Understanding collagen and its role in youthful skin

By now, everyone has heard of collagen. It is a modern buzzword in the beauty industry and you have undoubtedly heard estheticians and spa-goers use the term. It is equally popular in the vitamins and supplements industry for its purported benefits, but few people actually have a good understanding of what collagen is and how it functions in our skin and body. Simply put, collagen is a special protein which the body produces that helps to maintain the correct structure of other proteins and tissues. In the beauty industry we hear the term because of its importance in maintaining the youthful appearance of facial skin. However, collagen is also present in muscles, bones and tendons. Endogenous collagen, or the collagen that your body naturally produces, decreases with age and, for that reason, the functions which collagen is responsible for, such as maintaining smooth, youthful skin reflect this decrease. Exogenous collagen, or the collagen which we utilize from outside sources such as facial cosmetics or supplements, are the products we use to attempt to elevate the overall levels of collagen in our skin and other tissues. Unsurprisingly, most of us would like to get (and keep) youthful levels of collagen so, in this article, we will discuss what actually works and what doesn’t when it comes to improving collagen levels.


Externally applied cosmetics are a popular, modern way to attempt to augment the natural levels of collagen found in the skin. However, as collagen is a large molecule, the pores on the surface of the skin cannot absorb it. For this reason, applying collagen topically will not do anything to raise the levels of collagen in your skin which means it will do nothing to fight fine lines and wrinkles. If you are searching for a topical solution to help raise the levels of collagen in your skin, you are better off going with a cosmetic product that  has amino acids as amino acids are smaller molecules which, to some degree, can be absorbed by the skin’s pores. Amino acids are also the building blocks of collagen and other proteins so, by applying amino acids topically, you are providing your body with the necessary resources to produce more of its own ( Endogenous ) collagen.


Another popular way to introduce exogenous collagen into the body for its purported benefits is through oral supplementation. Oral supplementation has more science supporting its purported benefits when compared with topical collagen application as there are randomized control trials which show that collagen supplements improve skin elasticity as well as joint mobility. However, some critics argue that these randomized control studies are funded by companies that sell collagen or who stand to benefit from a positive public perception of oral collagen supplementation. Also, with regards to oral supplementation or ingestion of collagen, the skin and joint benefits are not as direct as one might imagine. It is not like you consume collagen and then it travels right to your skin to fight wrinkles. Ingested collagen is actually broken down into its components (amino acids) and then those amino acids are distributed by the body to the areas where the body has the highest need for protein. As everyone is different, this may or may not include the skin. Therefore, supplementing with collagen is likely more effective than applying it topically but it is not a cure all for wrinkles and younger looking skin as one might hope.


So, if topical collagen is just a marketing gimmick and supplementing with collagen is only arguably beneficial, how does one increase the collagen in their skin? One way which is scientifically proven is to eat a diet rich in vitamin C. Vitamin C is proven to help the body better utilize and benefit from hyaluronic acid which is a gooey chemical the body produces. Hyaluronic acid also can be found in some foods such as oranges, lemons, limes, soy milk and sweet potatoes. Studies have indicated that hyaluronic acid can help boost collagen production and so optimizing your vitamin C intake and, therefore, your body’s use of hyaluronic acid is a good way to boost collagen. Ginseng and cilantro have also been shown to have beneficial effects on collagen levels in the skin without the side effects that chemical or pharmaceutical cosmetic ingredients may cause so there is no harm in trying them.


While cosmetics with collagen are essentially just marketing hype and collagen supplements are, at least partially, marketing hype, there are ways to naturally boost the body’s production of collagen. Foods that are high in Vitamin C and ginseng seem to be the best options for this. Additionally, we can always help to prevent accelerating the decrease of collagen in our skin by avoiding smoking, tanning beds, excessive amounts of time in the sun without sunscreen and by maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle.