Collagen is so much more than an ingredient buzzword. It’s an essential part of your skin, and the ultimate goal of most anti-aging beauty products is to help boost its levels in your body. However, before working to build more collagen, you need to know what it is — and what you might actually be doing to damage yours. We spoke with surgeon and founder of Mariwalla Dermatology Dr. Kavita Mariwalla and Proactiv consulting dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, MD to break down everything you need to know about collagen.
What is collagen?
Collagen is a natural protein found not just in the skin, but other tissues in our body. “Different mechanisms can trigger the production of collagen, but ultimately, cells in our body link together amino acids to create these protein chains and fibers,” says Nazarian. These chains and fibers create structure for healthy bones, muscle, nails, and give skin its firmness and suppleness.
How do we lose collagen?
Collagen loss is completely natural. Over time, our skin’s production of this protein decreases, causing a gradual loss in elasticity. When this happens, Nazarian says it could lead to sagging in the skin, the development of lines and wrinkles, and an enlarged appearance of pores.
The sun also plays a big role in skin’s collagen loss. “Studies have shown that there is a reduction of collagen synthesis in photodamaged skin compared to sun-protected skin,” says Mariwalla. Perhaps it’s obvious, but that means the less sun exposure you get, the firmer your skin will be in the long run. Prioritize SPF application every day to help conserve your collagen — discover some of our favorite sunscreen-infused moisturizers here.
Can we restore it with topical products?
You can’t restore lost collagen, but you can help promote new growth of it with skincare products. (Again, more collagen means more firmness to the skin, as well as a smoothed-out look to fine lines and wrinkles.) However, ditch the collagen-infused creams. There is little proof that these are effective and really only serve to give a temporary cosmetic boost.
To actually help build collagen, both Nazarian and Mariwalla agree that retinoids are the best key ingredient to look for. “[Retinoids] are derived from vitamin A and, with continued use, can stimulate the skin cells to produce more collagen,” says Nazarian. If you’re on the hunt for a retinol you like, we have a few suggestions. We’re big fans of Youth Corridor® by Dr. Gerald Imber RetinUltimate Transforming Gel ($450), a velvety-soft gel formula that contains a gentle retinoid derivative to help improve skin. We also like Instytutum® Triple-Action Resurfacing Peel ($79), a hybrid chemical and physical exfoliant that helps slough off dead skin cells and nourish the fresh skin underneath with retinol, hydrating hyaluronic acid, and papaya enzymes (discover more fruit enzyme-infused products here). If you’re in need of a bigger boost, consult with your doctor — they’ll be able to tell you if a prescription-strength retinoid is right for you. For more information on this ingredient — including how it works, product recommendations and more — read our ultimate guide to retinoids here.
[Editor’s Note: There are different forms and strength of Rx retinol. Check with your doctor before using it. Retinol shouldn't be used by those who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing.
Does eating collagen-rich foods or supplements help my skin?
While many dietary supplements and powders claim to promote new collagen growth, most dermatologists are wary on their efficacy. “There’s actually little to no substantial evidence that proves ingesting collagen has any major anti-aging benefits,” says Nazarian. “Rather, your body likely digests the collagen supplements into amino acid building blocks, much like the ingestion of regular protein. It may not be any better for your skin than taking protein supplements.”
For both Nazarian and Mariwalla, there needs to be more studies done in order to see if ingesting collagen is beneficial or not. Mariwalla notes that studies in mice who have ingested bovine collagen have yielded positive results, but that doesn’t mean that edible collagen could work for humans. Consider that before you fall victim to one of those collagen powder ads on your Facebook page!
Are there any other procedures/treatments that can be done to restore collagen?
Nazarian recommends looking for lasers and devices that use heat or other physical mechanisms to stimulate the development of new collagen under the skin. Her two favorites are microneedling and Fraxel®.
“Microneedling uses small sterile needles to create areas of physical stimulation under the skin,” she explains. “The body sends cells to repair tissue the needle has pierced, and deposit new collagen fibers in the process. For a more in-depth look at microneedling and what it could do for your skin, go here.
Fraxel, a fractional laser, uses heat and energy to promote new collagen production under the skin. However, this is a professional treatment that you should only try with the approval of a dermatologist. Consult with yours to see if it’s an ideal option for your skin, then discover everything you need to know before your fractional laser appointment.
Some products were gifted to the author for the purpose of writing this article.