Considering we're different generations, it doesn't surprise me that my mom's Instagram feed and mine look nothing alike. But there is one exception — we both see posts about collagen supplements all the time. Glowing skin, strong nails, and voluminous hair are among the appealing benefits, but does this "fountain of youth" supplement have any side effects consumers should be aware of? To get the scoop, we spoke to two experts.
What Are the Side Effects of Collagen Supplements?
There are 28 different types of collagen, but only two — hydrolyzed collagen and gelatin — are commercialized, and they're very similar. "Gelatin is basically cooked collagen," Jordan Wagner, MD, a board-certified emergency-room physician, told POPSUGAR. While collagen supplements are sold in many forms, from collagen powder to collagen gummies, the side effects are pretty much the same, according to Dr. Wagner.
There are three reported side effects of taking collagen supplements, all of which are entirely due to the contaminants present in them, not the collagen itself. While these side effects are considered rare, they've been reported enough times for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to recall a number of leading collagen supplements on the market. The contaminants in these supplements can cause mad cow disease, high calcium, and arsenic poisoning, specifically.
The most prevalent of these is mad cow disease, which can occur if you take gelatin-based collagen supplements, because "gelatin is sourced from animal hooves and hides," Dr. Wagner said. Whitney English, MS, RD, explained that bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, is a virus transmitted through contaminated nerve tissue and bones. Though the FDA banned the use of some cow parts to prevent the spread of the disease, the agency exempted gelatin.
For this reason, both experts recommend carefully researching the ingredients of your supplement brand and taking note if the collagen is bovine-sourced or marine-sourced. Marine-sourced collagen supplements will aggravate a shellfish allergy, and they could also put you at risk for elevated calcium levels. Both of these can lead to more serious health issues like arrhythmia and bone pain.
There's one contaminant, however, that's hard to avoid in any type of collagen supplement, even the vegan nongelatin kind. That contaminant is heavy metal, and more specifically, lead and arsenic. "A recent study showed that out of 134 supplements tested, the majority were contaminated with one or more heavy metals," English told POPSUGAR. If you decide to still shop for collagen supplements, she recommends checking that the supplement has been third-party tested and verified for purity (look for a label from either NSF or BSCG).
Are Collagen Supplements Worth the Risk?
Regardless of the side effects, neither Dr. Wagner nor English is a huge advocate for collagen supplements — the primary reason being that they're probably unnecessary. "Collagen is the most abundant protein in our body, accounting for about a quarter to a third of the protein composition," Dr. Wagner said. "They are called supplements for a reason. They're supplemental."
Especially if you're planning to take collagen to support gut health, English warned that it may not be worth the risk. "Some studies have reported mild to moderate gastrointestinal disturbances," she said. These can include symptoms like heartburn. If you're creating an issue in your attempt to relieve an old one, that's not exactly the best sign.
"It's hard to escape an Instagram feed without spotting collagen creams, drinks, and potions," Dr. Wagner acknowledged. But while these supplements are trendy among our favorite influencers, the medical implications shouldn't be taken lightly, especially because the side effects are more serious than a temporary headache. Bottom line: this should be a decision between you and your doctor, not you and the Instagram influencers you follow.