When you think collagen, bone broth or animal parts probably come to mind. Understandably, considering most types of collagen supplements are made using the skins, bones, or ligaments of livestock and fish—things like pig knuckle or hooves. But as more and more people move away from consuming animal products in favor of plant-based or environmentally friendly diets, vegan collagen has entered the conversation, along with questions about its makeup and efficacy. To be able to answer this question, it’s important to first look at what collagen is.

From the Greek kolla, meaning “glue,” collagen is often described as the glue that holds our bodies together. It’s a type of structural protein, meaning it helps make up the framework of cells and tissue. To be specific, collagen is characterized by its triple helix structure made up of three amino acids: glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. This collagen protein is crucial for our bodies—in fact, it’s the most abundant protein found in our systems. Among its many vital functions, the ability to strengthen our hair, nails, and bones has made collagen popular on health food shelves. This protein also helps our bodies replace dead skin cells with new ones. It provides our skin with structure and elasticity, helping to prevent wrinkles and damage.

The body produces collagen itself, but we can also get it through the foods we eat, in a supplement, or from a topical product. Because collagen is a protein found in animals, those who follow a vegan, vegetarian or plant-based diet should ensure that they’re getting the adequate protein and nutrients to support their own internal collagen production.

And for all of us, the collagen in our bodies starts to decline as we age. In fact, after the age of 20, we consistently lose about 1% of our collagen each year; therefore, the best time to start taking collagen is in your twenties. The collagen we do have also starts to become fragmented in our bodies, and these changes lead to things like sagging skin, thinning hair, and more.

Most forms of collagen you’ll find in the supplements aisle are made from animal products like the bones of pigs, cattle, and fish. But for those seeking a plant-based product, vegan collagen supplements are also an option worth exploring.

What is Vegan Collagen Made From?

Is collagen vegan? Collagen itself is a protein only present in animals—the unique combination of those three amino acids (glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline) doesn’t exist in plants. While true vegan collagen can’t be found in nature, it’s being genetically modified using yeast and bacteria. Here’s how: First, vegan collagen is created in a lab and sourced from microbes instead of animals. In particular, a bacterium called P. pastoris is most commonly used for bioengineering collagen. Essentially, scientists add four human genomes into the structure of the microbes so that the yeast or bacteria produce the building blocks of the protein. Next, a digestive enzyme called pepsin is introduced to help structure these building blocks into what we recognize as collagen.

But remember, you don’t need to consume collagen itself in order to boost your body’s production of its own collagen. When we talk about vegan collagen supplements, we are also talking about collagen-boosting vitamins, minerals, or plant ingredients that have been shown to stimulate collagen production. Your body already has the ability to produce real collagen itself given the proper elements. So when you see a vegan collagen supplement in the health foods aisle, it’s likely a blend of ingredients touted to promote or protect collagen.

So what’s exactly required for your body to produce collagen? When your body makes collagen, it uses amino acids that you get from eating different proteins (amino acids = the building blocks of proteins). This process also requires a few micronutrients to put everything together: vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, and copper (1). Because vitamin C is necessary to produce collagen, low levels of it in your system can inhibit collagen formation (2). Good sources of vitamin C include citrus, bell peppers, tomatoes, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli. You can get minerals copper and zinc from consuming foods like mushrooms, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and tofu (3). Further, a diet rich in whole plant foods can help reduce inflammation, helping to prevent collagen degradation from occurring (4).

While your body cannot make new collagen without those necessary elements, there are also other ingredients that can boost your body’s ability to produce it. Hyaluronic acid, for instance, nourishes and hydrates the collagen that gives skin firmness and bounce. A humectant that can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water, hyaluronic acid draws moisture into your skin and throughout your body.

Is Marine Collagen Vegan?

When you see marine collagen on the shelf next to bone broth collagen, you might assume that the marine option is a collagen sourced from something like seaweed. But in reality, marine collagen means that the collagen has been made from the skin and scales of fish. While there might be a vegan marine-bioengineered collagen on the market someday, it’s not currently a thing.

Is Vegan Collagen Effective?

Importantly, you don’t need to take animal-derived collagen or bioengineered collagen in order to reap collagen benefits for your skin. You already have the ability to create this protein internally, with the help of key nutrients from your diet or a vegan collagen supplement. If you have a well-rounded diet full of macros, vitamins and minerals, you’re likely getting the sufficient elements needed for collagen production. But because it can be hard to tell without regular bloodwork—and because most of us aren’t perfect all of the time—supplementing with a vegan collagen powder or topical can fill in the gaps to promote this process as our natural collagen production starts to decline with age.

There are also benefits to taking a clean vegan collagen-supportive supplement. For one thing, doing so lessens any risk of animal-transmitted illness that some are worried about when it comes to true collagen made from cartilage, tendons, bones, skin, or other animal parts. For another, a plant-based diet has been shown to be one of the most powerful steps an individual can take toward reducing their environmental impact.

What to Look for in a Collagen Supplement

Not all collagen offers the same bioavailability and absorption. So when it comes to choosing your products, it’s important to consider particle size. Studies show that our skin may not absorb topical collagen creams if the peptides in collagen are too large. You’ll want a skincare product whose ingredients boast a low molecular weight so that they can penetrate beneath the skin’s surface to deliver their benefits.

As for collagen powders or pills, research suggests that your body can absorb ingested collagen. Hydrolyzed collagen, in particular, has molecules that have been broken down for superior absorption. As with any supplement, you’ll want to look for ingredients that are traceable, unadulterated, and sustainably sourced.

For the best collagen protection and stimulation, we suggest a two-pronged approach using both a topical collagen with natural hyaluronic acid and a collagen supplement. Plump Jelly and Collagen Protect, plant based collagen, help you preserve and protect your body’s natural collagen both from the inside out and from the outside in using the same three ingredients, in different forms.

  • Hyaluronic acid: Hyaluronic acid helps support collagen synthesis, reduce the appearance of fine lines, and hydrate cells by drawing water into the skin to support barrier function and bounce. Our hyaluronic acid is pure and fermented for a low molecular weight range of 10,000-20,000 Daltons for best absorption.
  • Silver ear mushrooms: Used for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine, silver ear mushrooms contain high amounts of collagen boosting elements to help renew collagen while hydrating the skin. Due to their unique cellular matrix, they can help your skin retain moisture for optimal hydration and defense against accelerated aging.
  • Tocos: Tocos are rice bran solubles that contain Vitamin E and other antioxidants and superfood micronutrients that help boost collagen production. Vitamin E is known to protect from oxidative stress that can lead to signs of accelerated aging.

When it comes to preserving your collagen stores, you’ll want to look at your diet and lifestyle. You can’t prevent all age-related collagen loss, but you can take active measures to slow it down. Alcohol use, smoking, UV exposure and sugary or fried foods can all do damage to your collagen levels (5, 6, 7). Excess sugar leads to glycation, for instance—a reaction that causes your skin to age prematurely. Remember it this way: When you have excess glucose in your system, that leads to the accumulation of AGEs (or advanced glycation end products). AGEs age your skin at an accelerated rate.

You don’t need to consume animal collagen to give your skin a collagen boost. Instead, focus on protecting the collagen you have and stimulating your body’s ability to produce it. Make sure to use SPF daily and eat a diet with plenty of high-quality protein and micronutrients from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and seeds. Because it’s hard to quantify your micronutrient intake on a regular basis, a daily vegan collagen supplement and topical collagen product will help ensure you’re setting your skin up for success. Getting those adequate vitamins and minerals will help your body to produce collagen, while hydrating elements like hyaluronic acid will further protect your barrier and help your skin retain youthful moisture.

Resources:

(1) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07315724.2017.1322924 
(2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5579659/
(3) https://health.clevelandclinic.org/the-best-way-you-can-get-more-collagen/
(4) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7146365/
(5) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6715121/
(6) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7230126/
(7) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27224842/