Your body greets the world through your skin, which also serves as a protective barrier for what’s inside of you. Whether smooth or wrinkled, the way your skin looks on the surface tells a story about the collagen underneath.
Skin consists of three layers: The outer epidermis and bottommost subcutaneous layer surround the dermis, where nerve endings, blood vessels, and oil and sweat glands are found. Collagen is the fibrous protein mesh that stabilizes the contact between the dermis and the epidermis, giving the latter shape, support and elasticity.
Collagen’s functions go well beyond maintaining skin tone. It actually makes up the bulk of all connective tissue, accounting for approximately one third of the body’s total protein content. Of the many types of collagen that exist, the most common are types 1, 2 and 3.
Strong collagen explains why a baby’s skin is firm, supple and silky. By age 35, collagen has reached its peak.
“The contour of your face is still nice and sharp. When you pinch the skin, it bounces back; and there’s no sagging along the jaw line,” says Adrienne Denese, MD, PhD, author of Dr. Denese’s Secrets for Ageless Skin (Penguin). The wrinkly skin associated with age marks, in part, decades of a natural, steady decline in collagen production and repair, and a weakening of its structure.
Fail to care for your collagen and you can end up looking older than your years. “Everything you take into your body reaches the skin cells that produce collagen,” says Alexander J. Michels, PhD, of the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. “If something damages your skin’s collagen, the epidermis can’t connect to the dermis as effectively, so you get saggy, wrinkly skin.”
Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun and tanning beds are collagen’s worst enemy. “Small amounts of UV light are good for you, helping your body make needed vitamin D,” says Michels. “But longer exposures to UV are harmful, producing free radicals that damage collagen and collagen-producing cells.”
Other factors can lead to excessive free radical production. They include exposure to herbicides, chlorine and other chemicals, as well as smoking, breathing in smog and experiencing emotional stress.
In addition, sugar isn’t so sweet for skin tone. Michels says, “Too much glucose in the blood can react with collagen molecules, damaging them.” This process, called glycation, results in drier, more brittle collagen. People who have diabetes are especially prone to glycation-related skin damage.
Fight free radicals by eating a healthful, balanced diet rich in antioxidants such as the lutein in dark-green leafy vegetables. Lycopene, found in red fruits and vegetables, helps the body produce more collagen. And your diet should include the omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon and herring as well as fish and krill oils.
Given that collagen consists of protein, it makes sense that you “need as many grams of protein as pounds that you weigh,” says Denese. “Add whey protein to your diet.”
Another way to stave off the appearance of wrinkles and other signs of aging is through the use of collagen supplements, in particular the types 1 and 3 most commonly found in skin. (Hydrolyzed collagen is more readily absorbed and utilized by the body.) In addition to improving skin elasticity and tone, supplemental collagen supports healthy hair growth and strengthens weak nails. Hyaluronic acid helps hold moisture in the skin, which also promotes greater elasticity.
Well-formed collagen is impossible without adequate amounts of vitamin C. “It’s required for one of the critical steps for healthy collagen production, when enzymes called hydroxylases modify the collagen proteins,” says Michels. Vitamin C, which is found in citrus fruits, strawberries and broccoli, also limits UV-related skin damage, as do vitamins A, D and E. And don’t forget the B-complex vitamins along with the minerals zinc and selenium.
Silica, another mineral, plays a crucial role in collagen creation. “You’re using the vitamins and minerals to support the cells, and then letting the cells do the work to produce, protect and repair collagen,” Michels explains.
What about topical collagen creams? “They don’t have any proven benefit,” says Michels. “Just applying them onto the outside of the skin isn’t going to stimulate collagen production.” But you can protect your collagen by slathering on sunscreen. Denese recommends using a product with an SPF of at least 20 even if it’s rainy, snowy or overcast.
“If your skin cells are well maintained, they can effectively produce and repair collagen,” says Michels. You can help your body do its job best when you nurture your skin from within.