When discussing skin health, the benefits of collagen are often highlighted and praised. However, with the emergence of vegan cosmetic care ranges, brands are increasingly proposing and incorporating plant-based collagen into skincare formulas to meet the needs of the skin, which is fundamentally derived from animal or marine sources. But can we truly speak of vegan collagen?
Does plant-based collagen truly exist?
Can the traditionally used animal or marine collagen be vegan?
With changing needs, bovine, porcine, avian, ovine, or marine collagen does not align with the vegan lifestyle of some individuals. Thus, recently, an equivalent novelty exclusively extracted from various plants has emerged, the aim of which is to stimulate and support the natural production of collagen, given that it slows down by about 1.5% per year from the twenties onwards.
This would be a "greener" alternative, more environmentally friendly, involving neither intensive fishing nor animal exploitation than traditional animal collagen, which would act as a natural activator of collagen production. But make no mistake, there is no plant-based source of collagen from a biological standpoint. Simply because plants neither produce nor contain it.
The collagen is a structural protein found exclusively in the animal kingdom. It provides mechanical resistance to stretching and structure to many connective tissues in the body. Collagen also acts as a signalling molecule that controls biological functions and cell behaviour during development, growth, and tissue repair. This is why it is found in many parts of the human body, including but not limited to the skin, bones, ligaments, cartilage, muscles, blood vessels, etc.
Thus, labelling it as "vegan" or "vegetarian" is nonsensical. Indeed, the "plant-based collagen" offered today is actually glycoproteins extracted from yeast which are believed to have properties almost similar to those of collagen naturally present in the body. As a reminder, glycoproteins are actually heteroproteins that contain a polypeptide chain covalently linked to one or more oligosaccharide groups (complex sugar) to form water-soluble compounds.
Seemingly, this source of collagen could provide the building blocks (amino acids) for its biosynthesis in specialised cells (fibroblasts, chondrocytes). However, unlike animal-sourced collagen, it cannot act as ligands, meaning it cannot bind to the receptors of the fibroblast membrane and stimulate the production of new collagen. Furthermore, plant proteins do not contain all the amino acids found in collagen, nor are they in the correct proportions, thus they cannot claim to reconstruct collagen with this partial contribution.
Collagen is composed of three polypeptide chains made up of several amino acids, of which glycine, proline, hydroxylysine, and hydroxyproline are exclusive to it.
Which type of collagen is used in Typology skincare products?
In line with our ethical and environmental commitments, we have decided to incorporate into the formula of our skincare products a recombinant collagen obtained from plant cell cultures through bio-engineering methods, yielding the same type of result as collagen produced from animal/marine-based products.
In practical terms, our plant-based collagen is actually a biomimetic fragment of the sequence of native human type I collagen, complete with post-translational hydroxylations that allow it to be fully functional. This has been cloned into an expression vector and transcribed in vitro, then inserted and produced in wild plant cells as biofactories (Nicotiana benthamiana).
NAING M. W. & al. Production of recombinant collagen: current status and challenges. Engineering Biology (2017).
FERTALA A. Three decades of research on recombinant collagens: Reinventing the wheel or developing new biomedical products? Bioengineering (2020).