Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on January 22, 2020

What Is Collagen?

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Collagen is a protein your body makes naturally. It makes up about a third of all of the protein in your body. It’s essential for healthy joints. It also keeps skin elastic to lessen wrinkles. For that reason, collagen supplements are popular. They claim to make skin look younger, but does science support the hype? And do you need more?   

What Collagen Does for Your Body

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The word comes from the Greek word “kólla,” which means glue. Collagen's strong fibers work like glue to hold things together in your body: muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, organs, and skin. 

Types of Collagen

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There are 16 different types of this important protein in your body. But most of it is type I, II, or III. Each one has a different job. Type I builds skin, bones, tendons, and ligaments. Type II helps to make cartilage, the flexible tissue between bones and in your ears and nose. Type III helps create muscles and blood vessels. 

Collagen as You Get Older

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As you get older, your body makes less collagen. You can’t measure exactly how much you have, but when it drops you may have symptoms such as joint pain or stiff tendons or ligaments. Your muscles may weaken. You could also have papery skin. Taking collagen supplements may help ease these symptoms. Talk to your doctor about the best approach for you. 

What Hurts Your Collagen Levels?

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Besides time, three main things will lower your collagen levels: sunlight, smoking, and sugar. Too much exposure to ultraviolet light makes its fibers unravel. This can lead to sun damage, such as wrinkles. Many of the chemicals in cigarette smoke can damage it, which can make skin sag and wrinkle. Sugar causes the fibers to cross-link and tangle. This makes your skin less elastic over time.

What Can Collagen Treatment Do?

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Some plastic surgery procedures use collagen shots to plump up the skin, such as lip injections or scar treatments. These shots can push your body to make more collagen. You’ll likely need to have the procedure done again after a few months to a year to keep up the effects. Some studies show supplements can improve your skin’s elasticity, lessen dryness, and boost collagen density while you take them. They can also ease joint pain, which might help you be more active.

What Collagen Can’t Do

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There’s no proof that collagen treats skin conditions such as eczema or atopic dermatitis. While collagen shots can help to treat acne scars, there’s no evidence that collagen supplements can stop or treat acne. And no studies show that it helps with weight loss.

Do Collagen Creams Work?

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Skin creams with synthetic collagen may not be an effective way to boost this protein in your body. They add a protective barrier on your skin and stop water loss, but they don’t raise the amount of it in your skin. It’s better to protect your skin from the sun, especially early in life when skin may be more sensitive. 

Foods to Boost Your Collagen Levels

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You can help your body make more collagen by eating healthy foods. To make it, your body puts together amino acids called glycine and proline. You find these acids in high-protein foods such as chicken, fish, beef, eggs, dairy, and beans. Other nutrients, like vitamin C, zinc, and copper, also play a part. You can get vitamin C in citrus fruits, tomatoes, and leafy greens. For zinc and copper, try shellfish, nuts, whole grains, and beans.

Bone Broth and Collagen

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Some good sources for the proteins that help build collagen are foods like red meat, chicken, and bone broth. To make bone broth, you simmer animal bones in water for 1-2 days. This draws some collagen proteins out into the broth. Your body doesn’t absorb it right into your skin or joints, though. It breaks it down into amino acids that help build tissue. You can buy bone broth in grocery stores or make your own.

Do You Need Collagen Supplements?

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If you eat a balanced diet, your body likely makes enough collagen for your needs.  Most of the studies into collagen supplements have been small. We need more large studies to understand their effects on health. But if you do want to try one, they’re generally safe and don’t have side effects. They usually come as a powder that you can mix into drinks or sauces.

Are Collagen Supplements Regulated?

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The FDA doesn’t regulate collagen supplements, so companies that make them don’t have to prove that they work or are safe. If you buy them, look for these keywords in the ingredients: collagen hydrolysate, hydrolyzed collagen, or collagen peptides.

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