Collagen is the most abundant structural protein in the body and skin. And, oh boy, is it important if you care about healthy aging and skin care.*
The gradual and natural decline of the body's collagen supply contributes to what we consider signs of aging: fine lines, sagging, sallowness, loss of volume, and more.* It's no wonder that people are constantly looking for ways to "restore" their natural levels.
Here, we look into why collagen declines and the most effective (and natural) ways to support your own levels of this protein in the skin.*
What does collagen do for the body & skin?
Collagen is found in many areas of the body: skin, bone, cartilage, and muscle, with the purpose of helping tissues be simultaneously more firm, elastic, and withstand stretching.* So, for example, it keeps skin looking young and supple.*
For a full explainer on the role of collagen in the body, check out our collagen guide, which dives into the details more thoroughly.
Do you need to restore collagen?
Here's the good part: Your body makes its own supply of collagen via fibroblasts2 (assuming the amino acid building blocks are present from your diet). Essentially, these cells take amino acids (the constituents of protein) that we ingest and then turns them into protein.
The bad part is that this process slows over time. "Our bodies always balance collagen production and degradation," says board-certified dermatologist Gary Goldenberg, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York about collagen decline. "When we are young, our bodies produce more collagen than we break down. That balance tips the wrong way with age since tissue regeneration decreases."
Collagen production peaks in your 20s, but at some point in that precious decade, the decline begins. The exact point is different for everyone, but typically mid- to late 20s is a good bet. After that, your collagen declines at a steady rate of 1% per year3, every year.
For those who go through menopause, collagen takes another drop during that time: They experience a 30% drop in collagen4 during that time frame, and then that stabilizes to an about 2% decline every year thereafter.
Collagen levels can also take a hit from natural lifestyle factors like UV exposure, stressors, and diet.
How to restore collagen
Now that you've been briefed on why you should pay attention to your natural collagen levels, let's look into the ways in which you can enhance them.
As an overview, there are several routes to take when it comes to collagen support—and, as always, we recommend taking care of your skin from all angles.*
Collagen supplements have become a popular tool for skin health and longevity.* They're made of collagen peptides, or short-chain amino acids, which are more easily absorbed by the body.*
Once absorbed, they are able to travel around the body, exerting their beneficial effects: Research shows they are able to enhance your body's own collagen production3 by stimulating fibroblasts, those same cells that make collagen and elastin to begin with.*
As for collagen's effects on skin, you might expect results like better hydration, smoother skin, and improved skin quality.*
For example, clinical research has shown that collagen can support skin elasticity5 and potentially make fine lines appear smaller.* And a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial found that participants' moisture levels in the skin were seven times higher6 than those who did not take collagen supplements.*
Of course, not all collagen supplements are created equal. It's imperative that you find a quality manufacturer that is transparent about their sourcing, excipients, amino acid profile, and the amount of collagen actually in the product.
Additionally, there are other nutrients you can take that support your collagen production through other pathways. While this isn't an exhaustive list, here are some of the most efficient options to look for:
- Vitamins C & E. In addition to being great micronutrient antioxidants, these vitamins play a very specific and major role in collagen production: Vitamin C is required in collagen formation in the body by aiding in the synthesis process, while vitamin E is an essential fat-soluble vitamin important for normal collagen cross-linking.* Both are vital molecules for skin health and offer additional intrinsic support.*
- Astaxanthin. The carotenoid has powerful antioxidant properties, especially in regard to dealing with free radicals that are the result of UV exposure (which can affect your natural collagen levels).* Additionally it protects your collagen layer.*
If you're in the market for a collagen supplement, check out our top-rated options.
Skin care products are an excellent way to spur collagen production—not to mention they offer some of that immediate gratification that is oh-so-rewarding.
But if you're looking to improve collagen production, topical collagen products aren't actually not the way to go. Collagen and collagen peptides are too large to be absorbed effectively by the skin (unlike the gut), and thus don't affect the natural collagen level. However, some actives have been shown to boost collagen production:
- Retinol7 or bakuchiol. These have been scientifically shown many times over to increase collagen production in the skin8, 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 more healthy, fully functioning skin cells: These young cells are better able to produce collagen.
- Vitamin C. Much like it supports collagen production when ingested, it can help when used topically as well. Again, it plays a role in the collagen synthesis process as well as stabilizing the existing collagen9.
- Glycolic acid. This has been shown to increase collagen production10 when used topically. It's thought to do that as it triggers a restorative healing response in the skin, which spurs collagen production.
For more information on building a collagen-supporting skin care routine, check out our how-to.
While supplementation provides a targeted approach to collagen support, your day-to-day diet is the foundation upon which this is built.
Ideally, you're eating a robust diet with a wide variety of nutrients—and one that doesn't spur inflammatory processes in the body.
For collagen specifically, you can also consume foods that have an amino acid profile themselves such as chicken (with skin on), lean meats, lentils, and so on.
You should also consume foods high in vitamins C and E (for collagen synthesis and cross-linking), a variety of nutrient and phytonutrient antioxidants (to protect your collagen layer), and essential minerals, like zinc (which also play a role in protein production).
Finally, you may want to avoid high-sugar diets, which have been linked to hardening and fragmentation of collagen in the skin11.
For a full list on how to eat for collagen support, check out our guide.
This is less about production and more about making sure the collagen you do have remains stable, but there are several things you can do to make sure your collagen levels remain healthy. As I often say: everything is skin care.
- Manage stress.Stress causes an increase in hormones like cortisol, which research has found can decrease the production of collagen. Additionally, when we are stressed, our bodies redirect nutrients to organs like the lungs and brain, meaning the skin doesn't get as many resources to produce a healthy amount of collagen.
- Sleep. Beauty sleep is real: The REM cycle is actually when the body is able to do most of its cellular rejuvenation, collagen included. During this time the skin sees a surge in HGH (human growth hormone) in the nighttime sleep cycle. The release of HGH helps rebuild body tissues and spurs increased cell production to replace cells naturally lost throughout the day.
- Practice smart sun care. Natural light is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle.
For more tips, visit our guide to producing collagen naturally.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.