Chinese women have viewed collagen as a Fountain of Youth for centuries, customarily consuming foods like donkey skin in anticipations of getting rid of wrinkles and preserving aging joints. Collagen has become best known as an exclusive injectable filler to plump lips and soften lines in the 1980s. But only in recent years, as edible collagen started to come on, companies have come up with more enticing ways to take it including fruity chews, vanilla-flavored-powders and easy-to-swallow capsules.
A research carried out in 2018 indicated a small but growing body of evidence signifying it can improve skin, ease arthritis symptoms, promote wound healing, and avoid muscle wasting.
Now that collagen has gotten more widespread, there have been questions about how well it works and concerns about its safety.
Mark Moyad, MD, director of the complementary and alternative medicine program at the University of Michigan Medical Center said;
“It’s definitely among the top three products people ask me about, it’s also one of the most weird and controversial.”
Collagen is a protein that binds tissues, it is often referred to as the body’s scaffolding.
“It’s the glue that holds the body together”, says New York dermatologist Whitney Bowe. According to her, collagen makes up about 75% of the dry weight of your skin, providing volume that keeps skin looking plump and keeps lines far off. It’s also rich in in the amino acids proline and glycine, which is needed to maintain and repair bones, joints and tendons.
“As we get older, we break it down faster than we can replace it,” she says.
Injecting collagen is no longer widely used in many medical skin care practices, because it doesn’t last as long as other fillers and tends to prompt allergic reactions. And when it’s put on the skin, it doesn’t absorb well and doesn’t work often, Bowe says.
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Bowe discovered few years ago that people were eating it instead to make their skin look more youthful, she was doubtful. But she has since changed her mind.
“Just in the last few years, there have been some impressive studies showing that ingestible collagen can indeed impact the appearance of skin,” says Bowe.
A study in 2014 in which 69 women ages 35 to 55 participated, discovered that those who took 2.5 or 5 grams of collagen daily for 8 weeks exhibited a lot of improvement in skin elasticity, compared with those who took none.
Another research found that women who took 1 gram per day of a chicken-derived collagen supplement for 12 weeks had 76% less dryness, 12% fewer visible wrinkles, better blood flow in the skin, and a 6% higher collagen content.
However, Moyad says many of the studies done so far on collagen are minor and at least partly funded by industry.
“The science is truly in its infancy,” he says. “There’s a lot of conflict of interest, and not enough quality control.”
“I think the elephant in the room here is safety,” says Moyad. “We are talking about ground-up fish, chicken, pig, and cow parts, and these parts tend to act as sponges for contaminants and heavy metals.”
While little evidence exists yet to suggest that collagen supplements could lead to heavy metal contamination, several collagen supplement companies — aware of these concerns — have begun to advertise how they test for heavy metals and keep them to a minimum.
“At the time of manufacture, heavy metal testing is done and the product is approved for human consumption once it passes all testing,” says a page on the Great Lakes Gelatin site. The company says its limits for arsenic are below the standards set by government agencies.
Dermatologists and consumer groups have also said they were concerned that those grinded hooves, hides, and nerve tissues from cows could carry diseases like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), mad cow
The FDA banned the use of some cow parts in dietary supplements to address the potential risk” of the presence of BSE. (Human consumption of BSE-infected meat has been linked to neurological disorders.) The FDA exempted gelatin — a key collagen source — from the ban, “as long as it is manufactured using specified industry practices.”
Naturopathic doctor Duffy MacKay, of the supplement trade group Council for Responsible Nutrition, calls collagen one of the industry’s “darling, white-hat ingredients.”
“It is not a fly-by-night ingredient that showed up out of nowhere,” he says. “It has good science behind it, and the companies in this space are reputable and have been around for a long time.”
He says he has seen no evidence that heavy metals are more of a problem in collagen supplements than other supplements but adds that both government and industry require companies to keep levels of such contaminants below a certain threshold. Some collagen companies, aware of the concerns, even advertise their heavy metal testing practices.
While collagen makers tend to use “low-risk” animal materials in their products anyway, the BSE issue is definitely on their radar screen too, he says, with all reputable companies asking suppliers to certify that their product is BSE-free.
But Valori Treloar, a Massachusetts dermatologist and nutritionist, says dietary supplements are not regulated as severely as drugs.
“I think collagen is interesting and there is some data out there suggesting benefit, but I prefer for my patients to eat food,” she said, noting that a homemade stock using bones from chicken, fish, or beef can be a good source of the protein.
If you are interested in trying collagen, doctors say that it’s vital to choose wisely.
Look for companies that get their bones and tissues from cage-free, free-range, and antibiotic-free sources.
Moyad said it might help, and it probably won’t harm, unless you are not being diligent about quality control.
Look for a trusted brand with a third-party label, like NSF or USP.
Avoid elegant mixtures that combine collagen with probiotics, fiber, or other additives, which could interact with the collagen and change how well it works.
As a cosmetics sales professional in New York City, Melinda Mora has always taken painstakingly good care of her skin.
She puts on the latest serums, has skin-rejuvenating laser treatments, never leaves the house without sunscreen, and — for the past 6 months or so — spikes her morning smoothie each day with a hefty scoop of powdered cow, chicken, and fish collagen.
“Honestly, it doesn’t taste like anything,” she says, adding that her plump skin, stronger nails, and pain-free joints make her unusual breakfast choice worth it. “I’ve really started to notice a difference.”
Mora says she did that, and she’s convinced it has helped her.
“My goal is not to look like I am 20, but rather to look good for my age,” she says.
At 60, she believes her skin care routine is working.