a daily dose of 5-15g of collagen each day improved joint pain, functionality and that muscle recovery had a modest but significant improvement with this supplementation.29
What are the benefits of collagen supplements?
Taking collagen supplements, which are either hydrolysed collagen or gelatin. These can take the form of liquid, powder or tablets.
Hydrolysed collagen has been broken down into smaller peptides than the usual large protein, making it easier for the body to absorb.30
Collagen supplement powders are a versatile form of supplement as they can be mixed into a range of smoothies and other foods to make them easier to take.
Collagen and cold weather
Adding collagen to your beauty regime could be particularly beneficial in winter, when cold weather and central heating play havoc with our hair, skin and nails.
Most of us tend to cut back on fresh fruit and veggies during the winter too, meaning we could be missing out on essential nutrients like vitamin C – which helps the body produce collagen – making a supplement even more useful.31
Can I take vitamin C and collagen together?
Absolutely! And as we just mentioned, vitamin C alone helps the body to produce more collagen, so doubled with a supplement is the way to go.32
What is the best source of collagen?
There’s no one single source of collagen because it’s present in food form (from both plant and animal sources), as well as a collagen supplement form.
What’s more, different collagen sources provide different types of collagen, and therefore different health-related benefits.
As there’s no single source of collagen, it’s best to try and incorporate it into your diet/life in a way that works best for you.
For instance, if you prefer animal sources over plant sources, stick to foods 1 to 3 below, and if you prefer fish/seafood and fruit sources, then stick to those instead.
Or, if you don’t mind, then it’s perfectly ok to enjoy a combination of the two!
Before we move on to talk you through some of the main food sources of collagen, we also wanted to mention certain nutrients that can help with collagen production too.
They are zinc, Vitamin C and copper, so bear them in mind when you’re planning your next collagen-packed meal!33,34,35
What foods contain collagen?
There are several ways in which you can naturally increase the amount of collagen rich foods you consume in your diet.
The main dietary sources of collagen are:
- Chicken bone broth – which doesn’t just contain bone, but also cartilage. Because of this, it’s high in the collagen that’s in our skin and bones, as well as glucosamine, chondroitin and hyaluronic acid.
- Bovine collagen - contains two different types of collagen: skin and bone and cartilage collagen, and is especially beneficial for our skin and bones.
- Egg whites – also contains two different types of collagen, but not the same types as bovine collagen. Eggshell membranes contain the same type of collagen found in placentas and the collagen that’s in cartilage and disc tissue.
- Marine collagen – is most commonly found in freshly-caught fish. It’s mainly made up of the collagen that’s in our skin and bones. It also contains some of the same collagen that’s in our gut lining.36
- Other foods that promote collagen production include citrus fruits (e.g., oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes), berries (e.g., raspberries, blueberries, blackberries), tropical fruits (e.g., mango, kiwi, pineapple), garlic, leafy greens, cashew nuts, tomatoes, and bell peppers.37,38
What destroys/impacts collagen?
Despite the fact there are several different types of collagen, our collagen levels don’t stay the same forever.
As we get older, our body naturally produces:
- Less of it
- Lower quality collagen
The main tell-tale sign this is happening is when our skin looks less firm and starts losing its elasticity.
Our age can massively impact our collagen levels, and so too can this:
Eating lots of sugary food and refined carbs
This is because: Sugar interrupts collagen’s ability to do what it does naturally and repair itself.39
Catching too many rays
This is because the sun’s UV rays can reduce collagen production, making excessive sun exposure a massive no, no.40
This is because: Like UV rays, it reduces collagen production too. It can also lead to wrinkles.41
How do lycopene and ceramide add to these benefits?
Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant – and also happens to be what gives tomatoes their red colour.
Ceramides are a type of fatty acid called lipids that are fantastic for helping to lock in moisture and protecting against environmental damage.42
So when you combine these things with the effects of collagen, it offers some really exciting results for your skin.
Is collagen a complete source of protein?
Collagen is a unique type of protein, as it does not have all nine of the essential amino acids that a complete protein requires.
It does contain some essential amino acids that are lacking in many modern diets and are effective in recovery and repair.
That means taking a collagen supplement can be effective in acting as the glue that holds much of our bodies together, keeping us strong and flexible, but it should not be taken as your main protein source.
At what age should you start taking collagen?
Since collagen production declines by 1-1.5% each year from early adulthood, you may want to consider taking collagen supplements from your mid-twenties.43
What are the side effects of taking collagen?
Fortunately, collagen supplements are generally safe to use and they’re not likely to cause major side effects.
However, some reported minor side-effects include:44
- a feeling of heaviness in your stomach
- mild diarrhoea
Which is the best collagen supplement?
When taking a supplement, you should always ensure that you are giving your body exactly what it needs.
Collagen supplements are not a form of complete protein, so you should make sure that you are taking a product that meets the requirements of your body.
Always take care in introducing a new supplement into your diet.
If you are unsure or experience any adverse effects, you should consult your doctor.
The final say
How are you feeling about collagen now?
We’d like to think you’re a lot clearer on the main collagen benefits and now feel more than informed about what it is and some of the ways it helps with skin and body health.
To continue your collagen research read, ‘Can collagen keep your joints and bones healthy?’
The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.
Last updated: 3 December 2021