7 Cruelty-Free & Vegan Collagen Alternatives for Your Skin

If you want your skin to glow without harming animals, here’s what studies show actually works.

A woman applying skincare product
Credit: Cottonbro Studio

Explainer Beauty Health

Over the past decade or so, collagen has become a buzzy topic in health and beauty circles. Celebrities like Kate Hudson and Jennifer Aniston have started hocking it, and athletes and fitness influencers seemingly can’t live without it. Though collagen is found naturally in the bones, cartilage and skin of all mammals, your body produces less of it as you age, leading to wrinkles and weaker bones. Fans of collagen say it erases wrinkles, promotes healing and strengthens bones. Hence the massive demand for it: the collagen market raked in $9.76 billion dollars in 2022 alone. But is it necessary to kill animals for collagen if plant-based alternatives exist? Not so much.

First, it’s worth knowing that this so-called miracle ingredient may not be all it is cracked up to be. Not only is the science behind collagen disputed, but the skyrocketing demand for the product — which is typically derived from the skins and bones of animals — is fueling deforestation, devastating Indigenous communities and further bolstering factory farming.

Luckily, you don’t need to consume the ground-up bones and skin of cows to achieve collagen’s purported benefits. There are a wealth of vegan and cruelty-free alternatives to animal collagen on the market.

Vitamin C

Sure, ingesting collagen in the form of a pill, powder or fruity beverage might increase your body’s overall collagen levels. But even better than that is promoting your body’s ability to produce collagen on its own. Vitamin C is one of the best known ways to both boost collagen production and help your body maintain the collagen it already has.

While there is some research suggesting that topical Vitamin C might not always bypass the skin barrier, other studies suggest that, when Vitamin C is applied topically, this powerful antioxidant can help reduce dark spots, even skin tone and reduce the appearance of fine lines and scars. Preclinical studies of Vitamin C have also demonstrated that ingesting Vitamin C supplements can help accelerate bone, soft tissue and tendon healing after an injury by aiding your body’s ability to synthesize collagen.

Recommendations for Using Vitamin C

Look for a Vitamin C serum or moisturizer that contains l-ascorbic acid, which is thought to be the most active and effective, at a concentration of between 10 and 20 percent. Also check to make sure it has a pH lower than 3.5 (or between 5 and 6 for sensitive skin). For Vitamin C serums that are both effective and cruelty- free, check out the Glow Maker Vitamin C Serum from Maelove — a dermatologist favorite that contains other hardworking ingredients like ferulic and hyaluronic acid — or Paula’s Choice C15 Super Booster, a fast-acting serum that will visibly brighten and smooth your skin. For a cheaper alternative, try TruSkin’s Vitamin C Serum.

To use, simply apply Vitamin C as part of your normal skincare routine after washing your face. But remember: Vitamin C can cause some redness or irritation, so be mindful when you first start integrating it into your routine. Vitamin C is notoriously unstable, so once your Vitamin C turns a dark amber color, it is time to buy a new bottle.


Retinol is a skincare powerhouse. Name a skincare concern and retinol can likely solve it. This highly effective ingredient, which is derived from Vitamin A, is used to treat acne, shrink pore size, smooth out uneven skin tone and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Retinol penetrates beneath the outer layer of your skin to the dermis, helping to fuel skin cell regeneration, neutralize free radicals and boost natural production of elastin and collagen. With retinol proven to achieve so much for your skin, there is little reason to turn to collagen for the same effects.

Recommendations for Using Retinol

If you have heard of retinol, you’ve probably also heard that it is incredibly harsh. While retinol use can come with its own set of side-effects like redness, irritation and peeling, all of this can be avoided with proper use. If you are a retinol beginner, start out by applying a pea-sized amount to clean skin three nights a week. Once your skin has adjusted, you can work your way up to using larger amounts every other night, and eventually apply it as part of your nightly skincare routine. Just don’t forget that retinol makes your skin more sensitive to sunlight, so be sure to use sunscreen before you go outside.

While you can be prescribed a more powerful retinoid like Tretinoin by a dermatologist, there are many cruelty-free, over-the-counter retinol products that are effective, and may not cause the intense side-effects of a more irritating retinoid.

For more affordable retinols that won’t irritate your skin, try Versed’s Gentle Retinol Serum or Mad Hippie’s Super A Serum. If you are looking to splurge, treat yourself to Dermalogica’s Dynamic Skin Retinol Serum, which packs the skin-transforming punch of a more powerful retinoid, without the irritation or need for a prescription.


If retinol sounds a little intense for you, you could check out a gentler, plant-based alternative like bakuchiol. This ingredient is extracted from the seeds of the Psoralea corylifolia (nicknamed “babchi” or “bakuchi”) plant, which has been a mainstay in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicines for centuries. While research into the efficacy of bakuchiol is quite limited, some studies suggest that bakuchiol may help reduce fine lines, even skin tone and increase skin firmness by stimulating collagen receptors in the skin.

Recommendations for Using Bakuchiol

Try Ogee’s Natural Retinol Bakuchiol 2% Elixir — a beautifully packaged concentration chock full of natural ingredients — or the Inkey List’s 1% Bakuchiol Moisturizer. You can also find other gentle retinol alternatives from brands like Tatcha and Indie Lee.

Hyaluronic Acid

Hydration is absolutely key to smooth and supple skin, and your skin can’t stay hydrated without hyaluronic acid, a powerful humectant that can help your skin retain moisture. Like collagen, hyaluronic acid is naturally found in the body but decreases as we age, so adding hyaluronic acid into your skincare routine can be immensely helpful. Hyaluronic Acid is an intensely hydrating ingredient that can help reduce the formation and appearance of wrinkles by keeping your skin supple, flexible and soft.

Recommendations for Using Hyaluronic Acid

Studies have found improved skin moisture when hyaluronic acid is ingested, as well as when it’s applied topically. Some studies have even shown that topical hyaluronic acid can accelerate wound healing and relieve painful joints.

You can find hyaluronic acid as a star ingredient in many moisturizing serums. Try Versed’s Moisture Maker or Youth to the People’s Triple Peptide and Cactus Oasis Serum. Hyaluronic acid also works well as a stand-alone product, like this affordable, no-frills version from the Ordinary.

Synthetic Collagen

If you still want a little collagen in your life, you may want to give lab-made collagen a try. Like the rise in cultured meat alternatives, scientists and businesses have been busy producing bio-designed collagen for years. Companies like Geltor and Aleph Farms have developed cell-cultured collagen alternatives that could potentially replace the need for animal-derived collagen products. As with animal-derived collagen, however, solid research into the overall efficacy of synthetic collagen is lacking, especially when it comes to reducing wrinkles and improving overall skin health.

Keep in mind that, like animal-derived collagen, the molecules in synthetic collagen are too large to penetrate beneath the top layer of your skin when applied topically. If you want a product that will stimulate your body’s overall production of collagen, you are better off sticking with retinoids, Vitamin C and sun protection.

However, synthetic collagen has been shown to be an effective topical moisturizer, so while synthetic collagen certainly won’t increase your body’s overall collagen levels, it may instead have a role to play in supporting skin hydration and elasticity, which could in turn potentially reduce the appearance of fine lines.

Recommendations for Using Synthetic Collagen

You can find these bio-designed collagen peptides in products like Youth to the People’s Polypeptide-121 Future Cream or the Inkey List’s Pro-Collagen Multipeptide Booster, both of which have formulas that hydrate skin while also stimulating your skin’s natural collagen production.

Remember that synthetic collagen is typically different from vegan collagen products, which do not contain pure or synthetic collagen at all, but rather a mix of ingredients like Vitamin C, Zinc and copper that may help boost your body’s own collagen production. The efficacy of vegan collagen blends really depends on your body’s ability to absorb these collagen-stimulating ingredients and produce more collagen as a result.

Aloe Vera

Who amongst us hasn’t slathered our skin with aloe vera to treat a nasty sunburn? This highly soothing, gentle ingredient is derived from a sturdy, cactus-like plant that thrives in hot, dry environments like Mexico and Arizona. Aloe Vera is proven to help naturally increase the body’s collagen production when applied to wounds or burns.

And aloe vera might do even more than we once thought. One Japanese study found that dietary aloe vera supplements improved skin elasticity and the appearance of facial wrinkles, and another study showed overall skin improvement benefits. Yet another study showed that aloe vera fueled collagen production and wound healing in rats when consumed orally, as well as when it was applied topically.

Recommendations for Using Aloe Vera

Aloe Vera is likely most useful when applied directly to the skin in the form of a moisturizer or gel. TrySeven Minerals’ Aloe Vera Gel for the body, which delivers all the soothing and refreshing benefits of traditional aloe vera products without the dreaded tackiness. If you want to apply aloe vera to your face, you’ll want to look for a gentle product that won’t irritate the skin or clog your pores. Dr. Barbara Strum’s Aloe Vera Gel is pricey, but has an effective blend of ingredients that will smooth and hydrate your skin without any irritation. For a cheaper alternative, try the Ordinary’s Aloe 2% + NAG 2% Solution, which is also effective for treating acne.

A Plant-Rich Diet

One of the easiest ways to boost collagen production in your body is to simply eat a healthy, plant-rich diet. Leafy greens, nuts and legumes are always a great way to stimulate collagen production and ensure you are getting all of the essential nutrients for healthy skin and bones. But you can make more intentional dietary choices to turn your body into a collagen-producing powerhouse.

Zinc is a key factor in your body’s natural production and synthesis of collagen, and is also key to cell repair. While you can take a Zinc supplement, Zinc is also found in foods like cacao, seeds, nuts, kidney beans, lentils and oats.

In addition, a holy grail trio of amino acids — lysine, glycine and proline — are also necessary for your body to produce collagen on its own. Proline helps with skin health and wound healing. Glycine regulates sleep, balances blood sugar levels and promotes tendon repair. And lysine is foundational to the synthesis of connective tissues and bone growth. To better integrate this collagen-boosting triumvirate in your diet, up your intake of tofu, beans, spinach, beats, nuts, apples, cabbage and whole grains.

And don’t forget about Vitamin C. Foods like citrus, tomatoes, peppers, kiwis and strawberries are packed with Vitamin C and will naturally help your body synthesize collagen, all without a pill or supplement.

The Bottom Line

The collagen hype may still be going strong, but with a healthy diet and a few diligent skincare swaps, you can achieve all of the benefits of collagen without having to worry about its questionable efficacy, or the negative impact it has on people, animals and the environment.

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