According to Type
Specific types of collagen, the body’s main structural protein,
support healthy skin.
by Michele Wojciechowski
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “collagen”? Perhaps the filler that’s injected into aged skin? This tough protein is so much more.
“Collagen forms a scaffold to provide strength and structure to our bones, muscles, skin and tendons,” says George O. Gavrila, MD, founder and medical director of ProMD Health in Baltimore. “Essentially, collagen holds the body together; its name comes from the Greek word kolla, meaning ‘glue.’ Collagen supports the major structures of the body and provides the overall shape.”
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body, accounting for about 30% of the total protein content. And it’s strong, about as strong as steel.
Collagen supplies more than just structure, however. “In combination with another protein, elastin, collagen provides a degree of elasticity to our tissues,” says Gavrila. He explains that collagen is an integral factor in the middle layer of the skin called the dermis, where it can help form a fibrous network on which new cells can grow. Collagen is also required in the replacement of skin cells that have died.
“Collagen is thought to help keep our skin taut and plays a major role in healing and in maintaining skin integrity,” Gavrila notes.
Collagen isn’t just one substance but a family of closely related proteins; Gavrila says that 28 types have been identified in the human body. “All types of collagen have different functions, whether you’re talking about collagen in the eyelids, in the face, in the lips, in the tendons, in the nerves,” says Craig A. Vander Kolk, MD, director of cosmetic medicine and surgery at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
Most of the body’s collagen, up to 90%, consists of types 1, 2 and 3. Of those, 1 and 3 are the kinds most commonly found in the skin as well as the hair and nails (type 2 is a major component of joint cartilage).
As with the rest of the body’s tissues, collagen is subject to degradation over time.
“As we age, our body’s natural ability to produce collagen declines. This reduces the structural integrity of the skin and causes the sagging, fine lines and wrinkles we see with aging,” says Gavrila. “Reduced collagen is also a key contributor to the weakening of the cartilage found in our joints.”
Gavrila explains that throughout our lives, our bodies are constantly breaking down and recycling collagen every day. We reach peak collagen in our mid-twenties.
What happens with age, however, is the body breaks collagen down faster and produces it more slowly. This is what causes the overall decrease in amounts of this vital protein, a process that destabilizes contact among the different skin layers.
Keeping collagen firm and healthy as the years pass requires the same basic lifestyle approach as that required to maintain overall health. “Exercise, eating a healthy diet, taking multivitamins—these things have been shown to be helpful in the aging process,” says Vander Kolk.
Of all the vitamins, vitamin C has a special affinity for the skin. In addition to fighting damage from free radicals generated by excessive sun exposure, toxins, stress and other sources, it also helps the body form new collagen.
Vitamin C “promotes skin-cell renewal,” says San Diego holistic dermatologist Jeanette Jacknin, MD, author of Smart Medicine for Your Skin (Avery/Penguin). “Thus it is very important in reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, returning and maintaining youthful skin resilience, and lightening and evening skin tones.”
In its natural state, collagen’s large molecular structure means that it can’t be consumed as is to improve skin appearance. However, supplements are often formulated with hydrolyzed collagen, in which the protein molecules are broken down into smaller units called peptides for better absorption and utilization within the body.
Some supplements combine pharmaceutical-grade type 1 and type 3 hydrolyzed collagen with vitamin C to provide the necessary protein building blocks, known as amino acids, to support collagen creation. This promotes not only healthy skin but also stronger, less brittle nails and fuller, thicker hair. What’s more, types 1 and 3 collagen play a crucial role in wound healing and in promoting strong bones and connective tissue.
Applying collagen creams to the outside of your skin will not build collagen from the inside. However, covering your skin with a good sunscreen can help reduce light-induced damage; look for products formulated with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide for protection against both UVA and UVB. (Don’t forget to wear protective clothing and a wide-brimmed hat.) Eliminate sugar, which damages collagen molecules, from your diet as much as possible while maintaining adequate hydration to help skin stay soft, supple and smooth.
No one wants to look, or feel, older than they are. Take care of your collagen and it will take care of you.