Collagen powders are loved by celebrities such as Davina McCall, but how good are they and how much should you take? GP Dr Johanna Ward — whose new book answers all those questions and more — has the facts

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The beauty industry has exploded with collagen products;  drinks, powders, capsules, and creams - you name it, it’s out there. Celebrities love it too. TV presenter Davina McCall drinks collagen tea as part of her morning routine, while the actress Jennifer Aniston has been taking collagen powders since 2016 and, in 2020, she joined collagen brand Vital Proteins as its chief creative officer.

While collagen might be the latest beauty ‘must-have’ as 'skincare from within', there are a few things that every discerning collagen consumer must know. That’s why I wrote my new book ‘Collagen: More Than A Beauty Molecule'. It provides a deep dive into the science you need to know, plus plenty of helpful skin hacks on how to restore and bank your collagen levels.

As a sneak peek, here’s my advice for answering your most popular FAQs…

What do collagen supplements do?

* They reduce the rate at which our collagen breaks down. (Our natural ability to produce new collagen declines from age 25).

* They boost our body's own production. (By age 40, the body’s ability to produce collagen has decreased by 25 per cent, and by age 60, it has plummeted by over 50 per cent).

* They improve skin hydration by helping the body make hyaluronic acid

* They reduce fine lines and wrinkles

* They support hair, bones and joints

* They potentially help heal leaky gut

Collagen deficiency and decline results in wrinkles, thinning bones, weak joints , thinning hair and can negatively impact almost every aspect of our health. Any little help that you can give your skin can help considerably when it comes to collagen, slowing the rate at which it declines and helping the body build more. Of course, the best way to go about it is to protect it in the first place. We can do this by living and eating well and avoiding excessive UV radiation, sunbeds, smoking, and alcohol.

In recent years, all kinds of collagen and pseudo-collagen products have appeared on the market, making it increasingly difficult to know which brands to trust. How they are made (being hydrolysed is important, which I’ll go on to explain) and what they are made of (fish, beef, pork, and even vegan sources) can affect how they perform. You also need to make sure you take the right dose for it to be effective.

Here's what you need to know about collagen supplements:

How do collagen supplements work?

The collagen you ingest doesn't automatically become new collagen. It's first broken down into peptides and smaller amino acids that are distributed through the bloodstream to where the body needs it. Some of these will then be used to make new collagen in your skin, but it could equally be directed to other places in need.

Once absorbed by the gut into the bloodstream, the collagen peptides and amino acids have a dual action. Firstly, the free amino acids provide building blocks for the formation of new collagen fibres. Secondly, the collagen peptides signal to fibroblast receptors to stimulate the production of new collagen, elastin, and hyaluronic acid.

What type of collagen should I look out for?

It is generally accepted that there are 28 different types of collagen in the body: look particularly or Type I when choosing a supplement for your skin. 

Collagen Type I: accounts for 90 per cent of the collagen in the body. It’s the most skin-specific of all collagens and benefits the hair, skin, nails, joints, and bones the most. Gram for gram, Type 1 collagen is stronger than steel. Type I is also considered the key matrix-building protein in our skin, which gives it structure and firmness. It is also the end product when skin heals and repairs.

Leaky gut responds well to Type 1 collagen supplementation too. That’s because your intestinal wall is made up of microscopic folds or 'villi' that are actually built of collagen. The amino acids in collagen quite literally, 'seal the leak', or perforations, by supporting cellular health and lining repair.

There is a link between gut health and skin inflammation as well. If your gut is ‘leaky’ or semi-permeable to toxins then it can cause low-grade systemic inflammation that can worsen acne, rosacea , eczema  and, psoriasis .

Collagen Type II: found mainly in joints and cartilage. Supplementation of Type II collagen may help arthritis and joint strength.

Collagen Type III: babies and children have a lot of this type of collagen. It is also found in fast-growing tissue, especially in the early stages of wound healing. It’s replaced later by Type I.

Your bones are 70 per cent collagen, which gives them their flexibility. Our bone cells are constantly turning over, and collagen has been shown to support bone health by increasing bone mineral density.

Why do I need to buy 'hydrolysed' collagen?

It’s important to look for 'hydrolysed' collagen. Hydrolysation is a process whereby collagen is broken down into small chains that make it more bioavailable – i.e. easier for your body to use – so this plays a key role in how effective your supplement is. Hydrolysed collagen is thought to be the only kind of collagen that can impact the skin positively and it’s what the clinical trials and data support.

What's the recommended daily dose of collagen?

The ideal dose suggested from clinical trials is 10g (10,000mg) of hydrolysed collagen per day. At this dose, oral collagen has been clinically proven to reduce the rate at which our own collagen breaks down. This boosts the skin's innate collagen production, and improves skin hydration and healing.

Which source of collagen is best?

There doesn’t seem to be much consensus yet on what source of collagen is best. Bovine and marine seem to deliver similar results. Chicken collagen shows better results for joints in clinical trials but delivers less skin hydration. The main types are:

Bovine collagen: collagen is often made from bovine sources, from cow bone and cow by-products such as connective tissue and cartilage. The bovine protein is notoriously difficult to ‘clean up’ so there is the potential risk of transmitting diseases, such as brain disease CJD.

Marine collagen: from fish, usually from fish scales. It is thought to have the best effect because of its high bioavailability. It is also less likely to transmit than the bovine sources. The best marine collagens are wild and deep-sea sourced rather than farmed.

Chicken collagen: from chicken cartilage and best when ‘undenatured’ - aka not heavily processed with heat. Braised and marinated chicken feet for example, which are a delicacy in parts of China and Vietnam, are packed with Type 2 collagen. Type 2 collagen is a great choice for joint support.

Egg collagen: eggs also contain Type I collagen but we denature the protein when we cook eggs. Eggs need to be cooked to protect us from nasties such as salmonella, so the best way to take egg collagen is via a supplement. This is ideal for vegetarians.

What about vegan collagen?

At least 14 per cent of the UK population follow a plant-based diet, but, technically speaking, collagen can only ever be of animal origin, because that’s where collagen comes from. What has traditionally been promoted as ‘vegan collagen’ has been supplements that indirectly support collagen, for example with ingredients such as vitamin C that has an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect to protect the natural collagen in your skin.

More recently though, lab-synthesised vegan collagens have been created, which try to replicate the very important amino acids that we find in abundance in animal collagen. These can be made from genetically modified yeast or bacterial sources (the most common one is from the bacteria P. pastoris).

It sounds promising however, we do need more independent clinical studies to know for sure how lab-created vegan collagen measures up to animal sources, especially in terms of the ideal dose of vegan collagen.

I explain this a little more in my Instagram reel below:

Can you boost your skin’s collagen from eating meat?

Collagen and muscle meat have differing amino acid profiles so no eating meat doesn’t boost your collagen levels. Collagen is high in glycine, proline and hydroxyproline. Hydroxyproline can be found in very few other proteins so it’s very unique to collagen. In fact, 50 per cent of collagen is in the triple format glycine proline hydroxyproline. So these amino acids really matter. Muscle meats don’t tend to have these amino acids in high percentages.

Our ancestors didn’t supplement collagen. Do we really need to?

Our ancestors used to eat more collagen-rich foods. They would eat animals from head to toe. Even our recent ancestors like our grandparents would have eaten things like bone stew or bone broth. These foods have essentially been lost to the modern Western diet.

I also cover this in my Instagram post below:

Do I need to take it with other vitamins?

The best formulations couple oral collagen with vitamin C (ascorbic acid) as this helps to make it more bioavailable. Vitamin C is needed for collagen production so it’s the ideal co-ingredient. Other formulations couple collagen with hyaluronic acid, vitamins, minerals, omega 3 and antioxidants for a complete all-round anti-ageing effect.

What does collagen taste like?

Powdered marine and bovine collagen are usually tasteless and dissolve easily in water. Other collagens that are combined with vitamins and minerals will often have a flavour to conceal the B vitamins which can taste yeasty. It’s very much a case of personal preference and whether you want a collagen solo (which you can add to yoghurt or coffee without changing the taste) or if you want it to have other beneficial nutrients in it.

Should I take liquid, powder or collagen capsules?

Liquid supplements are thought to have the best bioavailability, followed by powders and then capsules. To get the required 10,000mg daily dose in a capsule, you would likely need to take about ten a day so sometimes capsules just not practical. Liquids seem to prevail here.

What do the studies say about oral collagen supplementation for skin?

The most evidence for oral collagen supplementation exists for skin health. These studies are randomised control trials with placebo controls and they seem to be reproducible over and over again which is a good sign. They show improvement in lines, wrinkles, skin elasticity, hydration, and fibroblast stimulation. Some even show improvements in sun damage and cellulite. Studies for joint health and collagen are showing promising results but we need more of them, and studies for bone health and bone mineral density are promising but limited.

I talk more about the incredible scope of research into collagen for skin in the Instagram below:

What do the studies say about oral collagen supplementation for hair and nails?

Studies for hair health are positive too, because the hair follicles live in the dermis of the scalp, and collagen supports the health of the scalp. However, studies on nail health are limited. There are one or two small-scale studies showing improvements in brittle nails with collagen supplementation. But, numbers are small and there are no controls, so It’s not enough to help us draw exacting conclusions!

What’s the difference between collagen powder and protein powder?

In total, 20 different amino acids can form the protein; of these, there are nine 'essential amino acids' that the body can’t produce on its own. We need to get them through food.

Protein powders tend to be complete proteins - this means they contain the nine essential amino acids in roughly equal proportions. They also have a completely different purpose to collagen powder. They are great for post-workout recovery and for helping to build lean muscle. But they aren’t going to help you prevent wrinkles, improve skin elasticity, or your joints.

In collagen powders and liquids, the amino acids are generally non-essential, not equally balanced, and the ratio is skewed towards three of them: glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. We need glycine to create glutathione, the body’s most powerful antioxidant. So, collagen supplements help us replenish our master antioxidant too.

Do collagen skin creams work?

Collagen in skin creams is poorly regarded by the scientific community. That's because collagen is too large a molecule to penetrate the skin, meaning it is hard for it to have an impact on skin quality. What collagen skin creams seem to do well is moisturise and hydrate the skin by reducing water loss or by binding water. However, there is no scientific evidence to show that they have any effect on actual collagen quality or quantity. Don't confuse them with collagen peptide creams, which do actually stimulate collagen production.

Dr Johanna Ward is a leading cosmetic doctor and GP. She is the founder of Zenii Vitality and Skincare, which includes a range of collagen supplements, such as the Zenii Pro-Collagen Powder with Vitamin C, £65. Dr Ward also runs the London facial clinic House of Zenii, is the owner of the Vitalise Skin and Wellness Clinic in Kent, and is available for consultation and treatment at The Cosmetic Skin Clinic in London.

To find out more, visit Dr Johanna’s expert directory page.