Skin aging is a complex process that involves many factors—genetics, diet, environment, stress levels, hormone changes, and topical care among them.
When it comes to skin's structural health, however, one thing that is certain is the undeniable importance of collagen.
Simply speaking, "collagen is a protein that is naturally found in the skin," explains holistic and board-certified dermatologist Devika Icecreamwala, M.D. "It is a structural building block for the skin, which keeps the skin looking firm, young, and healthy."
Why you should switch to a collagen-supporting skin care routine
Like many other natural factors that keep skin looking youthful and taut (i.e., hyaluronic acid and antioxidants), our collagen levels gradually break down and decline with age. Moreover, as we get older, our body's natural production rate of this key protein also tends to slow down.
In addition to these natural declines in both collagen reserves and collagen-production ability, "there are also environmental factors that cause the collagen to degrade, such as ultraviolet rays, pollution, stress, and smoking," Icecreamwala says.
What's more, certain skin care practices can actually break down collagen levels in the skin even further—which is why it's crucial, if keeping your skin healthy and staving off signs of aging is important to you, to incorporate collagen-boosting practices and ingredients into your routine. Here are some of the best ways to do so:
Start with collagen supplements
The ultimate collagen-boosting skin care routine should be twofold: Working both internally and externally. Research has shown that collagen supplementation benefits the skin in many ways that stave off signs of aging, including healthier moisture levels1, helping to maintain skin elasticity1 and even smoothing the depth of existing facial wrinkles1 in several human studies and clinical trials.*
Bonus: Hair is made up of protein, too, and collagen supplementation has also been shown to have beneficial effects on hair growth and scalp health.*
Wash with a gentle cleanser
"You want to find a face wash that your skin can tolerate," Icecreamwala explains. "If a face wash is stressing your skin out, it will lead to collagen breakdown."
Such stressing could include dryness, general irritation or a feeling of tightness on the skin post-washing—all of which are counterproductive when you're looking to promote collagen levels.
Those with sensitive skin may benefit from avoiding foaming cleansers (try an oil-based version instead). Oppositely, those with oily or breakout-prone skin may want to seek out an exfoliating cleanser. The bottom line: It's all about keeping your skin balanced.
Choose a cleanser that's formulated for your specific skin type or concerns, and don't overdo it in terms of cleansing frequency, either. Find a cleanser that makes your skin feel calm, if not slightly moisturized, right after its rinsed off—and avoid anything that feels stripping or harsh in any way.
Layer on an active serum
Serums are the step of your routine that packs the punch. Not only do they go on right after washing (so they are applied directly to skin and not layered atop something else), but they are formulated to be more potent.
They function as the "treatment" step of your routine and will do the most work. Here are three active ingredients shown in research to promote your natural production of collagen. Look for these in your serum or treatment:
1. At night: retinol
One of the best ingredients to keep an eye out for is retinol3 or bakuchiol, its sensitive skin-safe, natural alternative. These have been scientifically shown many times over to increase collagen production in the skin4, thereby reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. They do so by accelerating your skin's natural turnover cycle. When this happens, you have less older, damaged cells and more healthy, fully functioning skin cells. These young cells are better able to produce collagen. Retinol (but not bakuchiol) makes your skin highly sun-sensitive though, so only apply it at night, and be sure to practice smart sun care during the day (more on that later).
2. For day: vitamin C
Another key ingredient for boosting collagen levels is good old vitamin C, which Icecreamwala explains is the building block for collagen. Vitamin C's collagen-boosting powers are twofold: Not only is it necessary for stimulating internal collagen production, but it also helps stabilize existing collagen5 levels in the skin, essentially working to make the most with what you've already got (and also, of course, helping to slow visible signs of aging).
Retinol and vitamin C shouldn't be used together at the same time; otherwise, general irritation will likely ensue—this is why we recommend retinol at night and vitamin C in the morning. Oh, and not all retinoids are created equal. Before you switch up your routine, read up on these truths you need to know about using retinol.
Or, an alternative option: glycolic acid
Its collagen-boosting properties are not as strong as the former two ingredients; however, it has been shown to increase collagen production6 when used topically. It's thought to do that as it triggers a wound-healing response in the skin, which spurs collagen production.
Seal in moisture
A strong skin barrier is essential for maintaining healthy collagen. This is because when your skin barrier function is weakened, it becomes more permeable allowing irritants, pollution, and other microbes to enter and wreak havoc.
One of the best ingredients to support your skin barrier function are phytoceramides (or just ceramides). Ceramides are polar lipids, key lipids that are naturally present in our skin cells7. If you think of the skin barrier as "bricks and mortar," ceramides are part of the mortar holding it all together—50%, in fact8. Luckily these actives are present in a lot of lotions and creams, at all price points.
Don't skimp on SPF
You've heard it many times, but we're going to say it again: Few things, if any, are as important to long-term skin health as proper sun protection. This is because UV rays inflict oxidative stress on the skin9, which causes damage on the cellular level and leads to photoaging.
Using a quality sunscreen—every single day, even when the sun isn't seemingly shining—is perhaps the single best way to protect your skin against the sun's damaging effects.
If you're unsure which type of sunscreen to choose (understandable, given the current debate and ever-changing knowledge about the topic), opt for a mineral-based version that contains zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Slather it on post-moisturizer as the final step in your skin care routine every day, then layer your makeup on top.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 17, 2020. A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled bakuchiol and it has since been updated.
Rebecca Dancer is a beauty and lifestyle writer who obtained a print and digital journalism degree from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. She’s worked at and contributed to various print and digital publications, including Byrdie, Allure, Brides, Teen Vogue, Beauty Independent, Shape, SELF, and Women's Wear Daily.