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Everything You Need to Know About Ingestible Collagen

The truth behind the supplements that have taken over Instagram.
Photo: @dirtylemon/Instagram

Photo: @dirtylemon/Instagram

Maybe it's the nature of the internet or social media; maybe beauty brands are just moving faster than ever; maybe millennials are killing the attention span (there has to be something left that we haven't killed yet) — but whatever the reason, it seems like every other week there's some hot new beauty trend that everyone’s talking about. Freckle tattoos, or funfetti hair, or hay bathing: micro-trends that boom so quickly you barely have time to keep track of them before the next one comes along. And then there are the trends that stick. Like the rise of natural and clean beauty or the evolution of subtler, less obvious lip fillers, every now and then, there's a trend with staying power that begs the question, "Is this one actually worth a try?"

Such is the case of ingestible collagen, which can now be found in everything from bone broths to coffee creamers to good, old-fashioned pills. There's no debating the ubiquity of this supposed nutritional skin miracle amongst influencers and the beauty community. But with so many products out there promising to be the one beautifier to rule them all, can any of them truly deliver? We turned to experts to find out.

If you spend much time exploring the skin-care world, you've no doubt been bombarded with the word "collagen" enough times to start glossing over the sound of it, but here's what you need to know. "Collagen is a protein that forms the structural support in the skin," explains dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner the Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research at Mount Sinai. "Think of it like the frame of your skin's 'mattress,' while elastic fibers are the springs and hyaluronic acid is the stuffing." 

But skin isn't the only thing collagen affects; in fact, it's a major component of lots of parts of your body, too, including the padding that keeps your joints from grinding together, your cartilage, blood vessels, tendons and even your eyes. Suffice it to say, you're a big fan of collagen, even if you don't know it yet. 

From an aesthetic perspective, though, collagen plays a much simpler, if equally pivotal role. "Collagen basically keeps our skin looking healthy and youthful. It provides strength as well as elasticity for supple skin," says nutritionist Brooke Alpert. The trouble is that collagen production begins to slow down as you age, which is one of the main factors in the emergence of fun little things like fine lines and wrinkles. So, naturally, the solution to having gleaming, newborn-esque skin forever and ever is just to give your body oodles and oodles of collagen, right? Well, it's a little more complicated than that. 

Unlike some vitamins and minerals which your body can take in directly from food or supplements, there's no simple tummy-to-skin trajectory for collagen, and skin tends to be the lowest rung on the ladder when it comes to getting its share. "Collagen, whether consumed from food sources or from supplements, is mostly broken down into its components, called amino acids, when digested," says dermatologist Dr. Arash Akhavan. "Amino acids are used by the body to synthesize other proteins, including more collagen for areas such as our skin." 

So even though you may be giving your body plenty of supplemental collagen, your system has to break it down into its component parts and then remake it from scratch to get deliver it into your skin. Part of that comes down to the molecular size of collagen, which is just too big to be readily absorbed as-is. But there's also some shrug-emoji physiological magic happening that doctors are still working to understand. Nonetheless, experts agree that those amino acids are essential to your body's ability to produce its own healthy, skin-smoothing collagen, and so taking in plenty of those raw materials is a step in the right direction.

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What form those raw materials should take is another matter. While there are plenty of Pinterest DIYs and diet guides for maxing your collagen intake, this is one case where the trendy solution is actually the most practical. "Collagen-rich foods and drinks can be great, but it's not easy to determine how much collagen is consistently in something like bone broth," explains Alpert. Specifically designed collagen supplements — whether in powdered mixable form, gummies or drinks — typically have more collagen in them than your average afternoon snack, and that collagen is already partially broken down, making it easier for your body to absorb it efficiently.

As for the most effective forms of ingestible collagen, despite what you may have heard, it comes down more to the quality of the product you're using than what method you use to consume it or what source it comes from. "Although various manufacturers of collagen supplements claim superiority of their particular product, there is no proven benefit of one type over another," says Akhavan. 

There may be other factors to consider in choosing your collagen, though; especially if you're living the meat-free life. Many of the skin-boosting collagens you'll find in ingestibles come from, well, skin – cow, fish and even chicken flesh, to be precise. "There are no true vegan forms of collagen," Alpert warns, "but there are many products out there that provide a lot of the building blocks that are needed for collagen production without actually containing collagen themselves." (She recommends Reservage Plant-Based Support Collagen Builder for an animal-free collagen boost.)

When it comes to quality, spotting grade-A collagen is often a matter of following your nose. "Collagen shouldn't have a smell or actual taste — this is how I often weed out inferior brands," Alpert says. If you prefer pre-flavored options, like Vital Proteins' crazy-popular powdered versions, the key is to keep an eye on the nutrition facts and opt for one that features the highest dose of collagen per serving, as high-collagen products tend to be also be high-quality.

Safety-wise, the good news is that our experts agree collagen supplementing is generally safe. ("The only definite negative effect is any potential harm to your pocketbook," says Dr. Zeichner.) They do note, however, that significantly amping up protein consumption could have an adverse effect on kidneys for some people, particularly if you have trouble processing protein or are already consuming a lot of it, so (as with any dietary shift) it's a good idea to check in with your doctor before going collagen crazy.

Looking to boost your collagen, sans-consumption? "Our bodies are most effective at producing collagen when the wound healing pathway is activated," Akhavan explains. Since collagen is the glue that skin uses to hold itself together, breaking the skin sends a signal to your body to produce more collagen in that particular area. Treatments like microneedling and laser resurfacing, which cause teeny-tiny micro-injuries to the skin, can give your body the go-ahead to ramp up production and, in turn, plump and soften skin. 

There are also topical treatments that can have a similar effect, like the perennial dermatologist favorite, retinol. "Topical retinol is your go-to ingredient to help stimulate both collagen and elastin," advises Dr. Zeichner. "It's the best studied ingredient we have over the counter to strengthen the skin foundation."

In the galley below, we've rounded up nine of our favorite ingestible collagen options. Click through to see (and shop!) them all.

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