Medically reviewed by Dr. Sandy Skotnicki
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 11/15/2019
With age comes wisdom! But that wisdom comes at a price, often accompanied by some unflattering changes to your skin. Fine lines and wrinkles may be the first visible signs of aging, but they are far from the last.
The structure of your skin actually changes on a biological level as it matures, and the rate of change accelerates with time.
Many age-related changes to your skin — think wrinkles and crepey skin — are thought to result from the degradation of collagen in your body and a reduction in the amount of collagen your body produces. Collagen is a protein naturally produced by your body, and it's a major structural component of skin and connective tissues.
With an abundance of collagen supplements on the market, it's important to understand what collagen is and how it works to support your skin. We’re going to break down the details of this essential protein, its role in skin health and beauty and top tips we’ve found for you.
Collagen is the most abundant protein in your body. It’s made up of amino acids and is the primary component of connective tissues. In addition to providing structure for your skin, collagen contributes to bone strength and muscle structure and supports blood clotting.
To give you a mental picture, collagen is like a glue that holds your skin, muscles, bones and connective tissues together. In fact, the word collagen comes from the Greek “kolla” meaning glue.
Collagen makes up about 75 percent of the skin’s dry weight and accounts for about 30 percent of total protein mass. There are 28 different types of collagen that have been discovered thus far, each serving a unique purpose. The most common, however, are types I through III, described below:
Type I — This type accounts for 90 percent of the body’s collagen and is comprised of densely packed fibers. Type I collagen provides structure for skin, bones, teeth, tendons, cartilage and connective tissues.
Type II — Made up of more loosely packed fibers, Type II collagen is found in the elastic cartilage that cushions the joints.
Type III — This type of collagen provides support for the structure of internal organs and skin, being a major component of the extracellular matrix.
Because collagen is such an essential component of skin structure, the integrity of your skin declines with age. In fact, it’s believed that collagen production starts to slow at a rate of one percent each year after the age of twenty.
Collagen production decreases even more as you enter menopause and can also be negatively impacted by environmental and lifestyle factors.
Natural collagen produced in the body is referred to as endogenous collagen. Synthetic collagen, like you would typically find in supplements and skincare products, is known as exogenous collagen.
All natural collagen in the body begins as procollagen, which the body synthesizes from three amino acids — glycine, hydroxyproline and proline — to form a triple helix. The triple helices are then linked together to create the elongated fibers that make up skin, bones, cartilage, organs and connective tissues.
The process of collagen synthesis is very complex, involving over a dozen modifications to the molecule, many of which are facilitated by key enzymes. Ascorbic acid or vitamin C also acts as a cofactor for collagen synthesis.
To support collagen production, your body needs high-quality proteins to provide natural sources of glycine and proline.
As previously mentioned, your body produces collagen by combining amino acids and certain nutrients. The best food sources for amino acids are protein-rich animal foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products, as well as certain plant sources like beans and legumes.
Adequate intake of certain nutrients like vitamin C, copper and zinc are also needed to help your body produce collagen, so include fresh fruits, veggies and whole grains in your diet as well.
If you want a quick dose of concentrated collagen, sip a bowl of bone broth. Bone broth is made by boiling down the bones of chickens or other animals into a collagen-rich gelatin.
Collagen peptides in the form of oral supplements have been linked to improved hydration, elasticity and wrinkling in human skin.
In one double-blind study of 69 women aged 35 to 55 years, oral supplementation with 2.5g or 5.0g of collagen hydrolysate or placebo was administered once daily for eight weeks. Both the collagen hydrolysate groups showed statistically significant improvements over the control group in skin elasticity.
A second study of post-menopausal women taking collagen peptides as a nutritional supplement drink yielded similar results. Women taking the supplement showed a significant reduction in wrinkle depth and visible improvements in skin elasticity and hydration.
It’s hypothesized that the beneficial effects of oral collagen supplements are due to their ability to trigger the body to increase collagen production on its own.
Perhaps even more important to help slow down the age-related effects of decreased collagen is avoiding environmental and lifestyle factors that can destroy collagen.
Here are some of the top things that can damage collagen:
Smoking — Cigarettes contain nicotine and countless other chemicals that can damage your lungs and blood vessels. A study out of the Department of Dermatology at the University of Oulu in Finland also revealed a correlation between smoking and reduced collagen production.
Too much sun — Excessive exposure to UV rays causes collagen to break down more rapidly. It penetrates the middle layer of skin, causing an abnormal buildup of elastin, which produces enzymes that break down collagen.
Pollution – Particulate matter in the air has been shown to have negative effects on human skin, presenting issues like inflammation and even direct impairment of collagen synthesis.
Sugar and refined carbs — High intake of sugar and refined carbs increases your rate of glycation, a process in which blood sugars attach themselves to protein molecules, forming new compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs). These AGEs damage nearby proteins, making collagen brittle, weak and more prone to degradation.
On top of these dietary and lifestyle factors that are within your control, there are several that aren’t. Certain autoimmune diseases produce antibodies that target collagen and even genetics can impact your body’s ability to produce or utilize collagen properly.
Not only should you avoid behaviors and factors that destroy collagen, but you should engage in healthy skin habits as well.
One of the most important? Wear sunscreen. Frequent sun exposure can lead to a decrease in the skin’s collagen content, contributing to visible signs of aging. Wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 is the best way to protect your skin from harmful UV radiation and its collagen-damaging effects.
Collagen is an essential protein that plays a key role in support and structure for your skin, muscles, bones and connective tissues. Though your body produces it naturally, your collagen levels will start to decline in adulthood and that can lead to the formation of fine lines and wrinkles.