This week, in the name of my craft, I did two things I never do: 1) electively picked up the phone and called a man, and 2) trusted the scientific process. Both pursuits were daunting, but I sacrificed my own dignity for the good of the lovely community here at Man Repeller. (Oh, and to be clear, my craft is swallowing solutions filled with suspended proteins and/or spreading them all over my face with ease and precision, and not like, journalism. Please.)
For the past two months, I’ve been drinking collagen every morning. Collagen, as you probably kind of know, is a protein found in the connective tissues between animal muscles. I do a few drops of BioSil Advanced in my iced coffee, but people on the deep beauty web are also wild for Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides powder. For several weeks, I convinced myself that the collagen tasted like nothing. To be sure, it didn’t fully mix into my cold brew, but rather sat on top like a layer of grease, but at least it didn’t curdle. Then, last week, I was on the way to a Business Meeting (of which I misread the tone of the occasion, and I accidentally wore pair of high-end athletic shorts) and I didn’t have any water. Still, I thought I needed that sweet sweet collagen blast, so I just squirted 6 drops down my throat without a chaser.
I don’t want to say that raw BioSil is the worst thing I’ve ever tasted because, as you may remember, I at one point bought and drank mango vodka, but it is definitely one of the worst things I’ve ever tasted in my life.
You might wonder why I’ve been doing this. I have two answers, and neither will satisfy. First: I want to be a hot person. And second: my best friend used to be the personal assistant of a very beautiful celebrity who told her that the secret to another very beautiful and very famous celebrity couple’s beauty is that they drink collagen every morning. The very beautiful celebrity said that the couple swore it made their already lustrous hair even more so and their skin look younger. Magazines like Us Weekly slam this very beautiful couple on their cover once every other week or so, claiming that one half of this celebrity duo is pregnant, and the other is riding off into the sunset in one of his forty leather jackets. They always look very beautiful.
Do you remember when brothing became our collective national hobby last year? I do. I had a slow cooker going twenty-four hours a day for most of last October, trying to leech the collagen out of frozen chicken carcasses to make a nourishing, protein rich stock. I work from home and I was applying to graduate school, spending long stretches of time manually editing a manuscript, weakened by the internet and attempting to write realistic human dialogue. (By the end of it, I was writing sentences like, “Hello, sister, this is your own sister, and even though we look alike, I am your character foil. But maybe we are not so different, in the end! We both love Mom.”)
Eventually, I turned in my applications and realized I could no longer fit slaving over a hot crockpot into my increasingly sweaty lifestyle, and forgot about it, as I do with most of my health-based initiatives. Plus, the life-changing properties of bone broth are overhyped, and there is absolutely no scientific research that supports that bone broth helps our skin, hair, nails or skeleton system.
Well, bone broth-ing is the exact same concept as drinking collagen supplements. And yet, for months, I swore that my hair was glossier and my skin clearer. When I pitched this idea to the top brass at Man Repeller, I was ready to exploit myself as a flossy, beaming collagen success story. But when I picked up the phone to call a collagen researcher (LOL), my world dissolved, similar to the way collagen does between animal bones when slow cooked at a low temperature.
I asked Ronald Raines, a chemical biologist and Professor of Chemistry at University of Wisconsin-Madison, point blank: Can I get that good-ass skin from drinking a few drops of collagen every morning? (Raines is a collagen expert in stabilizing artificial collagen for use in biomedicine. He also has a Wikipedia page, so you know he’s true blue.)
“I have a hard time seeing how that could be true,” he told me. “Our bodies have enzymes in our stomach and intestines that degrade the food that we eat and then it gets broken down and built up again. We break food down into amino acids, and as collagens are a protein, our body [breaks them down and then] builds them into things we need.”
Translation: If you were picturing that ingested collagen going directly to your bones and skin to fortify them, you’re not alone. I did too. Collagen is a protein, and like any other protein, it cannot travel from your gut to your skin intact. There’s just no conduit.
“I don’t see how eating collagen is different from eating a steak,” he said.
Le gasp! I couldn’t confirmation bias myself out of this one.
Raines explained that collagen has an unusual distribution of amino acid. When the enzymes in your stomach break down collagen-rich foods, like, say, the aforementioned steak, it produces a large amount of the amino acids proline and hydroxyproline. Raines says that he’s never heard of anyone being proline deficient, but if for some reason a person was on a bizarre diet and that was the case, then ingesting collagen could technically be helpful.
While I had Raines on the phone, I had to ask him one last Tough Question:
When I’m walking down the aisles of Walgreens and I see shelves stocked full of “collagen boosting” cosmetic lotions — the ones I’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars on in $27 increments — are those fake, too?
Eh, kinda, he told me. It’s hypothetically possible that if your skin’s DNA double helix were to unwind due to a cut or damage, a topical collagen product’s unique triple-helix structure could conceivably fill in the gaps in that damaged skin DNA and act as a mortar for that dissolving structure. Hypothetically. Eek.
The only glimmer of good news is that Raines believes topical collagen products can effectively moisturize. At the end of our conversation, I just had one question left, and it was for myself:
Is it worth it, Claire?
Probably not, but I’ll keep pretending!
Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis; creative direction by Emily Zirmis.