Collagen is a critical protein found throughout your body. It's present in everything from your joints to your skin and is the most common protein in your body. It makes up around a third of the proteins in your body, making it very abundant and very important to your health.
Collagen can also be found in supplements, which people take for a variety of purposes. Among those purposes is improving the elasticity of the skin. So, the question is, what's going on here? Is there an actual connection, or is this just marketing snake oil? It's time to dig in and tell you everything we know.
How Does Collagen Work?
Collagen is essentially a protein "glue" in your body. It holds things together when those "things" are usually other kinds of proteins and cells. It binds muscle fibers into muscles, it binds connective tissues into the strands that become tendons and ligaments, and it binds skin cells into a matrix that forms your skin.
Collagen can also be thought of as a scaffold or a "skeleton" for your skin. It's the framework upon which your skin is built, filled in by other proteins, skin cells, and other kinds of biological bits and bobs.
If you get a cut or a scrape, collagen is among the first proteins to arrive to heal it. Blood flushes out the wound, platelets scab it over, and collagen begins to build the framework of new skin to repair the damage. Then, other skin cells grow to restore and heal.
"Collagen" is actually a collection of proteins, rather than just one. There are, at last count, sixteen different kinds of collagen identified. Each different kind of collagen acts and reacts differently, forming different kinds of tissue. Type I collagen, for example, forms skin, bones, tendons, and ligaments. Other types form other kinds of tissues; Type II is cartilage, and type III is for muscle, for example.
Does Collagen Degrade Over Time?
One of the distressing truths of humanity is that our bodies are not made to last forever. The natural process of aging is inexorable and incurable. It can be slowed through healthy habits, diet and exercise, proper medication, sanitation, and other treatments. It can be accelerated by exposure to harmful substances, radiation, chemicals, illnesses, and so on.
Over time, your body begins to break down. One of the ways this tends to be most visible is in collagen production. A healthy adolescent is at the peak of their collagen production. As you get older, your body produces less collagen, which means you have less to work with when you need to restore yourself. This is why it takes longer for cuts and scrapes to heal, why wrinkles form, why skin gets thin and papery, why joints stiffen and ache, and why muscles weaken over time. The decline is slow but real.
What's the Deal with Skin Elasticity?
Your skin is elastic by nature. It's resilient but flexible, able to resist environmental pressures, and heal from all but the worst damage. It's your largest single organ, and it performs an important role in protecting you from everything from environmental damage to disease.
Elasticity is the resilience of your skin, and it is primarily determined by the density of that collagen "scaffold" we mentioned earlier. Dense lattices of collagen keep your skin perk and taught, elastic and youthful.
Over time, as collagen production is reduced and collagen itself degrades, your skin loses some of that elasticity. The effects of gravity and environmental pressures apply more directly to it. Cheekbones sag, wrinkles form and don't spring back, and creases become deeper and more permanent. This process can be accelerated by sustained exposure to UV rays, among other things.
This is, of course, why people develop wrinkles as they age. They are not a sign of anything going wrong; rather, they're simply a consequence of your skin having less resilience, less dense collagen lattices to keep the skin taught.
What Damages Collagen?
There are generally four things that damage the collagen in your body and, in particular, in your skin.
Number one is time. The effects of aging simply mean that your body doesn't work as efficiently, your skin cells start to "forget" how to do different processes, or end up with mutations, or simply don't work as fast as they used to. Your body never fully stops producing collagen – it's essential to hold you together – but it does produce less of it.
Number two is sunlight. Sunlight, ultraviolet light, in particular, penetrates the skin and can directly damage or destroy collagen molecules. More importantly, it can damage the skin cells that tell collagen where to go. There's a famous photo of a truck driver with half her face covered in wrinkles, and the other half not; this is due to the constant one-sided exposure to sunlight from driving behind the wheel of a vehicle. This, as well as the threat of skin cancer, is why dermatologists are so adamant that everyone uses sunscreen as much as possible.
Number three is smoking. Tobacco smoke in particular, but other kinds of smoke as well, can damage a variety of bodily processes. Smokers often age prematurely and end up with deeper wrinkles much sooner than their non-smoking counterparts.
Number four is sugar. Sugar has a strange effect on collagen. Rather than unraveling the strands of protein, collagen causes them to twist and tangle, which disrupts their function. Consider it like taking a net or lattice and twisting it up; it won't hold its shape, and parts of it will have no support and will sag.
While you can protect against these to a certain extent, they generally require lifestyle changes, and can't be counteracted by simple medication.
Can You Restore Your Collagen?
You may or may not be able to restore your body's collagen. There have been a lot of different studies performed into collagen and wrinkles, but they tend to be inconclusive, with small sample sizes, unscientific experiments, or with other issues.
Some studies have indicated that collagen treatments or an infusion of collagen can stimulate your body to make and use more collagen, which it can then use to restore your skin, organs, and muscles. However, some of these same studies sometimes also show that the effect is temporary or minimal; it may not reverse the effects of aging or cure your existing wrinkles entirely, but it might slow the advancement of wrinkles or make existing wrinkles fade slightly.
By giving your body more collagen, you can help it use that collagen in more effective ways. However, there's not much way of guiding how your body uses the collagen you give it. You could, for example, take collagen supplements with the goal of restoring your skin, only to find that your body uses most of that collagen to protect organs and muscles instead.
What Can't Collagen Do?
Collagen isn't a miracle treatment, it's just a protein. Unfortunately, some conditions simply can't be treated by collagen treatments. For example, skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema cannot be treated by collagen applications, because they are not problems with collagen in the first place.
Some people also believe that collagen can help with weight loss. In truth, collagen is simply a protein. By taking a collagen supplement, you may be able to help suppress your appetite and give your body more protein to use to build muscles. However, that doesn't help you lose weight directly. You still need to couple those effects with working out, lifting weights, dieting, exercise, or some other form of weight loss.
Collagen may be able to reduce the appearance of scars, such as scars from acne or injury. Those require dedicated treatment and site injections, however, not simple collagen supplements.
What Types of Collagen Treatments Exist?
There are several different ways you can get more collagen into your body. Some of them are targeted, while others are not.
- Bone Broth. Bone broth is exactly what it sounds like; a broth made by simmering bones and connective tissues, to break down collagen from animal carcasses and create a collagen-rich beverage or soup base. This can be used in meals or as a drink and can give your body collagen directly through digestion, for it to use as it pleases.
- Collagen Supplements. Powders, capsules, pills, and other forms of collagen are typically a dehydrated version of bone broth in essence. They work roughly the same way; by consuming collagen, you give your body more collagen to use in its bodily processes.
- Collagen Injections. By injecting a collagen filler directly into affected areas of the skin, you can fluff up your skin and reduce the visibility of wrinkles. Some studies indicate that this may stimulate some collagen production in your skin, but these studies do not conclude that it's a viable treatment for the long term. It can't reverse wrinkles; it merely adds filler to fluff up the skin and stretch it back out. As your body absorbs the injection, the wrinkles will return, and if you stop the treatments, their effect will reverse.
- Collagen Creams. There are many different skin creams that are meant to be surface-level collagen applications. By far the best way to absorb collagen is by ingesting it, and there isn't nearly as much science or studies that have been performed on collagen skin creams. Still, many users swear by its positive benefits on wrinkles and skin softness, but it's difficult to say for sure if any of that is happening beneath the surface
Our biggest recommendation is collagen supplements. They are the best way to give your body more collagen without the invasive damage caused by needles. Injections always carry a risk of damage or infection, and you have to be certain of what's in them. With a collagen supplement like ours, you know that you're getting nothing but the best collagen as a dietary supplement, where it can do the most good to your body as a whole.
It's also worth mentioning that you can get additional collagen from your diet as well. Collagen comes from animal products, which makes it difficult to get as a vegetarian or vegan. You can also give your body more of the amino acids it uses to synthesize collagen, so you can build it yourself. Foods like chicken, fish, eggs, dairy, and beans all have high levels of these amino acids and can be good additions to your diet.
Do You Have Further Reading on Collagen?
Yes! We've written quite a few posts about collagen in the past. Here's a selection for you to read if you're interested in further reading.
- How Long Does It Take Collagen Supplements to Work?
- Why Both Men and Women Should Take Collagen
- Which is Better for Your Skin: Collagen or Gelatin?
- Five Symptoms of Collagen Deficiency (And What You Can Do)
- Can Taking Collagen Products Help with Acne Breakouts?
- Can You Take Collagen Supplements Without Breaking a Fast?
- Are Collagen Gummies as Effective as Powder or Capsules?
- The Ultimate Guide to Collagen for Vegans and Vegetarians
If you have a specific question about collagen that we haven't answered, feel free to leave a comment for us. We'll do our best to get you a well-researched, scientifically backed answer.
Should You Take Collagen Supplements?
We believe so. Collagen supplements may have a direct impact on your body's ability to produce and use collagen. Even if they don't, the worst you're doing is giving your body more healthy protein to use to keep your muscles fueled and your body energized, which is not a bad thing outside of very extreme circumstances. There's no downside to taking collagen supplements in a moderated fashion.
More extreme treatments, such as collagen injections, you may want to be hesitant in using. Collagen injections can be beneficial in some circumstances, but they can also be expensive, painful, and risk infection or skin damage. Exercise due caution if you're interested in this line of treatment.
Our general recommendation is to determine what you want to get out of collagen. If it's something that a simple collagen supplement can do, then, by all means, pick up a bottle of collagen capsules or start making some bone broth to give it a try.