Collagen is a vital structural protein that makes up our bodies' connective tissues, which is about a third of the protein in our bodies overall. As we age, our bodies produce less collagen. That slowdown leads to external symptoms like skin sagging and wrinkles, along with internal symptoms such as extended time for injuries to heal. Animal-derived collagen has been popular for nearly a decade now due to how well it holds up to study for everything from improving osteoporosis to reducing wrinkles.
Collagen is available pre-mixed with coffee to help you start your day with a dose of it internally, as an anti-wrinkle day cream to apply on your face, or as pills to swallow. Similar to how probiotics now show up in random places like popcorn and beer once everyone realized we need to consume them frequently, consumer demand for collagen continues to grow and, in turn, it continues to be utilized in progressively more ways. In recent years, plant based vegan collagen products have hit the market promising to be just as effective as animal collagen. But are they?
We’ll review what plant-based collagen is (spoiler alert: Save for one revolutionary brand, it’s not collagen!), how well it works compared to actual animal collagen, and the differences in results between topical application and ingestion.
What to Know About Animal Collagen
There’s nothing inherently wrong with animal collagen, as humans we have been reaping the innumerable benefits of consuming animal proteins for as long as we’ve been humans (and well before that, even). However, our meat-loving tendencies have not done our planet any favors. With the methane from cows as a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and cattle raising in rainforests being responsible for 80% of Amazon deforestation, many climate scientists have urged us to shift focus towards eating more plants and less large animals. And that doesn’t even speak to the inhumane nature of industrial animal farming, which has led many people to eschew animal foods in favor of plant options.
There’s a market for vegan collagen because there’s a market for any plant-based alternative to an animal product. Whether that’s leather shoes or a burger, using more plants and less animals has the potential to help the planet and the lives of farm animals and ocean creatures.
What Are Most Plant-Based Collagens Made Of?
The surge of plant based collagen in the consumer market may lead you to believe at first glance that it’s possible for collagen to naturally occur in plants. This is not the case; collagen protein contains an array of amino acids, the precise combination of which cannot be found anywhere in nature. It’s the same as when bone broth began trending, and suddenly “vegan bone broth” recipes popped up everywhere. Those broths don’t contain gelatin (the collagen protein in bone broth that makes it solidify when cold and is reparative for joints, bones, and skin), but rather assorted vitamins, amino acids, and minerals similar to some of the ones naturally found in the liquid left after boiling animal bones. The premise for vegan bone broth was that the ingredients in it promote the production of the nutrients found in bone broth, if they don’t downright contain it.
In the same way as vegan bone broth can’t speed up injury recovery time like the collagen in real bone broth can, vegan collagen products should also be viewed as promoters or builders, and not as the real thing. Plant based collagen promoters are typically composed primarily of vitamin C. That’s because vitamin C is an antioxidant that human bodies utilize to create collagen. It’s an essential cofactor for two of the enzymes needed for collagen synthesis. These collagen building products, such as Monat Collagen Key, assist with collagen production through vitamin C, silica, and numerous amino acids. Many brands of collagen builders are based on rice bran solubles, which can prevent the absorption of other ingredients. One vegan collagen promoting product, Glow Getter Collagen Blend, relies instead on adaptogens and antioxidants such as butterfly pea powder, so that rice bran isn’t involved.
Do Plant-Based Collagen Products Work?
There is no doubt vegan collagen promoters are effective to an extent. With vitamin C being the main ingredient in these products, it’s safe to rely on the study results of vitamin C in relation to collagen production. The main message from that is positive, though not emphatic: “Overall, these studies provide evidence that vitamin C may be effective in promoting collagen synthesis in vivo, although further clinical studies are needed to strengthen the implications for postoperative vitamin C supplementation.”
The tricky part about relying on a supplement taken internally to help promote production of anything in our bodies is it can only be as effective as our bodies enable it to be. That means in those with poor digestion, for example, effects will be reduced because their bodies likely won’t assimilate ingredients nearly as well. And for older people, whose bodies make less collagen, adding more of what’s needed to build something won’t necessarily enhance someone’s ability to do so. It also depends on what the important nutrients are paired with, such as the potential absorption issue of putting vitamin C in a base of rice bran.
What Is Vegan Collagen?
Unlike plant based collagen promoters, thanks to science we now have “real” vegan collagen. It’s a topical ingredient, and is available in skincare. Before delving in, it’s important to recognize that most topical products, such as creams and serums, advertising vegan collagen are in fact advertising the plant-based collagen promoting ingredients used, not real collagen.
Made in a lab using vegetable and plant derivatives, biotechnology-savvy skincare company Algenist has engineered a vegan version of collagen that contains all amino acids present in animal collagen. Of their process creating this product, Tammy Yaiser, Algenist vice president of product development, says, “The particular plants chosen are sustainable crops that provide an accessible path to replicating the amino acids found in collagen. These plants do not contain collagen, but binding together their protein fibers produces a naturally and plant-derived vegan collagen that provides a functional equivalent similar to animal-derived collagen, and with the visible anti-aging benefits of animal collagen, that helps support youthful firmness, elasticity and suppleness of the skin.”
How do Algenist’s vegan products work compared to animal collagen? Pretty amazingly, in fact. In a 28 day clinical trial, Algenist’s Genius Liquid Collagen, with active ingredient Active Vegan Collagen, yielded 160% increase in elasticity in skin in the neck area alone. 100% of study participants “demonstrated a measured increase in skin firmness in the cheek area,” as well. The brand boasts visible results in just ten days.
Topical Versus Ingested
As of now, actual vegan collagen such as what Algenist puts in their skincare line is only available topically. If you’re looking at a “vegan collagen” dietary supplement, it is generally going to be composed of the ingredients mentioned, which help your body create collagen.
My Experience With the Options
As someone who writes regularly about topics like this one, I receive regular offers from companies asking me to try their products. Over the years I’ve used countless collagen and collagen-promoting goods, both animal based and vegan, topical and ingested. I’ve personally used everything referenced in this article except for the Glow Getter collagen builder, which I declined when offered because I haven’t found collagen promoters to be effective. So, that’s one answer for you: Collagen builders contain great ingredients, but I’ve never noticed any improvement in my skin, hair, nails, or joints from taking them. I think they’re worthwhile if you need the nutrients in them anyway, but chances are you’re getting enough vitamin C in your diet already. Only about one in 20 people in developed nations are deficient, and with how prevalent C is in fresh fruits and vegetables, it is typically a quickly fixed problem.
When it comes to animal collagen, I’ve experienced faster recovery from cuts and burns in the kitchen when I’ve been in periods of consuming collagen-rich bone broth regularly. As far as animal collagen creams and serums, though, I’ve always broken out before they could have enough time to work, so I can’t speak to their effectiveness. Upon learning I was writing this story, Algenist sent me products from their line to try, and I’m not really sure how to mention their results without sounding like they’re paying me (they’re not). That said, I’ve been more blown away by Algenist than any other skin care line, ever. My naturally small lips are plumper, my skin is smoother, I have a youthful glow I didn’t even realize I’d lost (here’s looking at you, 2020 in quarantine!), and my face’s coloring has never been so even. I didn’t break out from any of their products, which I’ve been applying twice daily. I’m incredibly acne-prone and this is the first time in my adult life I’ve used a moisturizer for more than several days without an outbreak; I generally don’t use one at all because of that.
The Final Verdict
Plant-based collagen is as effective as animal collagen—if what you’re using is collagen and not just a collagen builder. As of now, ingestible plant-based collagen is not real collagen, but a collection of vegan ingredients designed to help boost your body’s own collagen production. Thanks to genetic engineering, we do now have real vegan collagen for skincare, and it’s been proven highly effective. Hopefully soon there will be an ingestible version of vegan collagen; once there is, it’ll be a level playing field, and animal collagen will no longer have the upper hand on ingestibles.