What Is Collagen—and Where Does It Come from?
Collagens are a protein peptide that comprises 30 percent of our body’s total protein mass—making them the most abundant protein in mammals. “It’s the structural protein of the body and the stress-resistant material of the skin,” says Dr. Maral K. Skelsey, MD, director of the Dermatologic Surgery Center and clinical associate professor of Dermatology at Georgetown University. “Found in the skin as well as tendons, cartilage, ligaments and linings of bones and blood vessels, it allows the body and the skin to retain its shape and resist tearing and deformation,” she explains.
The Different Types of Collagen
Because of its fibrous nature, collagen is often referred to as the body’s “scaffolding,” supporting and connecting tissues and internal organs. Think of it as the glue that holds everything together. There are 28 types of collagen, with Type I, II and III being the most common (constituting 80 to 90 percent of our body’s collagen supply).
- Type I is the most common form of collagen in the body. It forms the structure of your skin, bones, organs and tendons. (Because of its role in supporting skin, this is often the type of collagen you’ll want to look for in beauty products.)
- Type II collagen is a building block of cartilage, the flexible connective tissue found in joints. Research suggests that type II collagen may be useful in reducing joint pain.
- Type III collagen is found in a variety of organs (such as the lungs) as well as the skin. It’s usually found alongside type I collagen and helps it do its job of supporting skin, bones and more.
The Skin Benefits of Collagen
Among other things, collagen is responsible for keeping skin firm, supple and smooth. Research shows that ingesting collagen can improve the overall look and feel of skin. A study published in the journal Skin Pharmacology and Physiology found that women who took a collagen supplement once a day had marked improvements in skin elasticity after a month’s time. The women also showed higher levels of hydration in the skin at the end of the study.
Collagen also improves elasticity, which reduces the appearance of stretch marks and cellulite. A study published in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology states that while nothing can get rid of stretch marks altogether, collagen injections are one treatment that can help prevent new stretch marks from forming and fade existing ones. This study also explains that topical skin care treatments that increase collagen production can help diminish the appearance of stretch marks as well.
When it comes to collagen’s ability to reduce the look of cellulite, a study published in the Journal of Medicinal Foods found that women who took collagen supplements for six months showed an improvement in the appearance of their moderate cellulite at the end of the study. (Like stretch marks, there’s nothing that can totally remove cellulite.) The study authors explain that collagen is able to restore “dermal structure,” which is what gives it the ability to smooth the look of cellulite.
How Collagen Breaks Down
Unfortunately, our body inevitably loses collagen over time. Starting in our 20s, its production goes down by 1 percent each year. “Collagen fibers are degraded by enzymes and synthesis can be diminished by UV exposure from the sun, which can lead to photoaging or wrinkling,” explains Dr. Skelsey. The breaking down of collagen is also further affected by other factors such as pollution, smoking, alcohol and stress.
But all is not lost. According to Dr. Harry Glassman of SkinClinical, “Collagen production can be increased by improving the metabolism of the skin.” Laser and ultrasound procedures can help encourage the production of collagen, with topical retinoid and retinol being alternatives to in-office procedures. Collagen supplements—particularly those with collagen-boosting ingredients like vitamin C, zinc and hyaluronic acid—and a healthy diet and lifestyle, can also help prevent the destruction of collagen.