Healthy skin contains plenty of springy, elastic collagen, so it’s tempting to think that any product with “collagen” in the name is going to be good for your skin. But even though you can buy collagen powder to add to drinks, there’s little to no evidence that your skin directly benefits.
The contents of that powder face a long journey from your mouth, through your intestines, to possibly eventually showing up in your skin. I asked nutrition professor Rachele Pojednic if we can rely on the collagen in a smoothie to safely make that journey. “The very short answer is, it’s complicated and we don’t really know yet,” she said. But “the data is SO weak and the claims are totally overblown ... also, what they are charging is obscene.”
When we eat protein, enzymes in our stomach and intestines destroy it. The protein—collagen, for example— isn’t gone at that point; it’s just in smaller pieces. All proteins are made of amino acids, and that includes the proteins we eat (in meat, tofu, whey powder, what have you) as well as the proteins our body builds. So we break down what’s in our food and use the parts to make our muscles, skin, and more. It’s the same kind of recycling that kids do when they break down their sibling’s Lego castle to build their own.
Well, almost. We only need to get about half of the 20 different types of amino acids (Lego blocks) from our diet. The rest, our bodies can actually make on our own. To build muscle, we need plenty of leucine, which is an amino acid we have to get from our diet. But to build collagen, the main ingredients are amino acids that we can make for ourselves—so it seems unlikely that a collagen supplement will do much good.
Why the Evidence Is So Sketchy
There is some evidence to suggest that collagen doesn’t get completely obliterated by digestion—that’s why Pojednic says it’s complicated. Maybe some of the collagen bits make it past digestion and maybe they get to our skin. But then, would our skin cells decide to put more collagen in our skin just because there happen to be some collagen peptides floating around? There’s no clear answer on that, and plenty of room to be skeptical.
There are a few studies that gave people collagen supplements and concluded that they ended up with some improvements in their skin—here’s one from 2014, for example, that was able to measure an increase in skin elasticity. But would they have gotten the same results from a cheaper protein powder? The study doesn’t prove that the collagen supplements actually made the subjects’ skin produce more collagen. For that, you’d need a study that involves a non-collagen protein supplement and that does in-depth tests with blood and tissue samples. “Until that study is done, we won’t know for sure,” says Pojednic, “which renders the current claims purely speculation and hype.”
Collagen Powder Is Kind of Fun to Drink, Though
If you’ve already bought a jug of collagen powder, it’s not useless; it was just probably overpriced, is all. (A quick look around Amazon shows collagen powders for $1.50 to $2.15 per ounce; other protein powders have a much wider price range including plenty under $1 an ounce.)
Collagen is made from gelatin, which in turn is made from animals, typically the skin of cows and pigs. If you’ve ever made Jell-O, you know that gelatin dissolves in hot water, and turns liquids into gel when it cools. But collagen doesn’t have those properties. You can dissolve it at any temperature, and the liquid stays liquid.
That means you can add collagen to your coffee, or your iced tea, or anything else you like. Put a scoop in chicken soup for extra protein. I got a can of whey powder at the Goop summit, and it came with a recipe for collagen martinis. (Briefly: make a martini, and put collagen in it.) I don’t like martinis, so I made myself a classic daiquiri and a Bee’s Knees with collagen powder; they tasted great and I didn’t notice the collagen at all. It’s 99 percent tasteless, so the only thing I don’t recommend is mixing it with water3-Ingredient Happy Hour: The Bee's Knees
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So if you’re looking for a protein boost, collagen powder is a fine way to get it. Paying extra to get a protein powder that dissolves in your drink is not the worst thing in the world. Just don’t expect it to work miracles for your skin.