Do you even collagen? A primer on the peptides that are the talk of the town in beauty

A nutritionist and a dermatologist weigh in on the sippable supplement everyone’s swooning over.

A nutritionist and a dermatologist weigh in on the sippable supplement everyone’s swooning over

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

There's a new kid in beauty that's been the talk of the town: collagen. The hype? Promises of radiance and better health, all through a tasteless powder we can consume in our coffee. While it's certainly nothing new, bone broths have been popping up in just about every market and food court around over the last year, collagen powders are now being added to coffees, soups, smoothies — you name it. A simple scroll through Instagram may deliver sightings of beauty bloggers and the skincare-obsessed lauding its benefits.

And, I'll admit, I'm susceptible; that green smoothie looks delicious, I could see myself enjoying an "anti-aging" soup and I love fun packaging. But what really is collagen? There's a lot of info out there (I mean a lot), and it's a little overwhelming to sort through what's proper and what's promo. Thankfully, nutritionist Ciara Foy and dermatologist and founder of Toronto's Bay Dermatology Centre Dr. Sandy Skotnicki shared all the pertinent info on these popular peptides.

It turns out this buzzy beauty supplement may indeed be able to support our skin and address common signs of aging. Read on for all the deets.

What exactly is collagen?

Once you sort through all the descriptions laden with buzzwords, it's quite simple. Collagen is actually a protein that our body produces naturally. And it's a key player in our connective tissue makeup — the main structural component that includes those tissues in your "gut lining, [the dermis of the] skin, fascia, hair [follicles], nails, bones, ligaments, tendons, et cetera," said Foy.

Dr. Skotnicki explained that collagen, as the most abundant protein in the human body, structures our bones, muscles and skin. To get technical: "Collagen and elastin in the dermis maintain the structure of skin and create its elasticity. Notably, the fibrous protein collagen, which plays a major role in maintaining the mechanical strength of skin, constitutes the majority of the dermis," she shared. And since collagen decreases with age, its depletion can leave skin a little more "loose," said Dr. Skotnicki, and lead to fine lines appearing.

According to Foy, after the age of 25, our collagen production can't keep up anymore. "We're breaking down more collagen than we make," she told me, much to my dismay.

But before you start to panic, this is where supplementation can help out.

Can I supplement my diet to get more collagen?

If you really want to up your intake, turn your attention to peptides. Foy believes that the most effective way to work some extra collagen into your diet is by supplementing with hydrolyzed collagen (a.k.a. collagen peptides). That's because she thinks most of us focus too much on the muscle-building proteins, and in turn, aren't consuming quite enough of the ones that will help with connective tissue upkeep.

Dr. Skotnicki also believes supplementation may be helpful. While she usually suggests people consume whole foods to get nutrients (since most studies suggest eating the whole food is more beneficial), collagen is different — you can't exactly eat fish and beef bones.

Enter bone broth. Foy believes that it's the best natural source of collagen — specifically chicken or marine broth over beef. Some research has suggested that collagen derived from fish may be best. One study indicated that "fish collagen is absorbed up to 1.5 times more efficiently into the body, meaning that it has superior bioavailability over bovine or porcine types."

And as Dr. Skotnicki shared, "the most convincing studies come from fish collagen hydrolysates from fish skin." She cites a study done on mice that had been subjected to UVB-induced skin dehydration and moisture loss; when the mice were then given collagen supplementation, it appeared to promote recovery of collagen and elastin in the skin, and reduce wrinkling. Another study used collagen derived from jellyfish and found that the collagen appeared to protect mouse skin from UV-induced damage.  

Will ingesting this product actually do anything for us?

I won't leave you hanging if my earlier info made you panic — it turns out collagen supplements can help human skin look younger, too. Dr. Skotnicki cited a review of studies published in January, conducted by researchers who saw that there was a lack of regulation regarding "quality, absorption, and efficacy" of collagen supplements, despite their growing use.

Their findings indicated that collagen peptides appear to do what they suggest when it comes to improving skin elasticity, hydration and dermal collagen density, results which are "promising for the short- and long-term use of oral collagen supplements for wound healing and skin aging." Additional studies suggest that ingestible collagen can improve skin's elasticity, even leaving it more moisturized. And good news for nail biters — one small study suggests collagen supplementation may also help support the growth of nails and reduce the symptoms of brittle nails.

Are there any downsides to taking collagen peptides?

Incorporating collagen peptides into your skincare routine is actually fairly risk-free, according to both experts — and the studies. Results from the aforementioned January review of existing collagen studies reported that "collagen supplementation is generally safe with no reported adverse events."

Additionally, a study on the effects of collagen peptide supplementation on skin aging noted that no significant side effects were reported by subjects. However, Health Canada advises pregnant or breastfeeding women to consult a health-care professional before taking collagen supplements. And it never hurts any of us to consult one before taking any supplement.

Foy acknowledged there are very few risks to supplementing with peptides, but she does advise being cautious about the production process of whatever you choose to use — her number one safety concern when it comes to collagen. She advises to always opt for organic bone broth, if that's the way you want to boost your collagen intake, and shared that she always picks supplement powders that include collagen from natural sources.

Dr. Skotnicki also told me that she knows of no real long-term downside to taking collagen supplements, but did mention that there is some concern about the safety of eating ground up bones of animals (chickens, etc.) due to "the possibility of infectious particles in the animal" or "contamination of this protein."

Are there any vegan options?

Unfortunately, Dr. Skotnicki informed me, there is no such thing as vegan collagen since it comes from fish and land animals. A possible vegan alternative, she says, is to eat proline and hydroxyproline, "which are amino acids that make up collagen or are precursors to collagen production." These can be found in fruits and vegetables, but she cautioned that studies on whether this is actually effective or comparable to collagen supplementation are lacking.

Beyond supporting the skin, what else does ingestible collagen do?

According to Foy, this supplement also may be especially beneficial for athletes and those who are active, because it helps "to support connective tissue and reduce the risks of injury which is almost [always] connective tissue damage."

While recent scientific reviews have focused primarily on the effects of collagen on the skin, there are studies that have been conducted to discover additional joint-related benefits. A 2016 study showed significantly improved knee function in subjects with modulating knee osteoarthritis symptoms. And Health Canada's Natural Health Products Ingredients Database cites three studies (Bruyère et al. 2012; Benito-Ruiz et al. 2009; Clark et al. 2008) when discussing the potential impact of hydrolized collagen on joint pain. Another study suggests fish collagen peptides may even be useful in bone healing. However, this current research has its limits, and many of the studies cited here call for further work to be done to support their findings.

If you do decide to work this trendy wonder of the wellness world into your routine via soups, smoothies or morning dose of caffeine, here's hoping this info has provided you with the confidence needed to tackle the supplements aisle. Given what the experts are saying, an "anti-aging" soup or skincare smoothie still sound pretty appealing.


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