Those Buzzy New Collagen Products Are Risky Business

Like many of us with our thumbs stuck on scroll, Chrissie Buckley has a weakness for Instagram fads. At their worst, the products she has tried after a convincing influencer endorsement have been minor money drains she can shrug off with a laugh. But when she added collagen powder to her cart earlier this year, those whims took a darker turn.

Collagen supplements had been dominating her social feeds for months, as new formulations from brands like Bulletproof, Dose & Co. and Vital Proteins have grown in popularity. Instead of the sleepy pill format, these companies are selling collagen coffee creamers, drink powders and protein bars that claim to support healthy skin, hair, nails and joints.

In February, a post from the model Cindy Prado espousing the wrinkle-diminishing benefits of Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides powder convinced her to give it a try.

“I’m going to be 29 in the fall, and I want to get a new skin care routine going to help with anti-aging so I thought maybe I should try some collagen,” said Ms. Buckley, a medical supply equipment coordinator in New York.

After a month or so of having a scoop in her coffee each day, changes to her face were nonexistent, but a red bump was forming on a finger. Over the next few days, what at first looked like a bug bite spread across her ring and pinkie fingers.

“The skin on my hands looked and felt so tight, like my fingers were stuffed sausages, and I couldn’t bend them,” said Ms. Buckley, whose eventual visit to urgent care proved unproductive. “They had no idea what was going on.”

An always risky deep dive on Google left her convinced it was scleroderma, a rare autoimmune disease in which the immune system causes the body to produce too much collagen, resulting in thick, tightened skin and connective tissues.

Horrified, Ms. Buckley threw out every product that mentioned collagen, and within days the swelling subsided and mobility returned to her fingers.

“It’s the devil to me now,” she said.

But there’s no evidence for or against the possibility of collagen supplements causing scleroderma, said Dr. Fredrick M. Wigley, the director of the Johns Hopkins Scleroderma Center, noting that it’s unstudied but biologically unlikely. “The body is very efficient at regulating things, so if you take too much of something, your body will get rid of the excess and balance it out,” Dr. Wigley said.

Whatever its origins, Ms. Buckley’s reaction highlights the lack of research on new collagen formulations — which, like most supplements, are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration — and comes amid a sea of online chatter about negative effects and lack of efficacy that is only beginning to break through the much noisier hype.

“Everyone has been on the collagen bandwagon lately,” said Dr. Niket Sonpal, a gastroenterologist in New York. “It’s the new charcoal bandwagon.”

The Truth Behind the Hype

Google search data reflects the growing obsession: People have searched for collagen an average of 1.4 million times each month this year to date, a number that’s jumped 35 percent from last year, according to research firm Spate. Collagen powders and drinks lead those searches.

Increased consumer interest in so-called functional foods and beverages that claim to offer health benefits over traditional supplement pills is partly responsible. As with other beauty and wellness trends, so, too, is a Kardashian.

In October 2020, Khloé Kardashian signed on as an equity partner and global spokeswoman for Dose & Co., a collagen supplement company in New Zealand. Since then, her more than 140 million Instagram followers have been inundated with footage of the star adding the product to her daily smoothies and sharing convincing before and after photos that display customers with clearer skin and thicker hair.

It was enough to convince Whitney Joseph, a 36-year-old stay-at-home mom living in Stamford, Conn., to give the product a try.

“After I had my last child, my hair was falling out and got really brittle, which Khloé said had happened to her, too, and she was helped by the product,” Mrs. Joseph said.

That didn’t happen. Instead, her normally clear skin broke out within days of adding the supplement to her drinks, a result she discovered was common after digging into Reddit threads. When she stopped taking it, her skin cleared up.

“I’ve tried so many supplements, and at this point, I’m over it,” she said.

Since many of these collagen products include a variety of other ingredients, including biotin and hyaluronic acid, it can be difficult to pinpoint what’s actually triggering a negative reaction. “Many of them are bundled with whey protein, which has lactose in it and can induce acne flares, as well as a lot of sugar,” Dr. Ivy Lee, a dermatologist in Los Angeles, said.

Collagen supplements that come from marine sources instead of the more common bovine-sourced collagen have become popular as many people lessen their beef intake, but they’ve brought with them a host of new issues. Experts report that they are more likely to ignite allergic reactions because of potential shellfish contamination.

Since collagen can lead to increased fullness and satiety, which is common with any protein source, some companies have attempted to frame it as a weight loss tool despite a lack of supporting evidence, per Dr. Lee. In some cases, these products can actually have the opposite effect because of their often high sugar and carbohydrate content, as well as a tendency to cause bloating.

And some of the most common side effects are gastrointestinal: Dr. Sonpal regularly hears patients who try them complain of diarrhea, heartburn and constipation.

So Is There an Upside?

Experts say that studies claiming to show collagen as having a positive impact on skin elasticity and overall youthfulness are too small and anecdotal to lend the products real legitimacy. “It’s more of a branding opportunity for the beauty industry since people are so interested in looking younger,” said Dr. Rabia De Latour, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at New York University.

Last month, however, researchers published a systematic review of clinical trials on oral collagen supplements. “The results support that ingesting collagen can reduce skin wrinkles and improve elasticity and skin hydration,” Dr. Lee said. But the study isn’t geared to the new formulas. “The challenge is that research has not identified optimal dosing regimens or formulations,” she said.

For this reason doctors recommend moderation when trying such a product for the first time. Beyond talking to your doctor to ensure that it won’t interfere with other medications or worsen chronic health issues, Dr. Sonpal suggests starting with half of the recommended dose and tracking how your body is or isn’t reacting. Make sure the collagen is hydrolyzed, a process that breaks it down into easier to absorb particles. And most important, Dr. Sonpal said, have an end date in mind, as supplements in any form are not meant to be taken indefinitely. If you don’t see results by the three-month mark, it’s best to stop the supplement.

However unsexy it may be, avoiding such buzzy ingestibles is still the safest bet. Dr. De Latour recommends incorporating more foods that help your body maintain its collagen supply into your diet: chicken, fish, green leafy vegetables and foods high in vitamin C. Following the sun protection advice you’re pummeled with — to wear SPF daily, wear a hat and seek out shade — can also prevent collagen breakdown.

If you’re willing to spend, you can also visit a dermatologist for microneedling or laser treatments that have been shown to promote collagen production.

In the face of never-ending beauty and wellness porn on Instagram, the key is remembering that, behind the pretty filters and gushing endorsements, there’s no one magic bullet for perfecting your skin. Dr. De Latour put it bluntly: “You can’t turn back time with a supplement.”

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