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The Truth about Collagen and Younger Looking Skin

Updated: Nov 27, 2020

For the skin obsessed, hearing the word “Collagen” and "younger skin" in the same sentence is definitely a turn on.

From reading last week’s post, The Skin and its Layers, you know that collagen is a protein naturally found in the dermis (the meat of the lasagna), the thickest layer of the skin. But what is collagen? How does it impact the skin and body over time? Is it something that you can put on your face? Do you eat it?

What is Collagen?

Collagen impacts more than just your skin and a young healthy look. Collagen is a type of structural protein (protein that provides structural elements to tissue) that makes up the human connective tissue (think cellular glue that connects the body’s tissues). Collagen is all over the body and, in fact, makes up 1/3 of the human body’s protein. When you think of bones, tendons, cartilage, hair and nails, know that collagen is the building block. This protein is special, largely due to it’s fibrous structure. Let me explain.

Collagen Molecules Diagram

A collagen molecule is made up of three strings of amino acid chains (what makes up proteins) that are tightly linked and spiralled around each other. Thousands of these collagen molecules cross-link and bind together to form long and braid-like shapes known as collagen fibres, important for giving the skin it’s structure and strength. Many collagen fibres reside within the dermis to provide skin tension (the greater the skin tension, the smoother and more youthful the appearance).

There are around 28 different types of collagen fibres in the body, but when we talk about the skin, muscles and bones, we are referring to Types 1 and 3 collagen proteins made by the cells in the connective tissue (90% of the body is made up of these). Types 1 and 3 collagens act as the scaffolding of the skin, important for holding the structure of the skin layers together firmly (i.e. what gives skin it’s strength, firmness, elasticity and shape).

Collagen Loss and Aging

I want you to imagine the texture of a baby’s cheeks, the smoothness, plumpness and youthfulness of them. Now, think of your grandparents’ cheeks: do you notice a difference? My guess is that your grandparents’ skin sags a little lower and has a few more lines than the baby’s. This is because, as you age, your body’s production of collagen slows and the bonds that hold collagen molecules together begin to break. Not to scare you, but, by the time you reach age 25, your body breaks down more collagen than it produces. Due to collagen’s large presence in connective tissue, your skin, hair and nails start to physically show signs of reduced collagen: fine lines, sagging and drying skin, thinning hair and brittle nails. And to come at you with a double punch, factors such as the sun (UV rays) and toxins such as smoking work against you by activating the process of collagen breakdown.

Collagen and Aging

Collagen Infused Skincare Products and Treatments

This may come as a shock to you, but those topical treatments (ie. cleansers, moisturizers, serums) that contain collagen and claim to replenish your natural protein loss in your skin are largely full of sh*t. Collagen’s braid-like structure is quite large and molecularly heavy, and would have an extremely difficult time, firstly, penetrating the epidermis and, secondly, even making it down to the dermis (where the good stuff happens). These products may feel super luxurious to the skin (due their ability to moisturize the surface), and their price tags may coincide, but they are not going to be able to reach into the deep layers of the skin where collagen is synthesized. You’re welcome, I just saved you $100.

If adding collagen infused products topically doesn’t replenish lost collagen, what can you do about collagen loss? To increase your collagen levels, you need ingredients or treatments that can synthesize new collagen in that area. Look for ingredients that boost collagen production such as retinoids, vitamin C, peptides and antioxidants. Also, consider skincare treatments that can promote localized collagen production. More on these collagen producing options in an upcoming post.

Examples of Products that boost Collagen in the skin

Oral Collagen Supplements

In addition to having collagen naturally in your body, collagen can be added orally, in powder form or through capsules. In most oral supplements, the collagen is synthetically chopped into smaller chunks called peptides through a process called hydrolyzation that can easily be absorbed into the bloodstream. Remember that collagen is a huge protein and does not penetrate the outer body or skin due to its size. However, as oral supplements impact the entire body, collagen is not targeted to a specific area where you might want a real collagen boost such as the face.

So, what is the verdict; should you include collagen in your diet or not?

I am not a doctor so, unfortunately, I can’t tell you what to do or what to buy, however, in a recent 2019 scientific review, there was encouraging results with the short and long-term use of oral collagen supplements for both skin health (strengthening, elasticity, hydration) and wound healing. However, in my opinion, collagen supplements are likely not necessary, and the scientific evidence is in its early stages with many conflicting viewpoints. However, I do believe that the future of collagen is promising. In the meantime, don’t panic. If you’re eating a high protein diet (chicken, beef, fish, eggs, beans and dairy), you’re already getting collagen naturally.

The Bottom Line

Collagen is youthful skin’s superpower that is lost as you age because of the breakdown of collagen bonds and external factors such as sun damage and toxins. You can’t prevent this from happening, but you can incorporate skin care treatments and ingredients such as vitamin c and antioxidants into your skin care routine that will promote the production of new collagen molecules and use sunscreens to prevent damage from UV rays. In terms of supplements, that is entirely up to you, but know that eating a healthy protein diet can also boost collagen levels in the body and, hopefully, improve overall health.

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