Does Vegan Collagen Powder Really Work?

Collagen isn't typically vegan, but genetically modified yeast and bacteria can help create plant-based collagen. Here's how it works and whether it can really benefit your health.

Collagen powder: The promise of youth

It’s not hard to spot collagen-infused products when strolling through the health and beauty department these days. Collagen is in body creams, shampoo, supplements, gummies—you can even find it in coffee creamers. The products tout the impressive benefits: Youthful skin, healthier and thicker hair, enhanced workout performance, and pain relief for achy joints.

The first thing to know is that those claims aren’t exactly backed by hard science. But there’s another hitch for the collagen-curious: The stuff is sourced from animal-based protein, which presents a challenge for people following a meat-free vegetarian diet. The same goes for those following a vegan diet that excludes all animal-based products, including honey, gelatin, and collagen. And for anyone who embraces a vegan lifestyle beyond food, using topical collagen in shampoos or creams has been off-limits, too—until now.

New vegan collagen powder is cropping up beside animal-based collagen on store shelves. Here’s everything you need to know about it.

What is collagen?

Collagen is the most abundant structural protein in the human body. It kind of acts like glue to hold the body’s tissues together. It’s a component of skin, nails, hair, tendons, bones, and cartilage. There are at least 16 types of collagen in the body, though there are four main types.

Type I accounts for 80 to 90 percent of the collagen in your body. It’s made from super strong, dense fibers that provide structural and flexibility support for tendons and ligaments and helps keeps our bones strong. (Note that type I collagen is the most abundant collagen in the skin, and is plentiful in youth but declines as time passes, leading to thinner skin.)

Type II is a bit looser and helps cushions your joints. And type III acts as a protective covering for organs, muscles, and arteries in the body. And type IV collagen contributes to the barrier function of the skin.

The body makes its own collagen by breaking down the dietary protein from the foods we eat into amino acids. The amino acids and protein work together as building blocks, creating various types of protein in the body, including collagen.

As you might have guessed, protein-rich foods fuel this process. Protein may come from animal sources, such as meat, dairy, and eggs. Or you may get it from plant-based sources like soy, quinoa, and legumes.

Collagen also gets some help from vitamin C, zinc, copper, and manganese, which play a role in completing and supporting collagen production. (Be sure to buy the vitamin brands doctors trust.)

What happens to collagen when we age?

When we’re younger, the body generates plenty of collagen that keeps skin plump and supple while supporting strong yet flexible tendons and ligaments.

As we age, the body becomes less efficient at making collagen. You’ll probably first notice this on your face. As collagen breaks down, you’ll lose elasticity and skin can sag and wrinkle. It’s unfair, but women lose collagen faster than men—about 30 percent of the collagen in their skin breaks down during the first five years of menopause. After menopause, the collagen loss is about 2 percent each year.

That’s where the promise of collagen supplements comes in: Makers claim that by using collagen you’ll be able to slow the natural aging process and preserve more youthful-looking skin. Unfortunately, that promise may not exactly pay off. But first:

Can collagen be vegan?

Whether it’s labeled vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based, this type of collagen is constructed in a lab without any animal by-products. “It’s made from genetically modified yeast and/or bacteria, which have had human genes that code for collagen added to their genetic structure—hence the genetic modification,” says Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

With the genes in place, the yeast or bacteria start churning out what is essentially human collagen. Finally, a digestive enzyme is added to the mix, and an almost exact replica of human collagen is created, Hunnes says.

Collagen powder and pills on pink backgroundYulia Lisitsa/Getty Images

What are the benefits of vegan collagen?

Collagens and vegan collagen products use words like “intention” or “support” to back claims such as reducing the appearance of wrinkles, supporting joint health, or boosting more collagen production.

The marketing jargon is working. A 2018 study noted that Americans shell out an estimated 3.7 billion dollars for collagen supplements, beverages, food, and more. That amount is expected to rise to 6.6 billion by 2025.

Yet, there is no hard evidence vegan collagen products really work. The same holds true for most animal-based collagen. Remember that the statements on products aren’t evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“I would say the evidence out there is scant at best,” says Hunnes, who is also a professor at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health in Los Angeles.

Some of the studies on collagen’s effects haven’t involved many people or the research relies on animals, such as mice. Though animal studies have their place, human studies are the gold standard and necessary for understanding whether collagen really offers health benefits.

On top of all of that, some studies are funded by companies that make collagen supplements—even when they may claim otherwise. Authors of a 2019 study published in Nutrients declared no conflict of interest, but their research was funded by collagen manufacturer Elasten.

What the science says

Here’s what we do know: Once you digest collagen—be it vegan powder collagen, supplements, or traditional collagen, it’s all digested the same way. “Your body digests it and breaks it down into its component amino acids, which get absorbed like any other protein or amino acid,” says Hunnes.

There’s no guarantee those specific amino acids in collagen supplements will end up where you want them to go. They might not target and improve the areas you want them to. So despite taking collagen, you may not end up with more youthful skin, pain-free joints, or enhanced cardio performance. Some people may notice a difference, while others won’t.

As proteins go, Hunnes says any collagen—vegan or otherwise—is a decent source of protein. But there are almost no significant health benefits beyond that.

One notable exception is wound healing. There is solid research that supports the use of topical collagen dressings for wound healing, such as from pressure injuries and burns, Hunne says.

Vegan-friendly ways to boost collagen naturally

Rather than take plant-based collagen supplements to fortify your anti-aging skin routine, you might want to head to the grocery store instead.

A 2020 review published in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology looked at whether a whole-food, plant-based diet could prevent and reverse skin aging. This type of diet focuses on plant foods in their whole, unprocessed forms, which means it cuts out sweets and processed foods. The researchers found that the diet optimized the antioxidant potential within our cells by providing essential vitamins (including vitamins A, C, and E)—and this can help prevent skin aging.

Other steps you can take to keep your skin healthy as you age include getting quality sleep and avoiding exposure to ultraviolet light (from the sun and tanning beds), smoking, and pollution.

You can also boost collagen through foods that contain amino acids commonly found in collagen: glycine, lysine, and proline. These foods include black beans, pumpkin seeds, cashews, and soy products like tempeh.

(Here’s everything you need to know about vegan skin care.)

The future of vegan collagen powder

Science-back evidence on the effectiveness of vegan collagen is lacking, but there is solid evidence that animal collagen aids in wound care; this may eventually pave the way for research on vegan collagen’s anti-aging benefits.

“Much of the clinical data we have is for wound healing, which can certainly give some insight into potential mechanisms for aging skin,” says Adam Friedman, MD, professor and chair of dermatology at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C.

For example, a small pilot study, of which Dr. Friedman was an author, published in the 2019 Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, found topical collagen to be effective in wound care. The study was conducted on eight volunteers with punch wounds, a type of biopsy procedure that cuts into the skin’s top layer, sometimes requiring stitches.

Topical collagen powder was applied to the punch wounds. After four weeks of the initial wound, six of the eight collagen-treated wounds had completely healed, without using the standard sutures.

Of course, this is just one study, but the preliminary results are promising for the short-term and long-term use of oral collagen supplements, Dr. Friedman says. “They have shown some potential to increase skin elasticity, hydration, and dermal collagen density, though selecting which one is certainly difficult,” he says.

How to shop for vegan collagen

If you decide to give vegan collagen a try, do a little homework first. Because collagen isn’t regulated by the FDA, it’s essential to investigate the ingredients and the company that makes the product for quality assurance. The products should have a label from a third-party certifier such as NSF International, UL, or United States Pharmacopeia (USP).

Also, reach out to your doctor or a registered dietician to discuss your current diet and to identify if there is a need for more protein or other vitamins that support collagen production. (Here’s how to choose between collagen powder vs. pills.)

Keep in mind there’s no long-term data that states how long you would have to take collagen supplements. Will it be for life since collagen levels drop consistently with aging? Science doesn’t know yet. For now, Dr. Friedman says it may take three months or more to see results.

Finally, good old common sense is the best protection. If the promises sound too good to be true, don’t waste your money on it, Dr. Friedman says.

Sources
Medically reviewed by Jessica Wu, MD, on April 01, 2021

Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer and writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, HealthiNation, The Family Handyman, Taste of Home, and Realtor.com., among others. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center.