Inside Instagram's collagen obsession

Why beauty bloggers rave about a supposedly magic cure for aging skin.

“Do you remember when brothing became our collective national hobby last year?” Claire Carusillo asked Man Repeller readers in 2016. “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.”

Bone broth (or, as I like to call it, “broth”) remains popular today. The Whole Foods down the street from my apartment slings single-serving mason jars of it for $8 (!). But another beauty trend has become even more intriguing.

On Instagram, in magazines, and on beauty blogs all over the Internet, people debate the merits of a specific broth ingredient: collagen.

Collagen is a structural protein that accounts for roughly one quarter of the body’s total protein, giving skin its elasticity and plumpness – and so it’s revered as a secret anti-aging weapon. Ingesting collagen has deep roots in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which takes a more holistic approach to beauty than most Western traditions.

“Western anti-aging approaches focus on wrinkles and other aging signs that are already present,” one TCM magazine says. “But Chinese herbs are used to help your body’s self-healing capacity correct the conditions that cause wrinkles in the first place.”

This outlook is about prevention. A well-nourished body that’s fully stocked with the amino acids, proteins, vitamins, and minerals should reflect that healthy through lustrous skin, hair, and nails. Many of the herbs prescribed for skin ailments are referred to as “adaptogens,” which restore the body’s balance and resolve signs of imbalance (like premature wrinkles, dullness, or acne).

Instead of expensive topical serums or lotions, TCM practitioners often prescribe food therapy – a diet specially designed to replenish collagen in aging skin. By the time you reach 50 or 60, your skin might have less than half the amount of collagen that kept it firm and springy when you were 20 or 25.

This diet includes collagen-rich foods ranging from animal, poultry, and fish skins and bones to white fungus. One of the most popular cures is ejiao, a cure crafted from donkey skin. Donkey skin has been a popular beauty remedy since the first century BC and was even a favorite of Empress Dowager Cixi, who ruled at the turn of the 20th century.

In 2016, Chinese manufacturers produced 5,600 tons of ejiao – a sharp uptick from the 2,300 tons they produced just three years earlier. Donkey skin comes in gelatin bars or as a syrup that can be incorporated into food or tea, and the price keeps rising. Once a home remedy, ejiao is now a luxury product with a seemingly limitless export market.

Back in the states, people tend to be more squeamish. Collagen supplements come in a few forms, sometimes charmingly referred to as “maritime,” “bovine,” and “chicken.” This is a euphemism that obscures the truth of collagen: Its innocuous, vanilla- and berry-flavored powders are made from the dried and ground skin, connective tissues, and bones of animals and fish.

So, it’s clear that people are willing to spend serious money on collagen supplements. But can collagen make you pretty?

Some scientists say yes. In an often-cited study published in 2013, 100 women who ingested 2.5 grams of collagen peptide per day for eight weeks had 20% less wrinkle depth around their eyes. Best of all, the results lasted – the women’s skin remained more moisturized and elastic than other women in their age group who received a placebo.

But the study’s relatively small sample size raised some eyebrows. Most studies seem to focus on 50 or so people, and many have overt or hidden ties to the collagen supplement industry. And supplements are never subject to the same scrutiny as prescription drugs, causing some to fear the presence of heavy metals or even mad cow disease (although this also seems unlikely).

Still, most dermatologists seem to agree that collagen doesn’t pose much of a threat, other than the risk of wasting a little money if the cure doesn’t do the trick for your skin. In America, where people rarely eat the skin or cook with the bones of animals, collagen might help make up the difference.

And if you decide collagen powder isn’t for you, you can always drink some broth.

Something else

I’m in between jobs this week, and my new role is 100% remote. Since I’ll suddenly be home much more than I used to be, I’ve been reflecting on how my apartment is organized and whether there are things I’d like to change. (A few easy and fun things to start: I had to buy a desk, and my boyfriend picked out this bookshelf for us, which is literally $1,000 less than anything comparable we looked at.)

Lucky for me, this reflection is perfectly timed to a bigger cultural reckoning with capitalism and the sheer volume of stuff we have in our lives.

My favorite article of 2019 so far is Nicole Clark’s story about her own time as a professional organizer, and how women become the burdened curators of domestic space.

And if you want to dive down the Marie Kondo rabbit hole a bit deeper, definitely read Kyle Chayka on Netflix’s new minimalist shows and Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s profile of Kondo herself.

Illustrations by Anna Doherty