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Are collagen supplements the new coconut oil?

by Victoria Abraham

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For the past 3 years, I have been preoccupied with aging. Or rather with not aging. It doesn't escape me that this preoccupation is a product of growing up in a patriarchal, misogynist, capitalist society where a woman’s value resides almost entirely in her appearance. And yet here I am — both a victim and an active participant in a beauty industry that preys on women’s insecurities.

In my continuous quest not to age and being a full believer in the adage that prevention is better than a cure, I have spent a lot of time and money researching skincare. Less than two months shy of my 28th birthday, collagen supplements have become my newest research project.

Lately, my social media feeds have been full of regular humans, Instagram It Girls, celebrities, models and faux celebrities supplementing their smoothies, lattes, and lives with collagen. Various articles and websites promote collagen supplements as a beauty superstar. The dewy complexions of Instagram models further support these claims. Collagen is the new coconut oil.

So what is collagen, exactly?

Collagen is a protein that makes up 70 percent of the protein found in skin, giving structure to hair, skin, nails, bones, ligaments and tendons. This means that, among other things, collagen is responsible for keeping our skin plump, supple and glowing, our hair shiny and our nails strong. Our bodies’ natural production of collagen begins to decline approximately one percent annually beginning around the age of 40.

Collagen supplements come in pill and powder form, from marine sources, as well as from the bones and skin of bovine and other types of animals. Currently, there is no vegan source of collagen. Supplements are often “hydrolized” which means cold enzymes were added to the protein to break it down, making it easier for your body to digest and use.

The thought that I could sprinkle this magical youth dust into a cup of coffee and have the best skin ever instantly appealed to me. And yet, I could not help but be a bit skeptical. Collagen has existed since forever. So why is it only being talked about now? Before adding yet another step to my increasingly lengthy routine of serums, acids and lotions, I wanted to make sure collagen supplements actually work.

Do collagen supplements work?

It turns out the effects of collagen supplements are under-researched. A Time magazine article outlines that although there are some preliminary studies demonstrating positive effects from collagen consumption such as improved skin elasticity, moisture and reduction in joint pain, the studies are generally weak and do not prove that eating collagen increases the body’s level of collagen. The research that does exist does not definitely prove that collagen, as opposed to other ingredients in the supplements such as antioxidants, are behind skin improvement.

The collagen supplements in your smoothie may not actually affect your skin at all. Your body breaks ingestible collagen down into amino acids. These amino acids are then distributed throughout your body to the areas that need them the most. This means that the collagen you’re eating may not be helping your skin because that’s not the part of your body that needs it the most. Finally, collagen supplements are not regulated by the FDA, so there really is no way of knowing whether the supplements you’re buying are high-quality and free of contaminants.

What’s the verdict?

Collagen supplements might not be the answer to your skin woes unless you have a collagen deficiency. If you’re eating a healthy diet with adequate protein, it’s unlikely you have such a deficiency and any extra collagen you ingest is probably not going to affect your skin. Therefore, if you’re trying to glow up, investing in a healthier diet and skincare products that have Vitamin C, retinol, retinoids will do more for your skin than sprinkling collagen into your latte.