Collagen pills took beauty market by storm: from the Kardashians to your local drugstore – advertisements for collagen is everywhere. Hair supplements, in pill form, collagen teas – if you are in the market for healthy hair, chances are you have seen at least once. However, collagen supplements come with challenges rooted in the collagen’s biochemistry, bioavailability and the size of its molecules. Today we pose an important question – do collagen pills help hair growth and can you trust the hype? Let’s dive into that.
The collagen craze
As soon as you pass your mid-20s, you start noticing ads picturing women with drawn-in arrows titled ‘collagen’ pointing to their flawless skin and thickening shampoos with added collagen literally in any drugstore. This should leave out any doubt that the collagen (and not Photoshop) is the biggest contributor to the healthy glow. And as you stand in line on the checkout and scroll through your feed, at least one semi-famous person: be it an influencer or a big celebrity, attribute their youthful complexion to a type of collagen treatment. If you look beyond your phone, many beauty salons offer a variety of collagen treatments – ranging from masks, microneedling to injections. Somehow restoring it also has a higher price tag: hair, skin and nails supplements which contain collagen cost more. Products that contain a boost of collagen also cost extra.
This leaves you puzzled. Do you eat it? Do you slather collagen all over your skin, hair and body? Or should you part with a hefty part of your hard-earned paycheck for a beauty treatment?
We, too, became overwhelmed with choice and as a result decided to get curious and look closely at this essential protein, shedding some light on its role in hair growth.
An abundant protein
Collagen is the main structural protein found in the various connective tissues in the body. It is the most abundant protein in mammals, making 25% to 35% of the whole-body protein content. Collagen consists of amino acids which wound together to form the triple helix of the collagen molecule. It is mostly found in fibrous tissues, such as tendons, ligaments and skin.
Although only a small amount of collagen is found in the outer layers of hair shaft itself – collagen plays a key role in maintaining function of a hair follicle.
Collagen is found in the skin tissue surrounding the follicle. A number of studies have found that during anagen (growth) stage of the hair, the amount of collagen surrounding the hair bulb increases and thickens. As the hair follicle matures into the catagen stage, it loses two layers of collagen surrounding it. As our body produces more collagen, these layers re-grow thus supporting our hair follicles in entering the growth stage again which maintains the ongoing cycle of hair growth.
Collagen pills: the myths
Collagen molecules are simply too large to penetrate the skin. Therefore any topical products claiming to boost collagen production in skin are just going to leave collagen molecules on top of it and without penetrating it and making any impact on your collagen production.
Since collagen is a form of protein, it also can not be digested whole in its pure form. Rather, it needs to break down and get digested just like any other protein we eat. Hydrolyzed collagen (also known as collagen peptides) is a broken down collagen into more easily dissolvable amino acids. It claims to be more easily absorbed by our bodies: the body processes the amino acids – namely lycine, glycine and proline – releases them into blood stream, and transforms into the building blocks that can become collagen in hair follicles.
A number of studies were performed in the field of absorption and improvement of skin and hair appearance by ingesting collagen, however those studies have been funded by companies which produce collagen, rather than large controlled studies of 1,000+ participants carried by independent non-profit institutions. Supplement market remains largely unregulated, so a question of safety still stands, as collagen most of the time produced from bones and cartillages of cows, chicken and other animals – so the conditions in which those animals are kept can become opaque.
There is a number of differing opinions, ranging from those claiming a finite amount of collagen in our bodies to those supporting the ability of our bodies to produce collagen again. In addition, digestive and cardiovascular systems and their interactions still remain unclear and inconclusive. While our body has a capability to produce collagen, this building process requires a number of building blocks whose consumption should be carefully supervised under the guidance of a qualified nutritionist.
Building blocks of collagen
It is important to remember if consuming collagen orally, that body breaks it down into amino acids first, releases them into blood stream and only then creates collagen. However there are building blocks involved in that process without them, collagen molecules would not form.
Vitamin C, or absorbic acid is essential to synthesis of lycine, glycine and proline amino acids – building blocks that make up collagen. Vitamin C also acts as a stabilisator of the crosslinks of collagen mollecule. Vitamin C can either be taken as a supplement, or via a balanced diet rich in dark leafy vegetables, like kale, broccoli and spinach. Contrary to the popular belief, oranges (53mg/100g) contain significantly lower amount of vitamins C compared to kale (120mg/100g) or broccoli (90mg/100g).
Daily recommended amount of vitamin C is 65-90mg a day. Therefore a small side of steamed broccoli or kale can help you reach your daily goal of vitamin C.
Iron, Zinc and Copper are all key in production of collagen. However its intake needs to be carefully monitored, as overconsumption of either may cause mineral poisoning. In addition, absorption of some minerals is only possible when combined with specific vitamins or foods taken simultaneously:
Iron – advised to be taken with Vitamin C, absorption of iron is significantly reduced after consumption of milk and milk-based products
Zinc – phytate, which is present in staple foods like cereals, corn and rice. Casein, a protein found in milk and milk product has a strong negative effect on zinc absorption. Therefore, avoid these when taking your zinc supplements. Zinc is best consumed from protein-rich foods: whether animal based (organic and sustainably farmed meat, fish, poultry) or plant-based (organic beans, pulses, lentils, legumes)
Copper – best absorption ensured by consuming with proteins: animal based (organic and sustainably farmed meat, fish, poultry) or plant-based (organic beans, pulses, lentils, legumes)
Lysine and threonine are two of the essential amino acids that are necessary for collagen production. The body doesn’t make these, so they must be obtained from the diet via such foods as meats, poultry, fish, eggs, wheat germ and beans, or nutritional supplements.
Loss of collagen
Now that we have covered the essentials of enabling your body to build its own collagen, here is a list of factors that contribute to lower levels of collagen and even its degradation. Degradation of collagen and deceleration of its production are amongst reasons behind thinning hair, slower hair growth and hair loss:
- Stress – high levels of cortisol destroy collagen contain in dermis
- Unbalanced diet and insufficient intake of vitamins
- Ageing – our body naturally produce less collage as we age
- High amounts of sugar
- Ultraviolet rays
Appropriate levels of collagens are hard to achieve, especially in the high-stress environments we live in. Consumption of supplements and a balanced diet with organic and ethically-farmed produce will help boost your collagen production that could boost appearance of your hair.
As a final thought, one of the functions of collagen is to support and repair broken tissue. This is why microneedling your scalp for production of collagen is a better way to increase localised production of collagen in scalp instead of taking collagen pills. In addition, stimulating scalp blood flow improves hair health and accellerates hair regrowth, directly supporting your hair follicles.
Originally published in December 2018, updated June 2020
Links & Sources:
- Mapping the Ligand-binding Sites and Disease-associated Mutations on the Most Abundant Protein in the Human, Type I Collagen, (1)
- Induction of collagenolytic and proteolytic activities by anti-inflammatory drugs in the skin and fibroblast, (2)
- Role of macrophages in collagen resorption during hair growth cycle, (3)
- Dietary Factors Influencing Zinc Absorption, (4)
- Dynamic ultrastructural changes of the connective tissue sheath of human hair follicles during hair cycle, (5)
- Wikipedia on Collagen, (6)