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Types of Collagen and Vegan Collagen Alternatives

Megan writes about health and wellness issues, among other topics.

I'm sure you've heard of collagen before, but what exactly is it? How does it work?

I'm sure you've heard of collagen before, but what exactly is it? How does it work?

What Is Collagen?

Collagen is the primary protein found in the connective tissues—cartilage, tendons, ligaments—that hold the different structures of our bodies together. Collagen literally comes from the Greek word kolla which means glue.

Many structures in our bodies are made up of collagen: our eyes, our intestine linings, skin, blood vessels, spinal discs, and teeth all rely on collagen to perform as they should. Our bodies naturally make collagen by breaking down the protein that we consume from foods. Zinc, vitamin C, and copper also aid our bodies in the production of collagen.

This is a natural process for our body and contributes to the naturally supple skin, thick hair, and agile muscles of younger individuals. When we reach 30, however, our bodies start to slow down collagen production, and signs of aging like wrinkles, creaking joints, and thinning hair start to occur.

Collagen supplements are generally made from ground up hooves, hides, or horns of other mammals. The most popular collagen supplements are bovine; meaning, they are derived from cows. Sometimes they are made of scales or other parts of marine animals. These animal sourced collagen supplements often come as a flavorless powder that you can mix into drinks or food.

Most now come in the form of peptides, which mean they are broken down into smaller particles that are easier for our bodies to absorb. Vegan “collagen,” which is not really collagen but a supplement with ingredients meant to boost our own collagen production, are an option for those who avoid animal products.

Why Do People Take Collagen Supplements?

Collagen can be recommended for a variety of other medical reasons, but as a supplement most people take it in hopes of restoring their body’s repleted collagen and boosting hair, skin, nail, and joint health. Individuals that decide to take collagen are usually 25–30 or older, since before that our bodies still have plenty of collagen. People with joint conditions like rheumatoid arthritis may decide to try collagen in hopes of easing joint pain.

The purported benefits of collagen are:

  • Reduce wrinkles and the appearance of aging skin
  • Increase skin hydration and elasticity
  • Improve hair thickness
  • Improve nail strength
  • Ease joint pain
  • Strengthen bones
  • Stronger muscles with more muscle mass
  • Reduce blood pressure and blood sugar (these benefits are less understood than those for skin, hair, and joints)

It is important to note, however, that there is not yet a lot of scientific evidence or studies backing up the claimed benefits of collagen. Of the studies available, many have been sponsored by collagen supplement companies, not by purely objective scientists. Still, the studies point to some concrete benefits from collagen. One study of women 35 or older who took a collagen supplement for 72 days showed significant improvement in skin elasticity, skin hydration, skin density, and skin smoothness compared to a placebo group. Another study showed that athletes consuming collagen hydrolysate had decreased joint pain while on the supplement.

Different Types of Collagen

Not all collagen is equal, or works the same way in the body. In total there are 16 types of collagen that all have different roles in various processes and structures. Below are the main types of collagen and a brief explanation of what they come from and what they do.

Type I Collagen

Type I collagen is the most important and most abundant in our bodies. It is also referred to as “native” collagen. This type is found in our skin, blood vessels, teeth, bones, and connective tissues. Most animal derived supplements contain at least this type of collagen. In supplement forms, type I usually is sourced from cows.

Type II Collagen

Type II collagen are also referred to as “native.” This one is more important for joint health than as a beauty supplement. While type I is made up of tightly packed fibers, type II collagen is less dense and more loosely packed. Type II is found in chicken sternum cartilage, egg whites, fish, and some berries.

Type III Collagen

Type III collagen makes up a lot of our internal muscles, some organs, and arteries. The intestines and uterus rely on this type of collagen for support. Along with type I, it is often used in collagen beauty supplements to support elasticity. Bone broth is high in type II collagen.

Type V Collagen

Type V collagen plays a role in hair health. It contributes to hair on a cellular level, as it makes up the surface of hair. It also is found in the placenta of pregnant women.

Type X Collagen

Type X collagen is found in cartilage. As far as supplements, it is found primarily in eggshell membrane, which is the thin film attached to the inside of an eggshell that is normally discarded. The health benefits of this collagen has been more recently looked in to, and now supplements called “NEM” or Natural Eggshell Membrane are available. This type of collagen is most often used by individuals hoping to relieve arthritis or strengthen joints.

Most collagen supplements contain type I and III collagen, especially those aimed at cosmetic purposes such as skin and hair health.


Marine Collagen

Marine collagen supplements are made from fish. Most brands selling marine collagen use scales of fish. The idea of marine collagen is that it is more easily used by our bodies, or more bioavailable. This is because the particles, or peptides, are smaller and easier for our bodies to break down and put to use. Marine collagen is a source of type 1 collagen and more often purchased by those interested in beauty benefits rather than joint/overall health. Marine collagen can have a fishy taste, however, and there are some environmental concerns with this type because of the processing needed to break down the hard fish parts into the powder used in supplements.

Vegan “Collagen”

Collagen is inherently an animal product. As of today there are not really true vegan collagen supplements available. Vegan or plant based collagen that is out there aims at ingredients that help our body boost collagen production on its own, kind of like the ingredients for a recipe. Natural vegan sources that boost our body’s collagen production include foods high in vitamin C, such as berries or oranges but especially acai and acerola, aloe vera, and proteins like genetically modified yeast, pea protein, rice bran solubles (tocos), and tremella mushrooms. These plant based sources provide the body with the components that go into collagen production: vitamin C, biotin, hyaluronic acid. Some proponents of collagen argue that vegan collagen is ineffective compared to animal-based. Vegan collagen boosters, however, are generally good for overall health due to the high number of antioxidants and flavonoids that can help fight off inflammation and some chronic illnesses, in addition to providing beauty and joint benefits. Others also say that providing our body with the “recipe” it needs to make collagen is more effective than adding collagen to our systems from other mammals.

Final Thoughts

Whether bovine, marine, or vegan, collagen and collagen booster supplements are showing promising results against aging and joint issues when used consistently. I personally have seen results of clearer skin and thicker hair when using bovine collagen peptides from Vital Proteins, but it took consistent use for 60+ days to see results. I have also tried some vegan collagen boosters, but not consistently enough to say from experience whether they are just as effective. I think collagen supplements are a good addition to your regular health and skincare regimen, in combination with good skincare and haircare products, a healthy diet, and good sleep and exercise habits.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.