As the main structural component of the skin, collagen rightly warrants all of the attention it gets. The protein, after all, is the architecture that helps the skin stay firm and supple. But as we get older, our levels of collagen will inevitably decline—starting in our 20s and then about 1% a year after. This is a natural part of aging, and honestly, it's impossible to completely halt the process. But by practicing certain lifestyle habits, you can help your body produce its own collagen while protecting what you already have.*
Eat a diet rich in antioxidants.
Since we all know beauty comes from within, your dietary habits are at the forefront of collagen production. This includes regularly eating foods rich in antioxidants, which neutralize free radicals that would otherwise cause oxidative stress in the skin. Otherwise, without enough antioxidants in the body, oxidative stress can lead to collagen degradation and wrinkle formation.
To make sure you're getting enough antioxidants, aim to eat a rainbow of whole fruits, vegetables, legumes, herbs, nuts, and seeds. (The more colorful your plate—the better.) Produce high in vitamin C1—like red bell peppers, broccoli, and oranges—are especially important. In addition to being a powerful antioxidant, "Vitamin C is a necessary cofactor2 in collagen synthesis,"* says Brittany Modell, M.S., R.D., CDN. This essential nutrient is actually required by specific enzymes involved in collagen formation on the daily.* Without enough vitamin C, the enzymes can't do their thing, leading to accelerated collagen breakdown.*
Take a collagen supplement.*
A collagen supplement will internally promote collagen production.* When collagen is hydrolyzed, or broken down into collagen peptides, your body is able to absorb it easier. From there the peptides travel throughout your body, aiding collagen and elastin production by stimulating fibroblasts (AKA skin cells).*
By supporting your natural collagen levels, you might see benefits ranging from joint comfort3 and better workouts, to improved gut health4.* Most notably for beauty fans, however, are the skin care benefits: Clinical trial research shows that collagen supplements support skin elasticity5 and overall hydration6.*
Eat egg whites.
Add egg whites to your dietary rotation, as they are rich in proline, one of the most prevalent amino acids in collagen, says Modell. (This is not to say you can't eat the whole egg, if you so choose, but the egg white is where you'll find concentrated proline.) Proline7 is necessary for collagen synthesis, strength, and structure. Specifically, the cyclic construction of proline plays a major role in the structural toughness of collagen molecules.
Limit your intake of refined carbohydrates.
Cutting back on refined carbs is also a wise move. In the body, "refined carbohydrates are quickly metabolized to sugar," explains Monica Auslander Moreno, M.S., R.D., LDN, nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition. Sugar then damages the bonds between collagen fibers9, making them difficult to repair. This process creates advanced glycation end products, or AGEs, which coincidentally contribute to premature skin aging10. It happens even faster when the body's blood sugar levels are elevated over the long term.
Now, there's no harm in enjoying the occasional sugary treat. But if you have a sweet tooth, try reaching for other sources like dark chocolate, fruit, or toasted coconut flakes. (If you're the DIY type, try these mouthwatering fudgy chocolate avocado blender muffins.)
Protect your skin from UV radiation.
When it comes to collagen production—and skin health in general—too much UV radiation is one of your worst enemies. "UV rays create free radicals, [which] are missing an electron, making them unstable as they try to steal an electron from a healthy molecule," explains Emily Davis, holistic licensed esthetician. And as these free radicals scavenge for electrons, they can seriously mess with the basic properties of collagen. The result? Extensive collagen damage, causing wrinkling and easy bruising due to impaired cell response in the skin.
To safeguard your collagen, make sunscreen a priority. "Zinc oxide is the safest topical protection [for both] our bodies and the environment," notes Davis. "It's also very healing and nourishing for our skin as it's rich in minerals."
If you smoke cigarettes, quitting is one of the best things you can do for the body's natural collagen synthesis. (And if you don't smoke? Don't start!) First, smoking causes the skin to produce excess free radicals—and therefore, oxidative stress—causing less collagen synthesis and more collagen degradation. That's not just it, however. "Smoking causes constriction of blood flow to your skin, [making] the skin more sensitive to UV light," explains Russell Jaffe, M.D., Ph.D., CCN. This deprives "your skin of the necessary oxygen and nutrients, leaving the skin vulnerable to pollutants," he adds.
Smoking also harms collagen via the immune system. "Tobacco smoke reduces immune response and induces metalloproteinase, an enzyme that degrades collagen," says Jaffe. This damages fibers of collagen and elastin, another important skin protein, causing flabby and loose skin.
To add insult to (skin) injury, "smoking depletes the body of vitamin C," adds Davis. This deprives collagen of its essential cofactor, paving the way for degradation.
Consume alcohol mindfully.
If you drink alcohol, be mindful of your consumption. According to Jaffe, "excessive alcohol consumption can increase the production of free radicals." It also thwarts the body's natural defenses against free radicals by diminishing antioxidants in the body. As a result, oxidative stress and inflammation are exacerbated, says Jaffe.
Over time, this oxidative stress can take a toll on your existing collagen. It also decreases the ability of fibroblasts, a type of cell that produces type I collagen. (This kind of collagen is the most abundant protein11 in the body.) Plus, excessive alcohol intake can disrupt absorption of vitamin C, further contributing to poor collagen synthesis.
Use antioxidants topically.
To boost your body's collagen production, reach for products with antioxidant ingredients. A popular choice is retinol12, which prevents collagen breakdown and stimulates fibroblasts, according to Davis. However, "retinol should be used mindfully," she warns. "If overused, it can cause skin sensitivity by disrupting the invisible barrier that resides on the top of our skin." It's also possible to find gentle retinol products (and alternatives) on the market.
Other significant antioxidants include vitamins C and E, which work best together. Vitamin C regenerates vitamin E, while vitamin E returns the favor by increasing its stability.
If you can afford facials—monetarily or time-wise—there are a few specific types of facials that have been shown to aid collagen production. First up: microneedling. This treatment uses a roller with tiny needles that make superficial pricks in the epidermis. The idea is that these spur your skin's natural healing reaction, which increases collagen production. The treatment can be quite uncomfortable, however, as well as potentially damaging if not done correctly, so always get it done by a licensed professional. (Never DIY this one!)
Another way to increase collagen production is through peels. Glycolic peels tend to be the best for collagen, as research shows the ingredient can stimulate fibroblasts13. Finally, red light therapy facials have been shown to stimulate collagen production14 in research; however, it's not fully understood why or how.
Consume aloe vera gel.
When taken internally, "aloe can contribute to collagen elasticity and skin moisture retainment," says Moreno. A small human study found that aloe vera supplementation increased collagen content in the skin. It contains molecules called sterols, or steroid alcohols, that work against certain types of collagen-degrading metalloproteinases. Another human study15 found similar results, observing enhanced collagen production and wrinkle improvement after aloe gel intake.
Aloe vera can be consumed as a capsule or juice, but some people like to blend the gel into their smoothies for a refreshing, cooling drink. However, "aloe can interact with certain supplements or medications, so it's wise to [talk] to your physician," says Moreno.
11. Get enough sleep.
There's no doubt good sleep12 is essential for good skin. Sleep deprivation induces oxidative stress and lowers antioxidant defenses, making the body vulnerable to oxidative damage. Additionally, losing sleep increases cortisol, your stress hormone, which breaks down collagen. Finally, this study found a link between shut-eye and collagen production16.
Here's the deal: When the skin is exposed to stressors like UV radiation or alcohol, thinner "sacrificial" collagen fibers degrade. But during sleep, these fibers repair themselves before merging with other thicker, permanent fibers. In other words, like many biological functions in the body, collagen synthesis seems to be regulated by the circadian rhythm.
The bottom line.
Kirsten Nunez is a health and lifestyle journalist based in Beacon, New York. She has a Master of Science in Nutrition from Texas Woman's University and Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from SUNY Oneonta. Kirsten specializes in nutrition, fitness, food, and DIY; her work has been featured in a variety of publications, including eHow, SparkPeople, and international editions of Cosmopolitan. She also creates recipes for food product packaging.