What is Collagen?

Measuring spoon with collage powder or alginate mask on pink background

Getty Images / Anna Efetova

Collagen peptides, whether via a powder or pill, have quickly gained popularity in the wellness world. Many are hopping on the collagen train for its alleged benefits in supporting the health of hair, skin, nails, the gut, and joints. Collagen is increasingly seen added to smoothies, baked goods, coffee, tea, or taken as a pill. In fact, research shows that the collagen supplement industry will reach $7 billion per year by 2027.

But ultimately, what does the science say about collagen? Is it all that it is really cracked up to be? A registered dietitian lays out the evidence for you.

What Is Collagen?

Collagen is the most abundant structural protein in the bodies of animals. Structural proteins make up the framework of your cells and tissues.

Collagen is made up of three main amino acids, glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. Connective tissue, skin, tendons, bones, and cartilage are the main structures in which collagen is found and it provides structural support to these tissues.

Additionally, collagen plays a role in cellular processes such as tissue repair, immune response, cellular communication, and cellular migration, which is a process necessary for tissue repair and maintenance.

Fibroblasts, which are connective tissue cells, are responsible for producing and maintaining collagen. As we age, fibroblast function becomes less efficient, collagen production becomes fragmented and slows down. These changes, in combination with the loss of another structural protein called elastin, lead to signs of aging.

Certain lifestyle factors may also accelerate collagen loss, such as smoking cigarettes, excessive drinking, and excessive sun exposure.

Your body produces collagen naturally. You can also consume collagen through food sources such as chicken skin, fish skin, egg whites, and bone broth. Collagen in powder, capsule, and topical forms is becoming increasingly popular for treating signs of aging such as wrinkles, skin hydration, and joint pain. Healthcare professionals are also using it to treat wounds, burns, and diabetic ulcers.

What Does the Research Say?

While social conversations can help glean insight into what people are talking about within the supplement space, what's really important is what the research shows. Here are some potential benefits of collagen.

May Promote Skin Health

The most common type of research done on collagen supplements is on the benefits for skin health. Research suggests that taking collagen supplements or powders may improve skin health and appearance. In one review that included 19 studies and a total of 1,125 participants (ages 20-70), it was found that taking hydrolyzed collagen supplements improved skin elasticity, hydration, and wrinkles. These results were noted after 90 days of use.

Another study tested 50mL of a collagen supplement that consists of hydrolyzed collagen, hyaluronic acid, vitamins, and minerals for 12 weeks. Taking the supplement on a daily basis led to a noticeable reduction in skin dryness, wrinkles, and an increase in collagen density and skin firmness.

While a number of studies show collagen to be effective at improving skin health and counteracting signs of aging, it is important to note that many of these studies are funded by companies that manufacture collagen products, which has the potential to influence study results.

May Promote Joint Health

There is also a large body of research showing collagen's effect on joint health, including osteoarthritis and bone density loss as we age. Preclinical studies show that the ingestion of hydrolysate collagen stimulates tissue regeneration by increasing collagen synthesis. Other clinical studies also show that ingestion helps reduce joint pain and bone density loss.

One study conducted a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial (the gold standard in research) with 120 individuals. They consumed the test product or placebo for 90 days. Those who were in the test product group reported reduced joint pain by 43% and improved joint mobility by 39%.

One study shows collagen supplementation in athletes may help improve connective tissue health. Another study showed no improvement in knee pain for 167 healthy, active, middle-aged to elderly adults supplementing with collagen peptides.

The Jury is Out on Nail Health

While there is some research to support the use of collagen supplements for improving skin, hair, and joint health, more evidence is needed for the use of collagen in relation to nail health. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study among 88 subjects ingesting hydrolyzed eggshell membrane showed benefits for face and hair, but no benefits for nails.

Overall, more research needs to be done to make a conclusion about the use of collagen supplements. At the current time, collagen supplements may be useful for improving skin, hair, and joint health, but the research is mixed when it comes to nails.

Potential Dangers

Collagen supplements are recognized as safe and are not associated with adverse side effects. The potential concern about collagen supplements lies in the other ingredients manufacturers may include.

Companies producing collagen supplements may add herbs or high levels of vitamins that support skin, nail, and hair health. Some herbal extracts may interact with prescribed medications or aren't safe for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Speak with a healthcare professional before adding a collagen supplement to ensure it won't interact with any medication you are currently taking.

Just like all supplements, collagen supplements are not regulated by the FDA. While there is scientific evidence to back up the benefits that collagen supplements claim, they should not be used as a substitute for any prescription medications recommended by a healthcare provider.

When choosing a collagen supplement, look for one that is a third-party tested product to ensure you are choosing a safe product. Common third-party organizations include NSP, USP, and ConsumerLab. These organizations do not test for product efficacy, but they do test for safety and contaminants.

Collagen Supplements vs. Food

Your body naturally produces collagen from amino acids, therefore, it is not imperative that you take additional collagen supplements. You can support your body's own collagen production by ensuring that you are eating adequate amounts of protein from food sources such as chicken, fish, beans, eggs, legumes, and nuts.

Additionally, eating a variety of foods helps ensure you are getting enough vitamins and minerals, particularly, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin C, and zinc, to support healthy bones, skin, hair, nails, and joints.

While the addition of collagen supplements or powder can be beneficial for increasing your protein intake, it is not essential. If you are concerned about your protein intake or need some guidance, be sure to speak with a registered dietitian.

A Word From Verywell

Though not required, collagen supplements may be a worthy addition to your diet for the benefits of healthy skin, bones, and joints. Always speak with a healthcare professional before adding collagen, or another new supplement, to your diet. It may contain additives that interact with medications you are taking and may be unsafe for pregnant or breastfeeding women.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the side effects of taking collagen?

    Collagen supplements are not likely to cause any side effects. Manufacturers may add herbs or high levels of vitamins and supplements that support hair, skin, nails, and bones. It is important to look into the ingredients to ensure these additives do not interact with any medications you are currently taking or are contraindicated in any way. Always check with a healthcare professional before starting a new supplement.

  • How do you know if you have a lack of collagen?

    Signs of depleted collagen include wrinkles, muscle weakness, slow muscle recovery, aching joints, brittle hair and nails, and weak bones. That being said, these symptoms are not unique to collagen loss; if you suspect you are experiencing a lack of collagen, see a healthcare professional.

  • Can you take collagen with other vitamins?

    Collagen supplements are safe to take with other vitamins, they do not pose any adverse reactions. In fact, it is beneficial to take collagen with a source of vitamin C, either through a vitamin or food. Vitamin C is important for collagen synthesis so consuming enough vitamin C helps ensure adequate collage production. Citrus fruits, peppers, berries, and green leafy vegetables are all good sources of vitamin C.

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Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rebecca Jaspan, MPH, RD, CDN, CDCES
Rebecca Jaspan is a registered dietitian specializing in anorexia, binge eating disorder, and bulimia, as well as disordered eating and orthorexia.