Even though it’s the season for pumpkin spice lattes, the hottest internet coffee trend doesn’t actually make the drink taste any better. Instead, skincare obsessives are paying upward of $8 for lattes infused with collagen, a flavorless protein that purports to improve skin and slow down the aging process.
If you spend any amount of time on #skintok, the side of TikTok that’s totally devoted to beauty and skincare, it’s likely that you’ve heard about collagen-spiked drinks. The app is replete with recipes for homemade matcha drinks infused with vegan collagen, and oat milk lattes or fruity teas with a scoop of powdered collagen whisked in at the end. The collagen is barely noticeable in the beverage, perhaps making the texture of your latte a little thicker but otherwise offering nothing in terms of flavor. But it promises a slew of health benefits that include making joints more flexible and fixing “dull, lackluster skin.”
In recent years, a simple cup of coffee in the morning has been transformed into a new opportunity to hack your body, whether that’s by sipping “adaptogenic” mushrooms that promise better brain health, or literally whipping butter (or MCT oil) into a cup of coffee because it promises that it will help consumers stay more focused. As people have gotten into the idea of making their drinks do more for them, the “functional beverage” category, or drinks that promise a wide range of health benefits in addition to quenching thirst, has ballooned into a $39 billion market.
With the collagen latte craze, the claims are pretty simple. Collagen is a protein that’s hugely important to the human body, and is responsible for making skin look plump, young, and elastic. As we age, humans naturally produce less collagen each year. “Most people notice as they get older, their skin might get a little thinner or more wrinkled, a little more saggy, and part of that can be from decreased collagen,” says Dr. Allison Darland, a professor of dermatology at the University of Michigan School of Medicine. “The collagen that you had is being degraded and not being replaced or repaired in the same way, and that can affect the appearance of your skin.”
The idea is that adding back collagen in the form of supplements made from fish, chicken, or algae will improve skin firmness and, ultimately, make those who consume it look younger. (In addition to powdered collagen supplements, the purported power of collagen has also fueled the popularity of bone broth, which is both used in recipes and sipped like a mug of tea.) But does adding collagen to your latte actually improve the quality of your skin? Science isn’t exactly sure yet — studies on the ingredient’s efficacy are scant, and often funded by the companies that sell it — but the internet is full of both experts and average folks singing the praises of collagen lattes. There does at least seem to be some science behind how ingesting collagen might work to improve the appearance of skin, and it’s not as simple as one might think.
“I think a lot of scientists quickly dismiss collagen, but there is a plausible mechanism for how it could work,” says Michelle Wong, the Australian chemist and science educator behind popular beauty blog Lab Muffin Beauty Science. “They think that it works because you eat the collagen and it gets absorbed by the body and reformed into collagen, but for about the last 10 years, that hasn’t been the theory behind how collagen works for skin. The theory is actually that it has more of a signaling role, so it works more like a drug.” Put simply, instead of the collagen molecules in the supplement attaching to your skin to make it firmer or plumper, they encourage the body to make more of its own natural collagen to achieve the same effect.
Those collagen-skeptical scientists Wong mentioned aren’t afraid to take to TikTok with their opinions, either. There are almost as many videos of experts debunking the efficacy of consuming collagen in food and drink. Some argue that there isn’t enough research to indicate whether or not it can survive the highly acidic human stomach in order to be absorbed by the body, while others claim that there’s no mechanism for collagen you eat (or drink) to end up back in your skin.
In one viral TikTok, popular science educator Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki argues that collagen molecules are too large to be absorbed by mucosa, or cells responsible for processing nutrients, in the stomach. “There’s no way a massive collagen peptide, made from a thousand amino acids, will fit,” Kruszelnicki says. “The collagen you ingest is broken down into individual amino acids, and there’s no way they will automatically regroup to form collagen and smooth out wrinkles.”
Darland views the issue similarly. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense that such a large protein would be absorbed in the gut and then make its way back to the skin in any sort of functional capacity,” she says. “There’s no evidence to suggest that taking collagen by mouth actually benefits in any way in terms of improving collagen production.”
A big part of the problem, as Wong notes, is that much of the clinical research that’s looking into the efficacy of collagen on skin is being conducted — or funded — by the companies that want to sell you collagen. “Most of the studies in peer-reviewed journals that are published on cosmetic science are usually funded by companies,” Wong says. “There’s always the issue of bias. Companies only really have an incentive to fund studies that will help their products.”
When it comes to things that might actually improve your skin, both Darland and Wong agree that the ingredient most proven to improve collagen production — and overall anti-aging — isn’t something you can eat. Topical retinoid creams, like prescription-only tretinoin, are backed by countless studies attesting to their efficacy at reducing collagen degradation and improving the appearance of skin. Wearing sunscreen has also been shown to minimize collagen degradation and other signs of aging skin.
It’s unclear why exactly the morning cup of coffee, an essential part of life for so many people, has become a site of self-improvement. Maybe it’s because we feel guilty about relying on that boost of caffeine to get the day started, or perhaps it’s because we’re looking to become better people in whatever way possible. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t look like adding a scoop of ground-up bovine hides to your morning beverage will make any of that happen.