What Is Collagen Powder and Does It Work?
The potential benefits of collagen powder, like boosting skin health, sound promising, but does it work? Here's what you should know.
The rise of collagen powder
If social media posts are to be believed, celebrities from Jennifer Aniston to Kelly Ripa are thriving (and looking great in the process) thanks to the health benefits of collagen powder supplements.
Collagen is a protein that is found in skin, hair, nails, tendons, and ligaments. Our supply tends to dwindle with advancing age and other not-so-healthy lifestyle habits, such as smoking, sunning, and overdoing it on alcohol. Enter: collagen powder pills.
“This is the hot supplement category,” says Mark Moyad, MD, the Jenkins/Pokempner director of preventive and alternative medicine at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor. “As you get older you make less of this, so you need more.”
What are collagen powder supplements?
Collagen supplements usually come in powder form, but capsules and liquids are also available. They can be unflavored or flavored (think vanilla, mixed berry, chocolate, and salted caramel). You can even find collagen in coffee creamers.
Collagen powders, especially tasteless varieties, can be added to just about anything. The powder might be stirred or blended into:
When adding collagen powders to hot foods and beverages, do it at the end of the preparation process to avoid degradation.
Collagen peptide nutrition facts
Here’s a snapshot of the nutritional content (and percent daily value) of 14 grams of collagen peptide:
Protein: 12 g (25 percent DV)
Calcium: 29 mg (2 percent DV)
Potassium: 0.98 mg
Sodium: 45 mg (2 percent DV)
Carbohydrates: 0 g
Though vegan collagen powder has been cropping up more these days, most collagen powder supplements are extracted from animal sources such as hides, bones, or fish scales.
Types of collagen protein powder
There are 16 types of collagen in the body, but you won’t find all of those in collagen supplements. There are four common types of collagen: types I, II, III, and IV. The large majority of collagen peptide powders on the market contain type I, says Dr. Cooperman.
Here’s how the four most common types of collagen stack up:
- Type I: The most prevalent type of collagen in your body, it’s found in your skin, tendons, ligaments, and bones
- Type II: The major collagen in cartilage, type II collagen is found throughout your body, including parts of your eye
- Type III: This type of collagen supports the skin, muscles, and blood vessels
- Type IV: It adds structure in the layers of skin and acts as a type of barrier
Some collagen powders are marketed as “multi-collagen protein,” which means they include more than one of the above types of collagen.
Forms of collagen supplements
Not to be confused with the type of collagen, a collagen supplement’s form relates to how broken down the collagen is. This affects absorption.
There are three main forms of collagen supplements:
Hydrolyzed: Collagen that has been broken down into its basic amino acids. Also known as collagen hydrolysate and collagen peptides.
Gelatin: Collagen that has been broken down from large proteins into smaller bits. It’s less broken down than hydrolyzed collagen.
Undenatured: Very small bits of type II collagen that work by stopping the breakdown of your natural collagen stores. It’s not broken into smaller proteins or amino acids.
“Collagen in supplements is typically hydrolyzed, i.e., broken down, to improve absorption as well as the ease with which it mixes into liquids,” says Tod Cooperman, MD, president of ConsumerLab, an independent supplement testing organization in White Plains, New York.
Because hydrolyzed collagen is the most broken down, it can mix into cold liquids. The less-hydrolyzed gelatin (yes, this is the same as Jell-O) can only mix into hot liquids.
Yulia Lisitsa/Getty Images
Collagen powder benefits
The list of collagen powder’s potential benefits is lengthy. It includes improved skin health and elasticity, healthier joints, stronger bones, and maybe even weight loss.
But does collagen powder work? Let’s look at the science.
May reduce osteoarthritis symptoms
Osteoarthritis is the wear-and-tear form of the disease, causing pain and sometimes trouble walking. And collagen powders may play a role in reducing these symptoms, says Dr. Moyad. The keyword here is may. There’s no definitive proof collagen improves osteoarthritis symptoms.
Currently, osteoarthritis is treated with over-the-counter or prescription painkillers, which all have their share of side effects. Collagen, however, appears to be safe, with a very low risk of side effects. “Anything that can improve physical function and reduce pain and comes with a level of safety isn’t such a bad thing,” he says.
A small study, published in a 2017 issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, shows that people with osteoarthritis who took collagen supplements felt better, but there was no research on long-term effects. And there isn’t any evidence to suggest that taking collagen powder will grow or repair cartilage that lines the joints.
Collagen powder may be worth a try for three months under a doctor’s supervision to see if it makes any meaningful difference, Dr. Moyad says.
May promote youthful-looking skin
The link between collagen and skin health is nothing new.
“Collagen supplements have been around for a while and billed as a proverbial fountain of youth for years,” says Ohara Aivaz, MD, a dermatologist at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.
The connection makes intuitive sense. “Collagen makes up 75 percent of the weight of our skin,” she says. “It keeps skin plump and wrinkle free, and as we get older, we lose collagen.”
This decline begins as early as your 20s. Sure signs of collagen loss are wrinkles and sagging skin.
Early wrinkle-filling injectables were made of collagen, but these quickly fell from grace due to the risk of allergic reaction (mostly for those using cow sources).
Early studies didn’t show much improvement in skin aging when it came to ingesting collagen powders, but the tide may be turning. “Recently studies have shown more skin elasticity, reduced wrinkles, and improved hydration with collagen powder supplements,” Dr. Aivaz says.
Her advice on collagen powder? Give it a try. “Why not do as much as you can to promote collagen?” she says.
That said, she recommends a holistic approach, combining collagen powder with topical retinods, vitamin C, and treatment with lasers and other energy devices, all of which help boost collagen under the surface of the skin. “Eating foods that are high in antioxidants, like fruits and vegetables, can help,” she says. “And sunscreen can prevent collagen breakdown and keep skin looking young or younger.”
(These are the foods that naturally boost collagen for skin.)
May increase bone strength
During menopause, production of the female sex hormone estrogen declines dramatically, and this can increase risk for the brittle bone disease osteoporosis.
Collagen powder—along with calcium and vitamin D—may help build and strengthen bones.
These findings were published in a 2020 issue of the Journal of Musculoskeletal and Neuronal Interactions.
May promote feeling of fullness
Exactly how—or even if—collagen powder can aid weight loss efforts isn’t fully understood, Dr. Moyad says.
Collagen powder can be very high in protein, which can make you feel fuller longer, potentially limiting calories.
As a result, one of collagen powder’s benefits may be weight loss. (These are the best vitamins and supplements for weight loss.)
Potential risks of collagen powder
Side effects of collagen supplementation are mild. If anything, you might experience some stomach symptoms, a headache, dizziness, or a rash.
Of bigger concern is the fact that supplements aren’t regulated with the same scrutiny as pharmaceutical products. It’s really a buyer beware situation, says Dr. Moyad.
Many collagen powders are made from animal carcasses.
“This is where heavy metals tend to congregate,” he says.
When the Organic Consumers Association conducted a study of 28 best-selling collagen peptide supplements on retail site Amazon, it found that many contain measurable levels of potentially toxic heavy metals.
A total of 64 percent tested positive for measurable levels of arsenic, 37 percent tested positive for measurable levels of lead, and 34 percent tested positive for trace levels of mercury.
Another theoretical risk is the development of the human version of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, if the collagen in the powder is derived from cows with the disease, Dr. Aivaz says.
ConsumerLab’s testing showed that products did contain amounts of collagen as stated on their labels, ranging, per daily serving, from about 3 grams to 25 grams among powders and liquids.
“As collagen itself is generally not problematic, go with a product that contains only collagen and no other ingredients,” Dr. Cooperman says. “We found the heavy cadmium in one collagen product, but this likely was due to another ingredient in the product.”
(Be sure to buy the vitamin brands doctors trust.)
Best collagen powder supplements
If you decide to use collagen protein powder supplements, choose a product that has a third-party seal of approval, such as ConsumerLab.com, NSF International, and U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), Dr. Moyad says.
Make sure the company releases its certificate of analysis (COA). This document is a voluntarily released document that provides the results of any and all testing of the supplements.
How to build and keep your natural collagen supply
Rather than consuming collagen powder, focus on lifestyle factors that can help boost or maintain collagen stores, Dr. Moyad suggests.
Limit use of steroid creams
But they may result in skin thinning, which is the degradation of collagen, Dr. Moyad says.
Add a retinoid to your skin care regimen
According to Dr. Moyad, retinoids and retinol creams are vitamin A derivatives that reduce fine lines and wrinkles by increasing the production of collagen. You can buy over-the-counter retinols or talk to your dermatologist about stronger prescription retinoids.
Sugar speeds the breakdown of collagen, Dr. Moyad says.
Include fruits and vegetables in your diet, as the antioxidants they contain can help support collagen. (Here’s what happens to your skin when you eat sugar.)
The sun’s ultraviolet lights cause collagen to break down, says Dr. Moyad. So slather on a sunscreen daily.
In addition to lowering risk for skin cancer, judicious use of a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher also helps reduce fine lines and wrinkles.
Don’t smoke, and drink alcohol only in moderation
Both of these habits can lead to the destruction of collagen, Dr. Moyad says. Aim for no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks for men.
The last word
When it comes to using collagen powder for youthful skin, flexible joints, strong bones, or weight loss, there’s some evidence of benefit, but the science is limited.
And the overall message: Buyer beware. Make sure you choose a reputable brand that is transparent about its ingredients and testing results.
- Mark Moyad, MD, MPH, the Jenkins/Pokempner director of preventive and alternative medicine, University of Michigan Medical Center, Ann Arbor
- Molecular Cell Biology: "Section 22.3 Collagen: The Fibrous Proteins of the Matrix"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Collagen peptides"
- Tod Cooperman, MD, president, ConsumerLab.com, White Plains, New York
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: "Dietary supplements for treating osteoarthritis: a systematic review and meta-analysis"
- Ohara Aivaz, MD, dermatologist, Cedars-Sinai, Los Angeles
- Journal of Musculoskeletal and Neuronal Interactions: "Effect of calcium and vitamin D supplementation with and without collagen peptides on bone turnover in postmenopausal women with osteopenia"
- Organic Consumers Association: "The True Content and Faces Behind America's Best-Selling Collagen"
- ConsumerLab: "Collagen Supplements Review"