Meghan Telpner was adding collagen powder to her smoothies years ago, long before it became a buzzy beauty trend. The Toronto-based holistic nutritionist fell fast for its neutral flavour profile (it lacks the unpleasant chalkiness that defines most other protein powders) and often uses it to give a boost to her morning smoothie. While she didn’t see a drastic overnight difference in her skin, she believes adding collagen powder to her diet helped her avoid stretch marks during pregnancy.
Collagen, derived from the skin, bones and connective tissue of fish and cattle, is the next big thing in beauty. Suddenly, it’s everywhere: You’ll hear bloggers touting its virtues, see it lining drugstore shelves and find it in all kinds of packaged products, including protein bars and coffee creamers. Powdered versions can be stirred into everything from coffee to soup. When used as a nutricosmetic, or an edible beauty product, collagen is purported to help plump up and enhance the smoothness of your skin from the inside out. Jennifer Aniston—who is 50 but doesn’t look like she has aged a day since the last episode of Friends—swears the collagen supplements she takes give her a healthy glow. Who doesn’t want some of what she’s having?
What is collagen, anyway?
Collagen is a protein that plays an important role in keeping our skin elastic. However, as we age, we lose more collagen than our bodies can produce, which leads to visible signs of aging. Twenty to 30 years ago, collagen rose to prominence as an injectable facial filler that was intended to combat wrinkles, but it fell out of fashion because it was responsible for adverse reactions in patients and didn’t yield lasting results. Now collagen is found in topical skin creams and, increasingly, in supplement form.
Though its recent buzz makes it seem new, most of us have always ingested collagen. It’s found naturally in most animal proteins, which includes gelatin, an ingredient found in everything from Jell-O to marshmallows. Bone broth bubbled up as a food trend a few years ago because it reportedly helped with gut, joint and, yes, skin health. Why? It’s chock-full of collagen. Now, thanks in part to the rise of high-protein diets like paleo and keto, there’s big demand for products like bovine collagen powder, which contains about nine grams of protein per scoop.
Most products in this category contain hydrolyzed collagen peptides, meaning the collagen has shorter amino acid chains, so it dissolves quickly into smoothies and hot drinks. It’s also supposed to help your body absorb collagen more easily. These days, collagen is big business in North America. Asian beauty brands have been selling edible collagen for ages, but closer to home, more than 3,000 collagen food products launched in the United States last year, according to food market research company Datassential. Branding agency Sterling-Rice Group named it one of the year’s top food trends for 2019. As The Wall Street Journal reports, annual sales for collagen-rich products exceeded $60 million in the U.S. last year. The global collagen market is growing as well and is expected to reach $6.63 billion by 2025. Collagen-plumped skin doesn’t come cheap, though: A 240-gram tub of Sproos Marine Collagen is just over $2 per serving, and Pure Gold Collagen’s 10-day anti-aging program, which includes 10 drinkable collagen shots, is $65.
Does edible collagen work as an anti-aging product?
Though there have been some promising studies on the efficacy of collagen as a skin-plumping tool, critics say the sample sizes are far too small and the research is often funded by companies who manufacture the products. “There’s very little evidence-based medicine to show that collagen is effective as an anti-aging treatment,” says Lisa Kellett, a Toronto dermatologist. It’s unclear whether the collagen you eat can actually find its way to your pesky crow’s feet and frown lines. “When you eat protein, your body breaks it down into amino acids and then decides what to do with those amino acids,” says Vanessa Perrone, a registered dietitian in Montreal who has been getting lots of questions about collagen from her patients, as well as her friends. She thinks the jury’s still out on its effectiveness. “If you eat a healthy, well-balanced diet, your body should be producing collagen—and appropriate levels of it,” says Angela Wallace, a registered dietitian based in the Greater Toronto Area who agrees that the data on collagen supplements is fuzzy. Both she and Perrone advocate for a food-first approach. A diet rich in vitamin C (such as citrus fruits, peppers and strawberries), zinc (including seafood, meats, beans and legumes) and copper (like lamb, oysters and almonds), as well as plenty of protein, helps support collagen production.
Is collagen safe to use?
Perrone recommends looking for products from reputable companies that are made with organic, grass-fed cattle. As well, she advises always looking for an eight-digit Natural Product Number (NPN) because that means the product has gone through a regulated process to ensure it’s okay to consume. Another note before you give edible collagen a try: most products in this category come with a warning that a mild upset stomach may be a side effect.
While only time will tell if collagen supplements are a true breakthrough in anti-aging skincare, both Perrone and Wallace are happy about the fact that Canadians are finally realizing that what you put inside your body can affect how you look on the outside. Beyond what you eat, Kellett suggests focusing on anti-aging protocols that have been proven to work, such as topical vitamin A (retinol creams) and topical vitamin C creams and serums. Also, be sure to wear good old-fashioned sunscreen—that’s really the best way to keep your skin supple and wrinkle-free.