Everything You Need To Know About Collagen And The Skin

A deep dive into the structural protein that keeps skin supple, sculpted, and supported.
Written by India Bottomley
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Everything You Need To Know About Collagen And The SkinJoel Muniz/Unsplash

If ever there was a beauty, skincare, and wellness buzzword that stands the test of time, ‘collagen’ would be it. You’ll be hard pressed to research anything related to skin health or aging without coming across the term. When it comes to plump, youthful skin, we know collagen is good and a lack of collagen is not. What’s often left out of conversations about collagen, however, is a deeper exploration of exactly what it is, how it’s produced, and the effect it has on skin quality.

Simply put, collagen gives the skin its structure and natural collagen levels start dropping pretty early in life (think: mid-twenties). But all is not lost. There are steps that can be taken to slow the declines and even stimulate new collagen production. Intrigued? Here, top dermatologists and nutritionists break down everything we need to know about the beautifying protein.

What Is Collagen?

Collagen is a protein that is naturally found in the human body. “It is a protein produced by the body that makes up something we call connective tissues,” says Angela Lamb, MD, a board certified dermatologist in New York City. “You can also consume collagen through external sources.” Aside from water and fat, the body is mainly made up of proteins – and collagen is the most ubiquitous of them.

There are different types of collagen, but type I makes up roughly 90 percent of the collagen in the human body. It is a vital component in bones, muscles, cartilage, and, yes, skin. “Collagen is a structural protein that provides rigidity and firmness to the skin,” says Brendan Camp, MD, a NYC-based board certified dermatologist.

Basically, collagen is an essential building block of healthy skin. “Collagen is the main component of the skin – in fact, 80 percent of our skin is formed from collagen,” explains Jennifer Hanway, a board certified holistic nutritionist. “It is found in the extracellular matrix of the skin, so it plays a pivotal role in the skin's structure and rigidity.” Said another way: “It really is the framework that keeps our skin supple, firm, and lifted,” she adds.

What’s the Relationship Between Collagen & Skin?

“The main role of collagen in the skin is to give it elasticity, bounce, and stretch,” Dr. Lamb says. That’s a lot of responsibility, which is why we’re sorry to say that, once you reach your mid- to late-twenties, natural collagen levels start declining at the rate of about one percent a year. “From the age of around 25, both the types of collagen and the amount of collagen in the skin begins to decrease, leading to dryer, thinning skin,” Hanways shares. Hormonal changes (think: menopause) and external forces (i.e. sun exposure, smoking, poor diet, etc.) can speed up the degredation process. “Poor diet, environmental factors, and stress can all negatively affect the quality and integrity of collagen in the skin,” she says.

Changes in the quality and quantity of collagen correlate to changes in the skin. “With the loss of collagen, the skin sags and develops the fine lines and wrinkles we associate with age,” Dr. Camp notes. The reason? “Collagen constitutes a large portion of the dermis, one of the layers of skin,” he explains. “Think of it like scaffolding off which other skin structures are supported.” The webbing of collagen, elastin, and hyaluronic acid found in the dermis that makes the skin supple, sculpted, and supported in our younger years, breaks down as we get older and aging fibroblasts (the makers of collagen and elastin) can’t produce enough to offset the loss.

Aging Skin vs Younger Skin Cross Section Illustration

It’s not uncommon to first notice these changes on naturally fuller areas of the face, like the cheeks. Then, you may find that the area around your eyes starts to look a little less plump. As for the rest of your body, the texture of your hair could start to change, your nails might become more brittle, and you may find you begin to experience joint pain or a loss of muscle mass.

To put a finer point on the timing, collagen production peaks in the twenties and starts decreasing at that annual one percent rate by the mid to latter part of the decade. For females, that continues until menopause, at which point collagen levels have a significant falloff. There is an estimated 30 percent drop in collagen during that phase, before stabilizing to a two percent yearly decline thereafter.

Where Does Collagen Come From?

As we've been talking about, the body makes its own collagen proteins. Fibroblasts are the cells in the connective tissues that produce collagen and elastin. Your body is constantly replenishing its natural supply to counteract the breakdown that occurs. When we are young and healthy, more collagen is created than lost – hence your firm, elastic, and resilient skin that bounces back quickly and efficiently heals itself. But, with age, that scale tips in the other direction as fibroblast activity slows.

In order for the body to function optimally and produce collagen in the first place, it requires proper nutrition. “All of the foods that we eat are broken down and absorbed through the process of digestion, then used for cellular growth and repair throughout the body,” Hanway explains. “Collagen is formed via multiple processes that need specific amino acids – the building blocks of protein – combined with vitamin and mineral cofactors.”

While Hanways says the nutrients from a diet high in amino acids, vitamins, and minerals promote collagen repair and growth, the opposite is also true. “If a person’s diet is lacking in these foods, then collagen repair and growth will be compromised,” she notes. But it’s not just what you aren’t eating that will negatively impact collagen production. “A diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates can actually damage collagen and elastin fibers in the skin via a process called glycation that can cause premature aging, fine lines, and wrinkles,” she cautions.

And then there is collagen supplementation. You’ve no doubt seen plenty of collagen powders and capsules promising to rejuvenate the skin. Research shows that collagen supplements can improve skin hydration, elasticity, texture, and density, but not all products are created equal (more on that below).

How Can You Boost Collagen Levels?

Just because your body's natural collagen levels decline over time doesn't mean there aren't ways to kickstart production. Eating a well-balanced diet, taking collagen supplements, adopting healthy lifestyle habits, and even trying certain skincare and aesthetic treatments can stimulate collagen production.

1. Diet

You are what you eat. To build collagen, the body makes procollagen from amino acids (i.e. glycine and proline), vitamin C, and minerals. Consuming a diet that is rich in these nutrients will give the body the fuel it needs to create natural collagen.

Eat This

  • For Amino Acids: Animal & fish protein
  • For Vitamin C: Guava, kiwi, citrus, berries, leafy greens
  • For Minerals: Oysters, cashews, sesame seeds, almonds

“Diets that contain animal and fish proteins can help collagen production, as they contain the specific amino acids that the body uses to form new collagen,” Hanway explains. “Adding protein-rich foods into our diets provides us with the raw materials necessary for collagen production.” She recommends “high quality animal proteins,” such as organic chicken, grass-fed beef, and wild-caught salmon. Bone broth is also “a great source of dietary collagen” that can be used for sipping or added to sauces, she notes.

As Hanway explains, vitamin C is an essential cofactor in the formation and stabilization of new collagen, so foods rich in the antioxidant vitamin are essential. “Guava and kiwi are the two fruits that are highest in vitamin C, but other citrus fruits, berries, and leafy greens are also great sources,” she says. Additionally, “copper, manganese, and zinc are the three minerals that play a key factor in collagen production,” she shares. They are, however, “often lacking in our modern-day diets,” she cautions. To up your intake, she suggests adding oysters, cashews, sesame seeds, and almonds to the menu.

While feeding your body what it needs to build collagen is paramount, there are also foods you can add to your diet to fortify your collagen reserves. “Fermented foods such as tempeh, yogurt, sauerkraut, and kombucha contain lactobacillus, a strain of probiotic bacteria that produces superoxide dismutase,” Hanway says. “Superoxide dismutase is a powerful antioxidant that may prevent collagen breakdown by reducing the production of free radicals.” Her advice: “Aim for one serving of fermented foods a day and consider supplementing with a good quality probiotic.”

2. Supplements

When we talk about supplements for skin, collagen is almost always part of the conversation. “I’ve supplemented with collagen powder for years and I recommend it to all my clients who want to look after their skin from the inside out,” Hanway shares. Clinical research and trials have shown that collagen supplements can support skin elasticity, minimize the appearance of fine lines, and boost moisture levels in the skin. “While even I was skeptical at first, there is strong research to support this,” Dr. Lamb says. “It is exciting.”

With that said, the type of supplement matters. “Hydrolyzed collagen is composed of low molecular weight small peptides, which means it is both highly digestible and easily absorbed and distributed in the human body,” Hanway explains. “When taken orally, it is absorbed into the bloodstream in the form of both collagen peptides and free amino acids that are then distributed around the body – especially to the skin – where they can stay for up to 14 days.”

When they reach the skin, Hanways says the collagen peptides and free amino acids have a two-fold benefit:

  1. They provide building blocks for the formation of collagen fibers.
  2. They stimulate the production of new collagen, elastin, and hyaluronic acid.

In order to enjoy the benefits of supplementation, it needs to come from the correct source. “I recommend choosing marine collagen from wild caught fish or bovine collagen from grass fed cows,” Hanway says. Collagen only exists in the animal kingdom, which means the concept of ‘vegan collagen’ is a little misleading. “There is no such thing as vegan collagen,” she notes. “Collagen powder is made from the skin or connective tissue of fish and animals.” If a supplement is marketed as vegan, it's probably better classified as a collagen booster and will likely contain ingredients like amino acids, vitamin C, vitamin E, and other botanicals that protect against collagen degradation. “There are some supplements available that contain the cofactors for collagen formation that may be helpful,” Hanway says.

When it comes to format, Hanway recommends a collagen powder over a collagen capsule because of the clinically significant serving size. “It takes around 10 grams a day to notice changes in the skin, and that amount is hard to get via a capsule,” she says.

As with any type of supplement, not all are created equal. “The conclusions behind research looking at collagen supplements are a mixed bag,” Dr. Camp cautions. “Some data supports the use of supplements, some does not, and some is biased as the makers of supplements produce it.” This is why research into the brand you are purchasing from is key.

3. Lifestyle

We don’t need to tell you that your lifestyle plays a role in the overall quality of your skin, and collagen is no exception. Unprotected exposure to damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays, poor sleep hygiene, smoking, not eating well, and stress can all cause the premature breakdown of collagen. When you are in your peak collagen-making years, you might not notice the effects of an all-nighter or sweet tooth, but, as natural production slows, the effects will become visible and compound. As such, there are some healthy habits you can adopt to kickstart your body's natural collagen production and protect what you already have:

  • Get enough sleep
  • Limit sun exposure
  • Manage stress
  • Quit smoking
  • Eat a well-balanced diet
  • Avoid sugar & alcohol
  • Use collagen-stimulating skincare

4. Skincare

You can’t have a conversation about inducing collagen production without talking about aesthetics and skincare. Let’s start with what you can do in-office. On the most non-invasive end of the spectrum, red light therapy has been clinically shown to improve intradermal collagen density. Sculptra® is a poly-L-lactic acid (PLLA) bio-stimulatory injectable that encourages the body to create new collagen, and Dr. Lamb says hyaluronic acid-based fillers can jumpstart production as well.

Aesthetic Treatments

  • Biostimulatory injectables
  • Thread lifts
  • Microneedling
  • Red light therapy
  • Resurfacing lasers
  • Radiofrequency

Thread lifts are also touted for their collagen-boosting abilities, as is microneedling (a.k.a. collagen induction therapy). Studies show the tiny needles penetrate the stratum corneum with minimal damage to the epidermis, though it leads to the generation of growth factors that then stimulate the production of collagen and elastin in the papillary layer of the dermis. And then there are energy-based modalities. “Most resurfacing lasers and radiofrequency devices stimulate collagen,” Dr. Lamb says. Consulting with a board certified dermatologist or plastic surgeon can help determine the best treatment plan for your anatomy.

Topical skincare can also play a role in collagen production. As Dr. Lamb shares, retinol and retinoids are perhaps best known active ingredients for collagen concerns. Bakuchiol is often touted as a gentler, plant-based alternative to the vitamin A derivatives, and research shows it doesn’t skimp on the collagen upregulating benefits.

Skincare Ingredients

  • Retinol & retinoids
  • Bakuchiol
  • Glycolic acid
  • Peptides
  • Vitamin C
  • Sunscreen

A member of the alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) family, glycolic acid is believed to increase collagen production by triggering the body’s natural healing response. Vitamin C is instrumental to collagen making and preserving in all forms, but, as a topical, the antioxidant plays a part in collagen synthesis and stabilization. Additionally, certain types of peptides can either slow the breakdown or increase the supply of collagen and elastin.

Finally, a word on sunscreen. In case you need another reason to double down on your sun care routine, unprotected exposure to UV rays speeds up the degradation of collagen. Wear a broad spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 every day as a first line of defense.

The Takeaway

Collagen is a protein that plays a crucial role in the body's makeup, including the structure of the skin. With age, natural collagen production slows and levels begin to decline, which leads to fine lines and wrinkles, thinning, dryness, and volume loss. From diet to supplements to at-home and in-office skincare, however, there are steps you can take to stimulate collagen for smoother, stronger, and more supple skin.

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INDIA BOTTOMLEYis a contributing writer for AEDIT.

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