The word collagen comes from two Greek terms: kola meaning “glue” and gen meaning “producing.” Collagen has glue-like properties; think of it as the building block that keeps skin firm and resilient. The dermis has plenty of collagen and elastin. As we age, our skin produces less collagen; the lack of collagen is the main cause of wrinkles. The body’s natural collagen production declines mostly due to genetic factors along with lifestyle factors such as stress, sun, poor diet, pollution etc. Initial breakdown of collagen depends on members of the collagenase family that are capable of cleaving naïve triple helical collagen. If you never stopped making collagen and never damaged collagen, you would hardly get a wrinkle, your pores would stay small, you would never get a scar and your skin would stay nice and tight. Collagen is the key.
There are different types of collagens. Some are derived from animal bones or skin, and others from animal cartilage. Either way, collagen is a protein and it is very rich in two amino acids: proline and hydroxyproline. Its structure is complicated. The amino acids link together to form long chains called peptides. Peptides are smaller molecule proteins, and thus can penetrate the dermis more easily than regular collagen. The deeper penetration of peptides into the skin improves the quality and beauty of the skin. The five most commonly used peptides in anti-aging skin care are Palmitoyl pentapeptide-3, Palmitoyl tetrapeptide-7, Acetyl Hexapeptide-3, Palmitoyl Oligo peptide, and Matrixyl 3000.
Peptides form even longer chains called polypeptides. Three polypeptides wrap around each other to form a bundle that is called pro-collagen. Pro-collagen then turns into tropocollagen which then is called a single collagen fiber. The fibers are very well organized. Older skin has less collagen and elastin, which deteriorates and hence do not provide the fill and support that they do in young skin. Its destruction plays a role in the aging of the body.
Depending upon how amino acids are combined, you can generate 28 or 29 different types of collagen. Collagen is a long chain amino acid and the most abundant protein in the body. It is composed of amino acids glycine, proline, hydroxyproline and arginine. In nature, collagen is found exclusively in animal tissues, especially bone and connective tissues. There are marine sources but there are no vegetable sources or synthetic sources of true collagen.
You can rub collagen on your skin in lotion form, you can swallow it as a dietary supplement, or you can have it injected directly into your skin. It is an insoluble fiber that is responsible for giving skin elasticity and hair its strength. Soluble collagen is thought to penetrate skin better. Naïve collagen is essentially a fully formed, mature version. It has a very high molecular weight and it is a very large molecule. Hydrolyzed collagen, generally referred to as enzymatically-processed collagen, is most commonly used in cosmetics. Here, a mature collagen is chemically chopped off in very tiny bits. It is generally well absorbed on hair, increasing its tensile strength and elongation. It is also used in soaps to impart a soft texture to skin. The most abundant collagen in the body are Type 1, Type 2 and Type 3. Type 3 is the most stable and longest lasting.
Leiden University Medical Center in The Netherlands made the first direct link between the amount of sugar circulating in the blood and how sugar molecules permanently bond to collagen proteins in your skin. Collagen becomes cross-linked from long-term exposure to the destructive linear sugars. When glycation occurs in skin, the sugar molecules attach themselves to collagen fibers. Extensive cross-linking of collagen causes the loss of skin elasticity, resulting in wrinkled sagging skin. This is a process known as glycation, and it produces compounds called Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs) that cross-link with proteins and consequently tissues become stiff and inflexible, skin becomes tougher and permanently sags. Glycated collagen is the unseen enemy within. Glycation reduces Type 3 collagen into Type 1, which is more fragile and is less stable than Type 2 and Type 3. When this happens, skin looks and feels less supple and is more prone to wrinkling.
Pricey moisturizers contain collagen, which reportedly replaces the collagen lost during the aging process. This claim is unfounded. Collagen has a molecular weight of 15,000 to 50,000 daltons. Only substances with molecular weight of 5,000 daltons or less can penetrate the stratum corneum.1 These products are usually labeled as firming creams as well as moisturizers, although they have little to no effect on transepidermal water loss.2
Collagen gives skin plumpness, yet its molecules are too large to make it through the skin, it won’t supplement collagen deficiencies. Collagen is the main structural protein that keeps the skin tight and elastic. The loss of collagen results in loss of facial volume causing crow’s feet, naso-labial folds, and jowls on the chin and jaw line areas of the face. To stimulate production of new collagen in the skin, a cosmetic formula must incorporate ingredients that efficiently penetrate deeply and work together to rebuild collagen.
Vitamin C in the form of L-ascorbic acid with concentrations between 5 and 15% was proven to have a skin anti-aging effect by inducing the production of collagen Type 1 and Type 3 (Dermatoendocrinol. 2012). The main action of vitamin C on the skin is direct stimulation of collagen synthesis. It is an essential co-factor for the two enzymes required for collagen synthesis: prolyl hydroxylase and lysyl hydroxylase.3
Topical application of tretinoin can improve the appearance of photo-aged skin by stimulating new collagen production in the dermal layer of the skin (Clin. Interv. Aging 2006). In general, vitamin A derivatives encourage the skin to generate collagen, increase cell-turnover, and reduce hyperpigmentation. It smooths skin while promoting the growth of collagen and elastin—proteins that keep face firm and supple.
The Role of Supplements
They are often combined with other vitamins and ingredients such as Type 2 hydrolysates and glucosamine for joint health; for example, low molecular weight Bio Cell is combined with proline hydroxyproline and vitamin C for healthy skin and hair.
The body produces less collagen with age; food makers are marketing collagen supplements as a way to boost your body’s level of it. Meanwhile, research has also linked collagen supplements to improved skin elasticity and moisture. Studies report that taking collagen peptides regularly improves skin moisture level and smoothness as well as helps to fight the effects of skin aging.4
Another study showed that individuals taking a daily supplement containing collagen peptides reported a significant reduction in eye wrinkle depth.5 Study participants also showed improvement in their skin’s collagen and elastin after eight weeks of taking the supplement. Marine collagen peptides can have a profound effect on the biological regulation of the skin and have been shown to boost new collagen production.
However, these studies are either small in scope, short in duration or not yet replicated by follow up experiments, according to Dr. Mark Moyad MD, MPH, The University of Michigan Medical Center. Furthermore, there is no clear evidence that eating collagen increases your body’s level of it. There are also concerns regarding contaminants in collagen supplements and foods. Since it comes primarily from ground up animal parts, it is better to check for its heavy metal and creatinine content. Harmful heavy metals like copper and arsenic have turned up in supplements. There are also side effects such as nausea, diarrhea and other GI issues. Moreover, it is not clear how much collagen or exactly which type is most effective.
In terms of collagen supplements offering skin and hair benefits, Adam Friedman MD, an Associate Professor of Dermatology at George Washington University, says simply “no way.” He insists, “Collagen is going to be digested by your GI tract, because it is not built to survive the massive pH change in the gut.”
A 2002 study in the International Journal of Clinical Pharmacological Research reported that digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid break down hydrolyzed collagen, which is the type found in most collagen peptide powders. The same study, also found that collagen Type 2 may be able to slip through your gut without losing its chemical structure.
There are in-office procedures to boost collagen. GentleMax Pro Laser is a thermal collagen stimulator that creates new collagen cells leaving skin plump and firm. There is no downtime or pain and it offers facial firmness. Pro-Peel is a face and neck treatment. Results last from 12 to 18 months. Similar to chemical peels, laser treatments can stimulate collagen production by producing a controlled injury to the skin.
Clear+ Brilliant laser promotes collagen production to smooth away the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, uneven skin tone and texture. AMP MD Micro-exfoliating Roller is easy to use and gently removes dead skin cells and smooths skin’s surface by tearing into it via tiny needles. The process of wounding the skin triggers its repair by producing new collagen to help smooth wrinkles, according to Dr. Neil Sadick of Cornell Medical College, New York.
Collagen is the key protein in maintaining skin elasticity and structural integrity. For better or worse, they have been used in creams for many years, even though they are too big to penetrate the skin. Still they are good moisturizers.
- Wehr RF Krochmal, Cutis 1987, 89512.
- Cosmetic Dermatology, Leslie Baumann MD
- Kivirikko Ki et al. Acad Sci 1996:3831.
- True Marine Collagen, Research Institute ofBiomatrix, Tokyo, Japan.
- Proksch E, et al. Oral intake of specific bioactive collagen peptides reduces skin wrinkles and increases dermal matrix synthesis. Skin Pharmacol Physiol 2014;27:113-119
Navin M. Geria
Chief Scientific Officer
AyurDerm Technologies, LLC
Navin Geria, former Pfizer Research Fellow is a cosmetic and pharmaceutical product development chemist and the chief scientific officer of AyurDerm Technologies LLC, which provides Ayurvedic, natural and cosmeceutical custom formulation development and consulting services to the spa-wellness-dermatology industries. He has launched dozens of cosmeceutical and ayurvedic anti-aging products. Geria has more than 30 years of experience in the personal care industry and was previously with Clairol, Warner-Lambert, Schick-Energizer, Bristol-Myers and Spa Dermaceuticals. He has nearly 20 US patents and has been published extensively. Geria edited the “Handbook of Skin-Aging Theories for Cosmetic Formulation Development” focus book published in April 2016 by Harry’s Cosmeticology. He is a speaker, moderator and chairman at cosmetic industry events.