Spend a minute or two looking at skincare products in your local drugstore and you’ll spot one ingredient in just about everything: collagen.
Collagen is a fibrous protein found in essentially all of your body’s tissue. It’s particularly abundant in your skin, where it plays an essential role in providing structural support and giving your skin its texture and appearance.
Like many other essential components of healthy skin, your body’s collagen levels deplete over time, due to both intrinsic and extrinsic factors.
Enter collagen lotions, supplements and other products. Formulated to increase collagen levels and slow down the effects of aging on your skin, these products often make big promises about reducing wrinkles and improving your skin’s appearance.
Below, we’ve dug into the science to explain exactly what collagen does, as well as the effects that aging can have on your body’s collagen production.
We’ve also shared what you can do to increase collagen levels, slow down the effects of aging on your face and enjoy smooth, great-looking skin as you get older.
Collagen is a fibrous protein. It’s the most abundant protein in the human body. In fact, research has found that collagen is the most abundant protein in the entire animal kingdom.
As a fibrous protein, collagen is found in your skin, organs, connective tissue and bones. It’s an essential component of the extracellular matrix — a complex scaffold of molecules that provides support for numerous different cell types throughout your body.
Collagen helps give your tissue its structure and strength, allowing it to tolerate stretching without being damaged.
In a way, you can think of collagen as a building block for your skin — a kind of natural adhesive that holds together the various forms of tissue that make up your body.
Although collagen is essential throughout your body, most people are primarily familiar with its role in your skin. As one of several key structural proteins, collagen provides your skin with its durability and thickness.
It also plays an essential role in supporting other key components of your skin.
For example, the collagen fibers in your skin provide support to elastin — a structural protein that gives skin its ability to return to its normal shape after contracting or stretching.
This allows your face to “bounce back” and return to its normal shape and appearance after you smile, frown, laugh or make other facial expressions.
As you grow older, your skin changes. Part of this change is intrinsic and is determined by your genes, while other parts of the aging process are extrinsic and driven by factors such as stress, diet and your level of exposure to sunlight.
One of the most significant age-related changes that occurs in your skin is a steady decrease in collagen turnover — the process by which your skin creates new collagen.
As you get older, your skin produces smaller amounts of collagen, as well as other skin proteins, such as elastin.
This decline in structural protein content causes your skin to gradually become thinner, less elastic and less able to retain its shape.
This is why many skin imperfections, such as fine lines and wrinkles, become more pronounced and common as you get older.
While this decrease in your body’s collagen production is part of the skin aging process, it’s not the only factor that causes your skin to change with age.
As you become older, your body’s subcutaneous fat content (the fat located just beneath your skin) decreases.
Your melanocytes (pigment-producing cells) decrease in number, giving your skin a paler, more translucent appearance.
Although many aspects of the aging process on your skin are unavoidable, it’s possible to slow down some aspects of skin aging with the right habits, skin care products and medications.
Because collagen plays such a major role in keeping your skin firm, elastic and less affected by the aging process, taking steps to support collagen production can help you to prevent wrinkles and other common signs of aging that affect your face.
You can support the production of collagen and increase your facial collagen level by focusing on healthy habits, taking collagen supplements and applying science-based skin care products to your face and other areas of skin affected by aging.
We’ve covered each of these steps, as well as the effect that each technique can have on your collagen level and skin health, in more detail below.
While it’s impossible to completely prevent age-related collagen loss, practicing healthy habits is a great way to limit the effects of extrinsic aging on your collagen production.
Try implementing the following habits to protect your skin and promote collagen production:
Limit your sun exposure. One of the biggest causes of collagen loss and skin aging is exposure to UV rays from the sun. In fact, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, UV radiation from sunlight is responsible for 90 percent of visible changes in your skin.To protect your skin and prevent collagen loss, try to limit the amount of time you spend in direct sunlight, especially during peak sunlight hours.
Apply sunscreen before you spend time outdoors. The most effective way to prevent sun exposure from damaging your skin is by wearing sunscreen when you spend time in sunny environments. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a broad-spectrum, SPF 30+ sunscreen to keep your skin protected from damage.
If you smoke, make an effort to quit. Research shows that smoking reduces collagen production. For example, in one study, researchers found that smokers had significantly lower collagen synthesis rates than their non-smoker counterparts.If you smoke, try to quit.
Eat collagen-rich foods. Many common ingredients, including chicken, bone broth and eggs, are rich in collagen.
Collagen is a popular active ingredient in anti-aging skin care products, including lotions, masks and other products available without a prescription.
Many of these products are marketed with claims that they reduce wrinkles and treat other signs of skin aging.
While studies on the effects of topical collagen are limited in scale, some research suggests that skin care products containing collagen may have anti-aging benefits.
Collagen peptides — small, bioavailable pieces of protein produced using animal collagen — are also available as dietary supplements.
These products are believed to enhance the activity of fibroblasts, which are cells found inside your connective tissue that produce and secrete collagen.
Research has found that dietary use of collagen, whether it’s in the form of natural collagen-rich foods or collagen supplements like a collagen peptide powder, improves the strength and appearance of the skin and nails.
In a variety of studies, researchers found that people who used collagen supplements showed improvements in skin elasticity, skin moisture, skin smoothness and in the appearance of lines, wrinkles and other signs of skin aging.
In addition to their potential benefits for your skin, research also suggests that dietary collagen supplements may also help reduce joint pain and treat bone and joint health conditions such as osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.
Some collagen supplements also include other ingredients for healthier skin and nails, such as biotin and vitamin C.
Our Collagen Protein Powder, which is formulated with 18 different amino acids, makes it easy to incorporate extra collagen into your diet.
Several skin care medications can increase collagen production and improve the appearance of your skin.
If you’d like to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and other signs of skin aging, one medication that’s worth looking at is tretinoin.
Tretinoin is a topical retinoid — a type of medication that’s derived from vitamin A. It’s commonly used as an acne treatment, but research also shows that it’s a highly effective topical treatment for many signs of aging.
In a 2006 review published in the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging, researchers noted that tretinoin cream helps to stop the degradation of collagen and improve collagen deposition.
Other retinoids, such as the popular over-the-counter skin care ingredient retinol, are also linked to increases in collagen production.
You can find tretinoin as one of several ingredients in our Anti-Aging Cream for Men, which uses a customized prescription formula to promote collagen production and renew your skin’s surface and texture.
In addition to using collagen creams, supplements and medications, it’s also possible to boost collagen production with skin resurfacing procedures.
This helps stimulate the growth of collagen-rich skin and gives the resurfaced skin a smoother, more consistent texture.
Beyond stimulating collagen production, resurfacing procedures can remove scars, treat acne and reduce the visibility of many common age-related skin blemishes, such as age spots and visible blood vessels.
These procedures are provided by dermatologists and plastic surgeons, with some procedures requiring multiple sessions for noticeable results.
Most collagen products are safe to use, with few people reporting side effects or allergic reactions.
However, topical products that contain collagen with other ingredients, such as creams that contain collagen and retinoids, may cause issues such as skin irritation and dryness.
If you’re worried about side effects from a topical product that contains collagen, it’s best to look up the other active ingredients before using the product.
As for collagen supplements, side effects aren’t common. Most collagen supplements are made using poultry, bovine or marine collagen.
If you have an allergy to chicken, beef, fish or shellfish, or if you have particularly sensitive skin, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider before considering these products.
Collagen is an essential component of strong, healthy and smooth skin. It’s also vital for optimal function in other parts of your body, including your blood vessels, joints and bones.
When it comes to your face, maintaining a healthy collagen intake and reducing the breakdown of collagen may help slow down the effects of aging, such as fine lines and wrinkles.
You can increase your collagen levels by caring for your skin, eating a balanced diet and adding a collagen supplement to your personal nutrition routine.
Worried about getting older? You can learn more about maintaining your skin and stopping the development of wrinkles, age spots and other common signs of aging in our guide to anti-aging skin care for men.
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Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.