The Collagen Skin Care Guide, straight from a Dermatologist

The Collagen Skin Care Guide, straight from a Dermatologist

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Collagen Skin Care

Collagen plays a very important role in the aging process.

Any cream that can get our bodies to produce more collagen is literally a fountain of youth for our skin. Because most people are chasing this fountain of youth, anti-aging has become a billion-dollar industry.

Unfortunately, there is much misinformation circulating about improve our collagen and stay looking younger.

The rest of the article will discuss what collagen is, what are the benefits of collagen, how to protect it, how to make more of it, what is collagen in skin care, and does topical collagen work.

The role of collagen in the skin

What is collagen?

Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body, comprising about 1/3 of the body’s protein content (1-4). It is found in skin, ligaments, cartilage, bone, tendons, organs, and vasculature.

Collagen is the main structural component of the skin, which provides strength and structure to the skin. There are many types of collagen, but type 1 is the most prevalent. It is the main type found in the skin.

Here are the 5 main types that account for 90% of the collagen found in the human body (1-4).

  • Type 1 – skin, tendon, vasculature, ligaments, organs, bone
  • Type 2 – cartilage
  • Type 3 – reticular fibers, skin, muscle, vasculature
  • Type 4 – basement membranes of cells
  • Type 5 – found in tissues containing type 1 collagen, hair, fetal

Our bodies produce collagen from amino acids, which are the building blocks of all proteins (1-4).  These small amino acids join together to form long chains. These long chains bind together the make thicker chains.

These thick chains coil around each other to form something called a triple helix. Then, the triple helices stack up to make large collagen fibrils.  Finally, these fibrils line up in parallel bundles to produce collagen fibers.

Where is collagen in the skin?

Collagen is found in the dermis of the skin, which is the layer sandwiched between the top layer of the skin (epidermis) and the bottom layer (fat) (1-4).

In addition to collagen, the dermis also contains elastin, which gives elasticity to the skin. Without elastin, your skin would sag and droop.

What does collagen do?

Collagen provides strength and structure to the skin, like a scaffolding (1, 2). It keeps our skin firm and plump looking. Without it, our skin gets wrinkled and loses its fullness.

Increasing collagen for the face benefits not only appearance by also the overall durability of the skin. Without collagen, the skin becomes paper thin with age making it susceptible to bruising and ultimately tears very easily.

Collagen loss in the skin

Why do I lose collagen?

Collagen production decreases with age, starting in our 20’s (1, 2). This is the normal programmed aging process. There is nothing we can do to stop this cycle.

What we can do is stop premature aging and subsequent accelerated collagen loss. This premature collagen loss comes from extrinsic factors, such as UV damage from the sun, smoking, drinking alcohol, not getting enough sleep, stress, and poor nutrition.

What happens when I lose collagen in my skin?

The loss of collagen in the skin leads to the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles (1-3). As time goes by, these lines become etched into the skin permanently. The skin also starts to look dull and discolored and oftentimes rough in texture. The skin will no longer look firm and plump.

The loss of elastin goes hand in hand with the loss of collagen (1, 2). Elastin is what gives the skin elasticity. Without it, the skin starts to sag. This gives us a droopy unhappy look to our faces.

How do I lose collagen?

Collagen is lost through normal aging, lack of healthy choices, or extrinsic factors, such as sun damage, smoking, alcohol, lack of sleep, stress, and poor nutrition (1-3).

We begin to naturally lose our collagen beginning in our 20’s due to a 1% decrease in production yearly. These extrinsic factors cause free radical formation. Free radicals attack our collagen and destroy it.

Our body tries to counter this attack by internally creating antioxidants to combat these free radicals. As we age, we lose the ability to manufacture anti-oxidants, so these free radicals go unchecked.

That is why it is important to live a healthy lifestyle, so you can prevent unnecessary free radical formation. The fewer free radicals we produce, the less our collagen gets destroyed. Also, by using antioxidants, that we can get from different creams or that we can ingest, we will get better protection against free radical damage.

Collagen loss and free radicals

Why do free radicals attack collagen?

Free radicals are unstable molecules because they have an unpaired electron, so they are always searching for an electron to steal from another molecule (1, 2). Electrons like to be paired because then they are stable.

Stability is the goal in nature. These free radicals steal electrons from other molecules, like collagen, which results in the destruction of collagen. Anti-oxidants will donate one of their electrons to the free radicals and sacrifice themselves to save our collagen.

Where do free radicals come from?

Free radicals come from inside our body through normal aging processes (1, 2). They also come from the environment, such as UV damage from the sun, pollution in the air, smoke from cigarettes, alcohol, and poor nutrition.

That is why it is so important to use sunscreen to protect your skin, avoid smoking and alcohol, and eat a diet rich in anti-antioxidants like fruits and vegetables. The more anti-oxidants we have on hand, the better we can prevent collagen destruction.

Getting more collagen: What works?

Do collagen creams work?

Creams that contain topical collagen for skin repair or enhancement have not been proven to work at increasing collagen production (5). The problem is collagen is a very large molecule, too large to pass through the outer layer of the skin (epidermis) and into the layer where collagen lives (dermis).

They have tried to get around this problem by chopping up the collagen (hydrolyzed collagen) into smaller bits called peptides. While this hydrolyzed collagen for the face is small enough to travel into the dermis, it has not been proven in studies that it increases collagen production.

So far, there is no product that contains the best collagen for skin that will deliver it directly into the dermis to increase its amount.

Collagen creams do make a great moisturizer which helps lessen the appearance of wrinkles (5). Dry skin always appears more wrinkled than moisturized skin. By adding moisture to the skin, temporarily plumps the skin and makes the wrinkles less apparent.

Also, there do not appear to be any collagen cream side effects from their usage. Since these collagen moisturizers and lotions do not appear to be harmful to use, if you like the way they make your skin feel, you can use them.

Do collagen supplements work or does ingesting collagen work?

Ingestible collagen products for skin can be found in the form of supplement pills, powders, and beverages, but none of them have been proven conclusively to stimulate collagen (5).

Collagen supplements have been shown in very small, short-term studies to help with skin wrinkling. While this is encouraging, larger randomized controlled trials, which are the gold standard, would need to be conducted to prove that this is indeed true.

Another problem with these supplements is that they are not regulated by the FDA, so nobody is testing to make sure what the companies say is true. A company can say their product will stimulate collagen production, but without a regulating body to look at the data and confirm that conclusion, we do not know for sure.

A well-balanced diet usually provides enough collagen.

How can diet affect my collagen?

Consuming the wrong foods and beverages, such as alcohol, sugars, and processed foods, can increase the number of free radicals in your body which will attack your collagen and much more (1, 2).

There are repair mechanisms in place in your body, such as the production of antioxidants, that can combat these free radicals. But as time goes by, we produce fewer antioxidants, which is when damage sets in.

It is important to eat a diet rich in antioxidants such as fruits and vegetables to combat our decreased production of antioxidants. Vitamin supplements such as vitamin A, C, and E are helpful as well. Proper nutrition is key to healthy skin and a healthy body.

As mentioned before, the FDA doesn’t regulate the vitamin and supplement industry. Therefore, companies can promise anything, so you must do your research. Do not fall for false advertising.

Can I get collagen injected into my skin?

Many years ago, when filler products were just starting to be used, collagen was the first product to be injected. It did not last very long and did cause some allergic reactions in people.

While collagen fillers did help fill in the lines, they did not stimulate collagen production in the skin. Also, it was placed very superficially in the skin, so it did not help deeper and larger wrinkles.

Collagen was abandoned for the more hearty, more versatile, longer-acting, and less reactive hyaluronic acid fillers that we use today.

How can I get more collagen?

Since collagen creams and supplements have not been proven to conclusively work in large randomized controlled trials, which are the gold standard for clinical studies, you are probably wondering how you can help improve collagen and wrinkling (1, 2).

There are some topical collagen skincare products that do not contain collagen but can help stimulate your own body to produce collagen. These are not wrinkle erasers, and they do not turn back the hands to time, but they can help.

Some of the creams that can help your collagen include sunscreens, retinoids, alpha-hydroxy acids, and anti-oxidants.

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Helping collagen: 12 Ways to increase collagen production

1. How does sunscreen help my collagen?

Sunscreen is the best anti-aging, collagen-protecting skincare product when used correctly (1, 2). Sunscreen blocks the harmful UV rays from the sun. These UV rays have free radicals which will attack your collagen and destroy it leading to wrinkles.

The sun also changes our DNA leading to skin cancer formation. Since our bodies make anti-oxidants, these will help protect us temporarily until they become overloaded by excess free radicals or as production decrease with age.

The sunscreen you chose must be a broad-spectrum to protect against both UVA and UVB rays (1, 2). There are 2 types of sunscreens: chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens absorb the UV and convert it to harmless heat.

These need to be applied 30 minutes before sun exposure for them to work. The most common ingredients are avobenzone, which protects against UVA rays, and oxybenzone, which protects against UVB rays.

One of my favorite sunscreens is La Roche Posay Anthelios Melt In Sunscreen Milk SPF 60 which combines potent UVA and UVB blockers. It always ranks at the top of consumer reports’ best sunscreens list.

Physical sunscreens contain the ingredients zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (1, 2). Both block UVA and UVB rays. These work by acting as a shield to the skin to prevent the UV radiation from entering the skin, so they just bounce off. These can be applied immediately before sun exposure.

La Roche Posay makes a mineral sunscreen with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide called Anthelios Mineral Zinc Oxide Sunscreen SPF 50. This is a great sunscreen with both physical blocking sunscreen ingredients in it for excellent protection.

For it to be effective, sunscreen must be applied every day and reapplied every 1-2 hours during sun exposure. Sun exposure includes not only activities where you are outside, but also driving in the car or sitting by a window since UV penetrates the glass.

Make sure you use enough sunscreen to get optimal protection. It takes about 1 ounce to cover the entire body and a nickel size to cover the face. If you do not use enough sunscreen, you will not get full protection.

2. How do retinoids help my collagen?

The second most important skincare products that stimulate collagen production are retinoids (1, 2, 6-9). This was first discovered by a dermatologist, Dr. Kligman, decades ago and has since then been known as the “wrinkle cream”.

Retinoids are a family of products that are naturally or synthetically derived from vitamin A. Retinoids include over-the-counter retinol and prescription-strength retinoids such as retinoic acid or tretinoin (Retin A), tazarotene (Tazorac), and adapalene (Differin).

Retinoids stimulate collagen production and prevent collagen breakdown, which subsequently leads to a reduction in fine lines and wrinkles. It also improves the texture and tone of the skin. Retinoids prevent collagen breakdown by inhibiting the enzymes responsible for it. These collagen breakdown enzymes become elevated from UV exposure.

Retinoids also help increase cell turnover rate which exfoliates dead skin cells to get rid of age spots, fine lines, and blackheads. (1, 2, 6-9) Retinoids can also decrease oil production and inflammation to treat acne.

The biggest problem people have with retinoids is their side effects (1, 2). They can irritate the skin and cause redness and peeling if you are not using them correctly or if you are using the wrong strength. Oftentimes, concomitant use of moisturizers can prevent these side effects.

If you want over-the-counter quality retinoids, you can try La Roche Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel, which is a lower strength of adapalene than the prescription Differin.

If you are looking for a natural alternative, ZELEN Life Night Cream contains apricot and rosehip, which have abundant natural vitamin A in them to help with anti-aging.

3. Can bakuchiol help collagen?

Bakuchiol is a newcomer to the stage of anti-aging (10). It is an anti-oxidant which, protects the skin and collagen from free radical destruction, to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

It can diminish the appearance of dark age spots. Bakuchiol has been shown to be as effective as retinol in anti-aging but without the side effects.

4. How do anti-oxidants help my collagen?

Vitamin C or ascorbic acid is another very important skin care ingredient that can help collagen as well as remove dark spots to give you a brighter complexion (1, 2, 9, 11-16).

Not only does vitamin C stimulate collagen production, but it also protects collagen from degradation. Without the presence of vitamin C in the skin, collagen simply cannot be made. It is an integral part of the collagen manufacturing process.

In addition to producing collagen, it is also a powerful antioxidant that scavenges free radicals to prevent the destruction of collagen (1, 2, 9, 11-16). When combined with vitamin E, another antioxidant, it stabilizes vitamin E and regenerates it.

When both of these are combined with ferulic acid, ferulic acid stabilizes both and increases their protective abilities, so they work more effectively together. The combination of these 3 ingredients makes for a powerful mix that protects collagen from degradation by free radicals from the sun.

The top pick of most derm’s is CE Ferulic by Skinceuticals, which contains this powerhouse trio of anti-oxidants.

There are many other anti-oxidants, all of which scavenge free radicals to prevent damage to our collagen. These include niacinamide, green tea, resveratrol, and coenzyme Q to name a few (1, 3, 17-23).

5. How does glycolic acid help my collagen?

Glycolic acid (GA) is an alpha hydroxy acid, like lactic acid, that stimulates collagen production to increase the firmness of the skin and prevent wrinkles (1, 2). It has been used since the time of Cleopatra for anti-aging.

It has been shown to increase the proliferation of fibroblasts, which are the cells that make collagen. The use of GA leads to the increased thickness of the skin by increasing collagen density.

Glycolic acid also exfoliates dead skin cells and decreases oil production to treat acne (1, 2). The exfoliation of dead skin cells helps improve the texture of the skin and removes dark sunspots to give you a brighter complexion. Alpha hydroxy acids can also act as humectants to pull in moisture and prevent skin dehydration.

Skinceuticals makes a cream with 10% glycolic acid called Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight. This is a great cream especially if you are just starting out experimenting with GA. With continued use, you may be able to use stronger GA formulas.

6. How do peptides increase collagen production?

Peptides are small groups of amino acids that are combined together to help make certain proteins, like collagen (1, 2).

There are 4 types of peptides: signal, enzyme-inhibitor, neurotransmitter-inhibitor, and carrier peptides.  Matrixyl (palmitoyl pentapeptide-3), a signaling peptide, stimulates collagen production in the skin.

Soy, an enzyme inhibitor peptide,  inhibits the enzyme MMP to stop the breakdown of collagen.  MMP is an enzyme that breaks down collagen and destroys it. Argireline (acetyl hexapeptide-3), a neurotransmitter inhibitor peptide, prevents the release of neurotransmitters which will keep facial muscles from moving and subsequently forming wrinkles.

It works in a similar fashion to Botox by relaxing the muscles so they cannot move.

Muscle movement is what causes wrinkles to form. Copper, the most popular carrier peptide, is an integral ingredient in collagen manufacturing, without it, collagen cannot be made.

7. How does hyaluronic acid help collagen?

Hyaluronic acid is an amazing ingredient, which is most well known for its moisturizing capabilities (1, 2, 24, 25). It naturally occurs in our joints and the dermis of our skin.

When applied topically to the skin, it acts as a humectant, which will pull water from the environment and into your skin. It can actually bind 1,000 times its weight in water. By pulling water into your skin, it can instantly plump your wrinkles, making them less noticeable.

Hyaluronic acid (HA)  also plays a role in the proliferation of fibroblasts, which are the cells that produce collagen (1, 2, 24, 25). By helping to produce more fibroblasts, this will in turn produce more collagen to help prevent wrinkles.

Skinceuticals has a great HA moisturizer called Hyaluronic Acid Intensifier. La Roche Posay makes a HA moisturizer also called Hyalu B5 Pure Hyaluronic Acid Serum. Both will improve the hydration of the skin without any greasiness.

8. Does DMAE help collagen?

DMAE, or dimethylethanolamine, has recently been investigated for its ability to help collagen (26). It is believed to help regulate collagen synthesis by signaling an increase in fibroblast production.

Studies have shown DMAE to increase the thickness of collagen as well as improve hydration of the skin. More research needs to be done, but the initial results are good.

9. Can MSM help collagen?

MSM, or methylsulfonylmethane, is a naturally occurring sulfur-containing compound present in our bodies (27, 28). It has been used in treating arthritis due to its anti-inflammatory properties.

MSM is an essential component for collagen synthesis, the presence of which will increase collagen production and prevent wrinkle formation. Preliminary studies have shown good results.

10. Can EGF help collagen?

EGF, or epidermal growth factor, has been shown to help stimulate collagen production (29-31). It does this by increasing the production capabilities of fibroblasts, which are the cells that make collagen.

EGF enhances the function of aging fibroblasts so that they can produce more collagen as young fibroblasts do. As we age, we do not produce as much collagen. EGF can also help to strengthen the skin’s barrier to prevent dehydration of the skin. More research needs to be done but the results are promising.

11. Does FGF help collagen?

FGF, or fibroblast growth factor, can increase the production of fibroblasts as well as increase their ability to produce collagen (32, 33). It can also increase angiogenesis, which is the ability to produce blood vessels.

These blood vessels can increase the repair and regeneration of tissues, which aids in wound healing. More studies need to be done, but so far the results are good.

12. Can cosmetic procedures help collagen?

There are several minimally invasive procedures that can help rebuild and preserve collagen, such as lasers, micro-needling, fillers, peels, and Botox (34). Lasers, peels, and micro-needling all stimulate collagen production by causing controlled injury to the skin.

Controlled injury is different than a haphazard traumatic injury. Controlled injury is done to a particular depth in the skin in a precise way to minimize damage and maximize benefits. If you go too deep or too wide, it can harm your skin and not help it.

By causing controlled injury to the skin, it causes increased production of collagen and reorganization of existing collagen to a more youthful pattern in the dermis. As we age and get photodamage, our collagen fibers get misaligned as well as destroyed completely.

Controlled injury tricks the skin into believing it was hurt and activates normal repair mechanisms. These repair mechanisms rebuild and reorganize the collagen, thereby removing wrinkles.

Fillers work similarly but without external damage to the epidermis. The controlled injury from repeated needle sticks or cannula movements tricks the dermis into thinking it’s injured and repair begins.

Hyaluronic acid fillers, like Restylane and Juvederm, also stimulate fibroblasts to increase collagen production. There is also a biostimulator, called Sculptra, that can be injected like a filler to effectively increase collagen production.

Botox works by relaxing the muscles and stopping movement, this can prevent wrinkles from forming. If started in your 20’s, this will prevent wrinkles from becoming permanently etched into your skin.

Once the lines are etched in, they are permanent, unless removed by lasers or peels. There is likely some collagen stimulation from the needle injections as well.

Conclusion

Collagen a very important molecule in anti-aging. There are definite clinically proven topical creams and serums to help stimulate and preserve/protect collagen.

The earlier you start these products, the more they will help you.

Some of the most important collagen products for the face do not contain collagen at all. They are collagen stimulators, like retinoids, that deliver collagen skin care benefits. Collagen face creams that actually contain collagen have not been proven to stimulate collagen. Since collagen begins to degrade in your 20’s, that is a good time to start.

But it is never too late to take care of your skin. You can start at any age and reap the benefits.

This is a lifelong maintenance process, so patience and consistency are key to achieving your anti-aging goals.

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About The Author

Dr. Jennifer Trent MD FAAD
Dr. Jennifer Trent MD FAAD

Board-Certified Dermatologist

Dr. Trent completed a 6 year combined BS-MD at the University of Miami with an undergraduate major in biology and a minor in chemistry. She completed her internship in Internal Medicine and her residency in Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital. Dr. Trent is a world recognized dermatologist, who has published over 40 articles in peer-reviewed journals. She also co-authored a textbook on dermatologic diseases and therapy, which was published by McGraw-Hill Co, Inc. She has had the opportunity to present her clinical research several times at national medical meetings. Dr. Trent has been the recipient of several awards for research, teaching and clinical practice, including the prestigious Young Investigators award for research from the American Academy of Dermatology as well as the coveted Castle Connelly Top Doctor award.

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