It's the make-or-break molecule for healthy skin, but how much do you really know about collagen? ELLE investigates...
What Is Collagen?
The molecule equivalent of a Tom Ford lipstick – you can never have enough. 'Collagen is the most abundant structural protein found in skin and other connective tissues, and forms the foundations of strength and structure in the body,' explains leading aesthetic Doctor, Dr Maryam Zamani. Think of it as the glue that holds everything together.
It's basically your body's scaffolding: 'There are 16 types and 29 subtypes of collagen, and they support everything from the skin, ligaments, cartilage and bones because of their impressively flexible strength'.
Your skin's elasticity, strength and ability to replace dead skin cells (which make your skin look dull) comes down to collagen. It is the main component of our skin, making it the most important factor for visible skin health. But this sturdy support system naturally declines with age, leaving skin vulnerable to fine lines, wrinkles and loss of density.
Your Collagen Timeline
When we're young, our skin is crammed with strong, hardworking collagen molecules. But our body's natural collagen starts to decline (albeit slowly and steadily) as early as our late twenties until we hit menopause – aka the collagen tipping point. 'The peri-menopausal and post-menopausal period sees the most rapid decline in collagen, at 30%, due to the swift drop in oestrogen,' explains consultant Dermatologist, Dr Justine Hextall. At this point, the structure becomes increasingly disorderly - like single bricks being knocked out of a wall, or that frustratingly precarious Jenga tower. Depletion of collagen is inevitable, but, like any form of skin ageing, several factors are known to speed it up. But what are the most notable collagen aggravators?
The Anti-Collagen Offenders
'The peri-menopausal and post-menopausal period sees the most rapid decline in collagen, at 30%, due to the swift drop in oestrogen,' explains consultant Dermatologist, Dr Justine Hextall. At this point, the structure becomes increasingly disorderly - like single bricks being knocked out of a wall, or that frustratingly precarious Jenga tower.
Depletion of collagen is inevitable, but, like any form of skin ageing, several factors are known to speed it up. But what are the most notable collagen aggravators?
Is one of the biggest anti-collagen contributors, as it riles up enzymes that break down both collagen and elastin.
Excessive sun exposure…
Does this, too, as well as causing DNA damage to cells and affecting the skin's ability to protect itself.
Contains harmful free radicals that can damage skin's strength and integrity, in turn degrading collagen levels.
Is a so-called 'anti-nutrient', because it encourages depletion of essential vitamins and minerals from the body whilst encouraging oxidative stress to cells that can cause cellular damage.
Can actually crystallise in the skin (a process known as glycation) and damage collagen. Over long periods of time this can stiffen the skin and may accelerate visible ageing.
Burnt and processed meat...
Contains free radicals that can slow collagen-building processes, contribute to collagen breakdown encourage inflammation, which can damage delicate collagen structures.
Do Supplements Really Work?
There's been much debate over the efficacy of ingestible collagen supplements, with some swearing they don't make it past our gut in high enough volumes to make a difference. But with the global collagen market anticipated to reach $6.63 billion by 2025, formulas are advancing. 'Some collagen compounds may be destroyed during the digestive processes, [but] chances of absorption depend on the size of the compounds [known as peptides]' explains nutritional food therapist Alice Mackintosh.
'Use products that have been hydrolysed [structurally changed using water] into low molecular weight peptides that can pass through the gut wall and are more resistant to digestion. Nothing can replace a good diet, beauty regime and consistent sleep, but research shows they can help support skin's elasticity and hydration.'
Skin aside, research suggests that collagen supplements can help bones, joints and even gut health, and with growing research showing that a healthier gut can reduce everything from anxiety to bloating, it shouldn't be overlooked.
'Supplementation has been shown to nourish, repair and build new collagen on the gut membrane, which can reduce skin symptoms such as redness, dryness, irritation and conditions like acne and eczema', explains Mackintosh. But not all supplements are made equal: collagen gummy bears or waters are definitely not going to cut it.
What To Eat To Boost Your Collagen
by Alice Mackintosh
The skin needs a variety of nutrients to stay healthy. Eat your way to better skin with the following:
Vitamin C is integral for collagen creation and contributes to healthy cell turnover.
Found in: red peppers, kale, broccoli, strawberries.
Vitamin A is essential for protecting collagen structures in our cells.
Found in: sweet potato, carrots, dark leafy greens, dried apricots.
Zinc is crucial for collagen creation and can speed up the skin's healing processes.
Found in: meat, fish, sesame and pumpkin seeds.
Sulphur is an essential building block for collagen production and helps remove toxins.
Found in: eggs, broccoli, leeks, garlic.
The Pro-Collagen Skincare Routine
'Collagen is such a large molecule that penetration into the skin is difficult, so it's possible that the benefits seen in studies on synthetic collagen in skincare could simply come from skin hydration,' explains Zamani. But you can protect your collagen resources and trick your skin into creating more with topical products. Implement these collagen-boosting hacks.
1. Protect with SPF
Use a high-factor SPF that protects against both UVB and UVA rays (which have a longer wavelength able to penetrate clouds and glass).
2. Protect With Anti-Oxidants
Vitamin C in topical skincare boosts collagen production and helps inhibit the enzyme responsible for breaking down collagen; check the label for concentrations of 5-15%. It's also a powerhouse anti-oxidant.
3. Add Retinol
Retinol, part of the vitamin A family, is one of the few topical products repeatedly proven to stimulate collagen production and reduce wrinkles. The big guns.