It’s hard to turn on the TV these days without seeing an ad for collagen supplements, most of them endorsed by seemingly ageless celebrities with gorgeous hair.
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In our rational minds, we know it’s not really the powders, gummies, pills or potions keeping them so perfectly preserved. But that doesn’t make us any less curious!
We asked dermatologist Shilpi Khetarpal, MD, about the science behind — and benefits of — collagen supplementation. What she told us may surprise you.
What is collagen?
Collagen is a protein that strengthens, supports and provides structure for everything from bones and muscles to blood vessels and organs. As you can imagine, we’ve got a lot of it. Collagen accounts for 30% of the protein in your body.
It’s especially important for maintaining your mane. “Collagen is the primary structural protein that we find in cartilage, skin and hair,” Dr. Khetarpal explains.
The food we eat gives us everything we need to produce collagen naturally, but we lose collagen as we age, which can cause our skin and hair to lose their vitality. Collagen supplements aim to increase the collagen in your body, on the assumption that it will give you — and especially your hair, skin and nails — an extra boost.
While there are some plant-based options, most collagen comes from animal sources. “To make these supplements, the manufacturers use all the collagen-rich tissues that are set aside by meat processors,” Dr. Khetarpal explains. “So, they use skin, bones, fish scales — all of that. And then, they denature it to form a gelatin that’s put into powders, gummies or capsules.”
Do collagen supplements help hair grow?
The most honest possible answer to that question is: We don’t know yet. And Dr. Khetarpal doesn’t suggest her patients take supplements if she can’t provide convincing evidence that it’s beneficial.
“There are a lot of supplements out there that claim to help your hair, skin and nails,” she says. “However, there isn’t a lot of clinical data really showing that. That’s because when you take these collagen supplements, they are digested by the GI tract. And it’s not really enough collagen to get absorbed into the bloodstream and delivered back to your hair, skin, nails and so on.”
Dr. Khetarpal continues, “There are some very small studies that have shown some improvement for collagen supplements for the skin. However, they’re all sponsored by the companies making these supplements. So, it’s hard to say that they really do work.”
The other issue with collagen supplementation is that it’s based on an assumption that the source of the collagen doesn’t matter. “The theory is that animal collagen is close enough to what’s in our human tissue to be helpful,” Dr. Khetarpal notes. “And, once again, we don’t know that that’s true. And when it comes to vegan or plant-derived versions, we don’t know if that collagen is even similar to the collagen we make in our bodies.”
Risk of collagen supplements
We don’t have any definitive evidence that collagen supplements work, but we do know that they have the potential to cause harm. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers collagen a food, not a pharmaceutical product. That means they aren’t subject to the same level of testing and regulation as medications.
Why does that matter? “All collagen supplements have additives in them,” Dr. Khetarpal explains. “So, you might have an allergy or an intolerance to something else in the supplement. These companies can put things in their collagen that you might not normally see — whether that’s different flavors, food coloring, or dyes — because these supplements aren’t well-regulated. And there have been issues in the past with inaccurate labeling, contamination and other safety concerns.”
Dr. Khetarpal also notes that, while generally well-tolerated, some people experience gastrointestinal (GI) side effects when they take collagen supplements.
Other ways to improve hair health
Sad but true: Collagen isn’t your one-way ticket to shampoo-commercial hair. If it’s any consolation, those models don’t have shampoo-commercial hair either. It’s all smoke and mirrors.
Frustrating as it may be, getting and keeping your locks looking their best is a bit more complicated than downing a pill or chewing a gummy. The good news? It is possible!
If you want to improve your hair health and stimulate growth:
- Minimize heat styling. Curling irons. Hot rollers and combs. Hair dryers. Flat irons. There are a lot of hot tools in our hair styling utility belts. Whether you love a silk press or hate walking around with wet hair, all that sizzle’s bound to cause damage. Avoid heat styling as often as you can. When you do decide to do your do, make sure you’re using a heat protectant to create a barrier between your hair and the hot instrument.
- Eat a protein-rich, healthy diet. The single best thing you can do to keep your hair healthy is to eat a diet containing plenty of protein and an appropriate quantity of healthy fats. Your hair is made of protein, so if you’re not getting enough, your hair can become dry, weak, brittle, or even fall out.
Whether you choose to get your protein from plant sources or a combination of plant and animal sources doesn’t particularly matter. Your mane won’t complain either way!
- Consider other supplements. It’s worth talking to a doctor about the merits of other supplements. There is a wide range of vitamins and minerals that impact your hair health. For example, vitamin D stimulates hair growth — and a lot of people are deficient. If your blood work reveals that your levels aren’t where they should be, a supplement might be a good idea. But keep in mind that there is such a thing as too much vitamin D. So, be sure to talk to your doctor before you start taking anything.
If you still want to try collagen
Still keen on collagen? That’s fine. Dr. Khetarpal suggests doing the following to minimize your risk of unpleasant side effects:
- Review the ingredients carefully. “The collagen product is just one of many things in that supplement,” Dr. Khetarpal reminds us. It’s always important to know what you’re putting in your body. And doubly so if you have any known food allergies or other dietary restrictions. So, be sure to read the ingredients carefully. If you’re looking to avoid all those extra ingredients, keep in mind that you can also get the collagen you need by making good food choices.
- Try it once, then wait a while. Not all side effects happen immediately, so Dr. Khetarpal recommends slowly increasing the frequency with which you take the supplement. You’re more likely to have severe side effects if you jump straight into making collagen a part of your daily routine.
- Opt for mainstream products. “There are some companies, larger companies, that have done their own research and studies on their products” Dr. Khetarpal states. That’s why, when it comes to deciding which products to buy, she recommends buying supplements that are more mainstream. “The more commercially available products are probably going to be safer and more extensively studied.”
Even if you follow all of Dr. Khetarpal’s suggestions, it’s still important to proceed with caution. “You need to know that there may not be a lot of benefit to taking a collagen supplement. And there could be some harm, especially if you have an allergic reaction.”