Collagen is the most abundant protein in mammals and participates mainly in structural roles due to its strong molecular constructs. Collagen is derived from Greek and it means “glue producing” or of “a glue nature” a name given due to the fact that it is primarily found in connective tissues. It makes up about 25-30% of all proteins in the body and can be found in tendons, ligaments, skin, corneas, blood, bones, cartilage, gut, spine, teeth, nails and hair . There are 28 types of collagen discovered to date with about 90% of all collagen found in the body being type I which is the one found in skin, tendons and bone.
The main sources of collagen are from bone, hide, pigskin, fish bones and fish skin. Thankfully, our body has the ability to synthesise this molecule so we don’t have to worry about including bone broths in our diet. Industrially, collagen and gelatine, which is an irreversibly hydrolysed (=reacted with water) form of collagen, are used extensively in the food industry especially in confectionery, dairy, bakery, in some meat-processing, in wine and fruit production and more. Collagen and its derivatives are mainly employed as stabilising agents or to improve texture and are also used by the pharmaceutical industry for the formation of capsules and implants.
Considering then the sheer quantity and functionality importance of collagen and the fact that naturally, our collagen decreases with age, stress, UV-damage and unhealthy diet, is it worth taking collagen supplements? Especially when considering that collagen supplements are not cheap? And are all these emerging beauty collagen drinks worth it?
Whether you are interested in the beauty (hair, skin, nails and teeth) or health and fitness (tendons, muscles, ligaments, spine and bones) the general answer is maybe but there are better alternatives. There are a few research studies supporting positive results in both areas but unfortunately, this subject is not as extensively researched as one would have hoped.
As a critical scientist my first thought on the subject was: “Wouldn’t we just digest it?”. Proteins are made up of peptides which in turn are made up of amino acids. When we eat a protein we digest it by breaking it down into smaller fragments, most often into the component amino acids. For a protein or peptide to survive the digestion process and conditions (remember we have acid in our stomach!) it has to be fairly physically and chemically resistant. And if we were to take a collagen tablet and digest it down to its component amino acids then what is the difference from just eating meat or even taking amino acid supplements? If collagen does not survive as a whole will it still be able to carry out its functions in the same way and efficiency? Furthermore, if we do break collagen down to amino acids, then collagen has a very low “nutritional/biological value” as it does not contain all amino acids. One more point for amino acid supplements? Of course your body can use those amino acids to make collagen but again why not just take amino acid supplements? Ok I will stop here.
Beyond scepticism, are there any scientific research studies with any evidence whatsoever?
Collagen supplements for medicinal uses
According to clinical data the ingestion of collagen hydrolysates (type II) reduces pain in patients suffering from osteoarthritis and osteoporosis.  The patients also showed decreased stiffness and in general improvement of the knee joint symptoms of osteoarthritis with a high degree of tolerance (meaning there were no considerable allergic reactions or side effects). A review study based on the evidence from 9 other peer-reviewed papers, even went as far as suggesting that the consumption of hydrolysed collagen not only has therapeutic effects but also the potential to increase bone mineral density and offer a protective effect on cartilage.  These papers include human modelling studies and animal studies.
Collagen supplements for skin care
Generally, it is believed that collagen hydrolysates cannot be absorbed by the skin (so a cream with this ingredient might not be that useful). Some researchers attribute the positive improvements of collagen to the skin due to improvement of the skin’s water absorption as a direct result of oral collagen supplementation.  However, if the benefits are only or mainly due to water absorption then surely hyaluronic acid usage which does penetrate the skin and absorbs 1000 times its weight in water is better? (see post Hyaluronic acid – The fountain of youth?) Beneficial effects have also been reported for hair and skin but the number of studies is small.
While most research papers investigating the use of collagen are for medical purposes, there is one very interesting paper specifically targeting the “Pure Gold Collagen” beauty drinks brand and exploring whether drinking these supplements reduces the signs of ageing. This study is published by Minerva Research Labs which are…this brand’s owned labs. This paper is interesting for many reasons though (a) it is a study on beauty effects of collagen drink supplementation (b) a beauty company released their own research which is rare and (c) is this research scientifically strong or are they just promoting their own brand?
In this paper the study is based on the 50mL Pure Collagen drink of this company and claims that after 60 days there was noticeable reduction in skin dryness, wrinkles and smile lines. Furthermore, after 12 weeks the skin’s collagen density was reportedly increased which also increased skin firmness. From these results the authors concluded that this drink can counteract signs of ageing.
While the authors admit in their paper that there are multiple studies that support the complete digestive breakdown of collagen into amino acids, they seem to put more weight specifically in a study done by Watanabe-Kamiyama et al. The latter radio labelled collagen peptides and traced their location and lifetime in rats, concluding that collagen peptides can reach the skin and stay there in high concentrations for 14 days.  However, note that this implies that the study used broken down collagen, a part of the big molecule, not the entire protein.
Similarly, it is not clear whether the Pure Collagen drink contains collagen protein as a whole rather it is almost implied that it is actually a broken down part of it. Additionally, this drink contains hyaluronic acid, vitamins C, E, B6 and other ingredients. While this study attempted to properly evaluate the effectiveness of this drink, by for example conducting this study in the harshest weather conditions for skin (winter) and carrying out some control comparisons of with and without the drink, it fails to present control studies on the actual individual ingredients or their combination. Additionally, the subjects participating in this study where even allowed to continue their skin care routines (using creams etc).
As a result, while there is indeed some evidence on the effectiveness of this drink, it cannot be concluded that it is due to the collagen. It could easily be due to the combination of all the ingredients and procedures done or perhaps due to the already proven to have anti-ageing effects, ingredients hyaluronic acid, vitamins C and E. Possibly the ingredients doing most of the heavy lifting here. It could well be that this drink works, but it is most likely not due to or just because of the collagen contained.
As a result, the name Pure Collagen drink is perhaps a little misleading here, possibly created for marketing purposes. Surely Pure Collagen sounds a lot more appealing to you and beauty legit than Pure Hyaluronic acid drink. Furthermore, the term Pure is perhaps also misleading in its own right. This drink does not contain just collagen on its own, which therefore makes it by scientific definition not pure collagen. The term pure is another one of those marketing fish hooks that give the psychological impression of quality. On the other hand and in the interest of fairness, this drink does have some goody packed ingredients and it could potentially offer skin improvements.
There are many studies that support the safety and high tolerance of collagen supplementation, with numerous studies accepting a 10g a day dose or 1.66g per kg of body weight as described in another study. Side effects of collagen supplementation include an unpleasant taste, a full stomach and bloated feeling. I can personally attest to the unpleasant taste and smell, especially when taking marine collagen (the tablets have a fishy smell), but it goes away after you have a drink. I didn’t notice a full stomach or bloated feeling but that’s probably because I always made an effort on taking these after I had food already in an attempt to avoid messing with my hunger and eating habits.
Would I take collagen tablets or beauty drinks? It’s a no on the beauty drinks. I’d stick with creams that have hyaluronic acid, vitamin C and E but I would consider taking collagen tablets for joint protection although my “why not just take amino acid supplements question (or protein shakes)” still remains. I would consider that not only as a protection against ageing and conditions such as osteoarthritis but also because I train hard at the gym and I weight lift which has an impact on joints. If it turns out to help skin, hair and nails then it’s an added bonus. At the moment, the evidence of collagen helping and protecting the joints is much more convincing than the evidence offered in the beauty sector. If you are interested in slowing down or preventing, to an extent, the signs of skin ageing then there are other a lot more research and evidence rich ingredients to consider. At least, for now.