I usually don’t put much thought into my skincare routine, to be completely honest. I was blessed with a relatively blemish-free adolescence, and these days I pretty much just wear sunscreen and wash my face with soap and water. But as truly lucky as I am in this regard, I’m still susceptible to concerns about aging, wrinkles, and crows feet. And I’m only 22! Logically, I know these worries are the result of our society's toxic, sexist, impossible beauty standards. But that doesn’t make them feel any less real. So the idea that I could alleviate these anxieties and eat something delicious at the same time is very appealing. Enter: collagen supplements.

You can now purchase collagen powder, collagen creamer, collagen gummies, and more. These (usually pretty pricey) products make a variety of fabulous-sounding health and beauty claims, such as preventing wrinkles, supporting joints, and strengthening hair and nails. Even Jennifer Aniston uses collagen, and (obviously) she looks great and hasn’t aged a bit. But maybe that’s just because she’s, you know, Jennifer freaking Aniston.

Having received hundreds, maybe thousands, of targeted ads for collagen-adjacent products within the last few months, I was feeling some supplement FOMO. Do I need collagen? Am I getting wrinkles? Are my joints falling apart? What even is collagen? I chatted with Katey Davidson (@tasteofnutrition), a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer, and Dr. Amanda Frick, ND and VP of Medical Affairs at Thorne, to help answer these questions and more.

What even is collagen?

Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body, found in bones, joints, tendons, and skin. It makes up the structure of connective tissue, keeping it strong and tight. “In the skin, it helps maintain hydration and reduce fine lines and wrinkles,” says Frick. The potential skin health benefits are the main reason behind the recent surge in popularity of collagen supplements.

What are the benefits of collagen supplements?

Collagen supplements can be taken for many reasons, such as supporting joint health, maintaining healthy levels of inflammatory response, and of course, supporting the aesthetics of skin. “Collagen supplements are controversial, but can be helpful in some cases,” says Davidson. “Some research has found that it may improve skin hydration and elasticity and also support joint health.” But, she adds, we need higher quality research.

Additionally, a collagen supplement can be a convenient way to get in a little extra protein. “Most collagen powders are flavorless and can easily be added to a coffee, smoothie, etc.” says Davidson. “So, if you find that you could add a little bit more protein throughout the day, this can be an easy way to do it.”

I find it interesting that I haven’t seen much about protein content or joint health in the deluge of collagen ads on my Instagram feed. The focus is all on wrinkle prevention and skin aesthetics. But actually, I care a lot about joint health and protein, and these benefits make collagen supplements more appealing to me personally.

Are collagen supplements safe for everyone?

There’s a long history of women being marketed beauty products that are a) expensive and b) potentially detrimental to health, from lead foundation to arsenic skincare wafers (yes, that was a thing). Of course, that was a different time. Now we have government agencies that monitor this stuff. And collagen is something that's already in our bodies, so from my extremely unprofessional not-a-doctor perspective, it feels fairly safe. But still, should you consult a doctor before taking it? According to Frick, “It’s always important to consult with your physician on the supplement plan that’s right for your personalized wellness goals. But there’s no reason to be concerned about any interactions of collagen with any supplements, diet, or medications.” According to Davidson, besides the cost, “there aren't many downsides to taking a collagen supplement. Most studies have found they are tolerated by most people and have limited to no side effects, especially if you're just taking a plain collagen powder with no additional ingredients.”

Are collagen supplements worth the cost?

Collagen may be safe, but is a pricey supplement worth your hard-earned cash? That depends on your individual values, budget, and health and beauty goals. If you do choose to buy collagen, there’s a few ways to help make sure you get the most bang for your buck. First off, make sure you’re getting hydrolyzed collagen for maximum absorption. “Collagen is actually kind of large in your digestive system, and it’s hard to absorb,” says Frick. So you’ll want to look for collagen powder that contains hydrolyzed peptides, which is collagen broken down into smaller pieces. “Studies have found that collagen peptides are better absorbed into the body compared to whole collagen,” says Davidson. So you’re literally getting more bang (absorption) for your buck.

Another way to maximize the value of your collagen supplement is opting for bovine collagen. “You can get marine collagen, bovine collagen, and there are some genetically-modified fermented variants for vegan collagen,” says Frick. “Marine collagen is more costly as far as what you are getting for the materials, so they tend to be a little more expensive…bovine collagen is the most cost effective way to deliver the amount of collagen you’re looking for for therapeutic use.”

According to Davidson, “there is no such thing as vegan collagen. When you see a vegan collagen supplement, it only contains ingredients that would support collagen production in the body (e.g., some plant-based protein, vitamin C, etc.) So, be aware that if you're looking for real collagen, it will be animal-based.”

It’s also important to note that you can boost your collagen intake without supplements. “Collagen can be found naturally in animal connective tissue, such as beef, pork, chicken, or fish,” says Davidson. “Many cultures consume bone broth which is very high in collagen. So, if you want a natural source, try making bone broth at home and turning it into a soup.”

There are also foods you can eat to support the body's natural production of collagen. According to Davidson, it’s important to make sure you’re eating enough protein, which provides amino acids that are the building blocks of collagen. Additionally, it’s helpful to eat plenty of foods high in vitamin C, which plays a key role in collagen production.

When can you start taking a collagen supplement?

As I researched collagen supplement products, I noticed that a lot of the marketing seemed to be geared toward older folks. This kind of makes sense, because our bodies naturally produce less collagen as we age. Plus, collagen is often touted for its potential anti-aging, wrinkle-prevention effects. So, at what age can you start taking collagen? According to Frick, a supplement can be beneficial for anyone, at any age. “You could use [a collagen supplement] to help protect the structure that you have now and help maintain those healthy connective tissues in the joints and the skin, or you could take it to help prevent further decline.”

What should you look for in a collagen supplement?

What you look for in a collagen supplement will depend on your individual goals and lifestyle, but there are some general guidelines to follow. According to Davidson, you should look for a supplement that is made with hydrolyzed collagen or collagen peptides, contains 10 grams or more of protein per serving, and is third party-tested. Third-party testing is important because it “ensures that the collagen contains the ingredients that are on the label and nothing more.”

Another thing to look out for, especially if you are athletic, is NSF for sport certification. This is a form of third-party testing designed specifically for athletes. The National Science Foundation (NSF) tests products for contamination and purity and does additional testing to certify facilities. According to Frick, NSF certification ensures products do not contain any substances or ingredients that would cause an issue for anti-doping testing or that would affect sports performance goals.

Should I take a collagen supplement?

Collagen has been shown to have *some* benefits in clinical studies, but the jury’s still out on how effective supplements are. If you have the spare cash and you want to take a collagen supplement, that’s great! But your first priority should always be maintaining a healthy diet and balanced lifestyle.

“For college students on a budget, I'd say collagen supplements aren't worth the money,” says Davidson. “My philosophy is to prioritize food first and then use supplements as needed…it would be much better to purchase whole, protein-rich foods than paying $50 for a collagen powder.”

Davidson adds that if you feel you need a supplement, you might consider trying protein powder first since this will provide more protein for your buck. But if you don’t like protein powder and have room in your budget, collagen can be a good option. If you do choose to take a collagen supplement, make sure you find one that fits your individual goals and lifestyle. And as for skincare, here’s a proven tip for maintaining skin health and aesthetics: wear sunscreen!

#SpoonTip: Still have questions about collagen? Check out Katey Davidson’s recent YouTube video for more super-helpful info.