A guide to the anti-aging protein collagen

More and more people are using creams or supplements to resupply collagen to their bodies, but to get the most benefit it’s important to understand how collagen works. 

Whenever we talk about anti-aging strategies one word is never far away – collagen. Whether in skincare cream, supplements or even injections, collagen is portrayed as the magic ingredient that can keep us younger for longer. But what is it, how does it work and how can we all keep our levels as high as possible?

What is collagen?

Collagen is one of the most important building blocks in our skin. It is the main structural protein found in the body’s connective tissue. It consists of amino acids bound together and is found in most types of connective tissue in the body including cartilage, tendons, bones, organs and skin.

Its most visible effect is to keep skin looking plump, smooth and youthful and your joints in good working order. Unfortunately, over time, collagen breaks down, which leads to skin becoming thinner and more wrinkled. It happens to us all sooner or later, but by getting our hands on as much collagen as possible, we can postpone the process and keep our skin looking much younger for longer.

Why do levels decline?

Once we hit our 20s, our bodies naturally start to produce less collagen. At the same time, aging and other factors such as exposure to sugar, sunlight or smoking can destroy collagen. Sooner or later, we get to a point where it is being destroyed much more quickly than our bodies can produce it. We might see the effects in the appearance of our skin or feel them in the condition of our joints.  

For example, someone who smokes heavily and spends all day outside is likely to have older looking skin than someone who stays inside, always wears the right amount of sunscreen and maintains a healthy diet. 

Where can I get collagen?

Our bodies naturally produce collagen in large volumes, but as already mentioned, over time, the amount they produce reduces. However, we can help to replenish our supplies in our diet and through various supplements. Foods such as fish, chicken, egg whites, white tea, garlic, berries and citrus fruits are rich in collagen and have reputations for improving the condition of skin, while various supplements including pills, powders and skin cream can also increase the amount in our bodies. 

Do anti-aging skin creams work?

One of the most common ways to reintroduce collagen is through topical application with a skin cream. The idea here is to directly place collagen on the skin in the hope it will be absorbed. However, more often than not, the molecules are too large to permeate the skin to have any real benefit.

One solution could be to use hydrolysed collagen which is enzymatically broken down into fragments that can make their way into the dermis. Even so, more study is needed to see if this approach can actually boost levels within the skin.

However, skin care creams are not completely wasted. Collagen has great moisturising properties, which makes it a good ingredient as part of a moisturising cream.

What are the different types of collagen?

There are several different types of collagen within the body:

  • Type I: the most common and makes up 90% of all collagen in the body. It includes densely packed fibres wound in a triple helix structure and is incredibly strong and flexible. It can be found all over the body including skin, cartilage and bone.
  • Type II: more commonly found in cartilage and has loosely packed fibres.
  • Type III: can often be found alongside type I and makes up muscles, organs, arteries, and connective tissue in the liver, spleen and blood vessels.
  • Type IV: forms a web-like, rather than triple helix, pattern and is found in the thin outer layer of cells.
  • Type V: is a unique structure that helps cell surfaces and hair.  

Oral supplements generally fall into two categories: bovine and marine collagen. Marine comprises mainly types I and II while bovine produces more type I. However, the body cannot distinguish between different types and there is little evidence to show whether the type of collagen ingested makes any difference to where in the body it goes.

Although definitive research showing that supplements increase collagen levels in skin, joints or anywhere else is thin on the ground, they have been shown to increase collagen levels within the body. It stands to reason, then, that they should have a beneficial effect. Some studies have shown promising results for the effects of collagen on skin aging and other issues.

How long do supplements take to work?

There is no definitive answer to how long collagen supplements will take to work. It depends on the type, your overall body chemistry and the level of dose. However, most people who regularly take collagen supplements start to notice results within 4 to 12 weeks. The best way to choose between the different types of supplements is to see how transparent they are about ingredients, namely where the collagen is sourced from and how much is in each dose. As with many supplements, the results you get may vary, especially if you choose low quality products which do not list their sources.

Photograph: Sora Shimazaki/Pexels

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The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.