Collagen is a buzzword in skincare — but there is some controversy about what the ingredient, a protein that's a building block of skin, can and can't do in topical products. "Topical preparations containing collagen help the skin look smoother because they help it retain water," explains Lian Mack, M.D. assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital Center in New York City.
"When skin cells are plump and fully hydrated, skin appears more supple and radiant." Plus, she adds that "collagen creams rebuilding products help the skin look more youthful because the more collagen we have in our skin, the less sagging we see, along with fewer fine lines and wrinkles."
What Is Collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body. Think of it as the scaffolding that holds up skin, muscles, bones and ligaments. Thanks to collagen, nails and hair are healthy, shiny and strong. Collagen in cartilage enables us to bend and stretch our bodies without feeling bones grind against each other.
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What Does Collagen Do For Skin?
When it comes to the skin, collagen is found deep in the dermis and makes up about 70-80% of it. It’s what gives skin that plump, firm and youthful look. Collagen gives skin its “bounce back” quality and contributes to the skin’s ability to retain moisture. Another way to think of the effects of collagen is the difference between a plump, juicy baby cheek and the flat, papery cheek of an elderly person.
The body produces collagen and when everything works smoothly, fibroblasts (or cellular collagen-making machines) create new collagen while the body’s enzymes break down old or damaged collagen and carry it away. But as we age, collagen production naturally slows down which leads to wrinkles on the eyes and forehead, and flatter looking skin. Some estimates indicate that skin loses 1 percent of its collagen every year starting in the mid-thirties. Without the support structure of collagen, fine lines and wrinkles on the face and eyes begin to show up. The connective tissue between skin becomes thinner and the layer of fat underneath it becomes more visible, leading to cellulite.
Collagen also plays a role in the repair of skin, as it helps to replace and restore dead skin cells. Collagen patches, derived from animals, are often used to treat burns and work by attracting new skin cells to the wound site. They also promote healing by creating a scaffolding for new tissue growth.
Are There Different Types of Collagen?
There are around 16 different types of collagen, and the most common are known as type I, II, III, and IV. According to Healthline, type I accounts for 90% of the body’s collagen. It is made from densely packed fibers and is what gives structure to skin, tendons, bone, cartilage, teeth and connective tissue. Type II is found in cartilage and cushions the joints, while Type III supports the structure of muscles, organs and arteries. Healthline notes that Type IV works on filtration and is found in the skin.
What Causes Collagen Levels to Decrease?
The aging process is just one factor contributing to collagen loss. The sun, smoking, diet and environmental damage can also accelerate this process. As the Mayo Clinic notes, exposure to ultraviolet light is one of the biggest culprits. “Ultraviolet radiation, which speeds the natural aging process, is the primary cause of early wrinkling. Exposure to UV light breaks down your skin’s connective tissue — collagen and elastin fibers, which lie in the deeper layer of skin (dermis).”
But there are things you can do to protect the collagen you already have, and encourage the body to produce more of it.
How Can I Protect and Restore My Collagen?
One of the most important ways to protect your collagen is to apply sunscreen with a high SPF every single day. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) notes that “protecting your skin from the sun can reduce your risk of skin cancer, sunburn, and premature skin aging.” Keep in mind that sun damage is often cumulative, and “Spending time outdoors without protecting your skin from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays can add years to your looks.”
The best defense is avoiding the sun and using a broad spectrum SPF. The AAD recommends using a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. According to the AAD, broad-spectrum sunscreens protect against both UVA and UVB rays. What’s the difference? “Sunlight consists of two types of harmful rays that reach the earth — UVA rays and UVB rays. Overexposure to either can lead to skin cancer… UVA rays (or aging rays) can prematurely age your skin, causing wrinkles and age spots, and can pass through window glass. UVB rays (or burning rays) are the primary cause of sunburn and are blocked by window glass.”
Another way to protect collagen is with the right cream, which can mean a collagen infused cream, or one that helps protect the collagen you have. A collagen infused cream helps nourish and moisturize the skin, which makes wrinkles look less prominent. In skincare products, hydrolyzed collagen is basically collagen that has been broken down into smaller chains of amino acids which are called peptides. It is thought that peptides can penetrate deeply into the skin and may help support collagen production.
What Helps Collagen Production?
Other ways to protect and restore your collagen include common sense lifestyle choices, such as quitting smoking, keeping hydrated (both internally and externally) and eating a well-balanced, healthy diet. WebMd notes that “Many of the chemicals in cigarette smoke can damage [collagen], which can make skin sag and wrinkle.”
Eating a healthy diet can also make a difference, especially for restoring collagen. According to WebMD, specific foods can help boost collagen levels. “You can help your body make more collagen by eating healthy foods. To make it, your body puts together amino acids called glycine and proline. You find these acids in high-protein foods such as chicken, fish, beef, eggs, dairy, and beans. Other nutrients, like vitamin C, zinc, and copper, also play a part. You can get vitamin C in citrus fruits, tomatoes, and leafy greens. For zinc and copper, try shellfish, nuts, whole grains, and beans.” Bone broth is another option – but what exactly is it?
What Do Collagen Creams Do?
Another way to boost collagen production is with the right beauty product. Collagen face creams fall into two categories. There are products which contain collagen, and others which help boost collagen production.
One of the best collagen boosting ingredients is the vitamin A derivative retinol. It works in two ways. It prevents the breakdown of collagen after UV exposure (known as collagenase) but also increases the amount of collagen produced by “turning on” genes and cells involved in collagen production.
Dr. Lauren Eckert Ploch, a dermatologist, shared this tip with the American Academy of Dermatology. She recommends women in their 30s use a retinoid for anti-aging concerns. “Retinoids are my go-to wrinkle treatment for women in this age group,” she says. “In addition to improving your skin’s current appearance, they also help build collagen, which can lead to more voluminous skin in your 40s and 50s.”
What Are The Best Ingredients in Collagen Creams?
Vitamin A isn’t the only collagen friendly ingredient. Look for collagen moisturizers and serums with antioxidants like vitamins C, E, and powerhouses such as green tea and pomegranate. They work by blocking the damage caused by free radicals, which attack collagen and elastin.
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When choosing your collagen cream, also look out for ingredients such as hyaluronic acid (which is a super moisturizer) as well as peptides, stem cells and growth factors to help support collagen production. Hydrolyzed collagen is the same thing as a peptide- it basically means collagen that has been shrunk down. Peptides are thought to work as “messengers” to signal the body to start creating collagen when the body needs to heal after an injury. When peptides are applied topically, the concept is that the peptides trick the body into thinking there has been an injury, thereby triggering a collagen response.
Growth factors are not to be confused with growth hormones. They are found in skin cells and help promote the creation of collagen and elastin. Another way to think about growth factors is that they help to support, repair and heal skin.
Stem cells in skincare come from plants such as apples and melons and sometimes animals, and contain proteins and amino acids which tell the body’s skin cells to repair and rejuvenate themselves. They also act as antioxidants and protect the skin cells which produce collagen.
What Are The Best Collagen Creams?
Ultra Repair Firming Collagen Cream with Peptides and Niacinamide
Between the peptides and collagen for plump skin, niacinamide for even tone, and colloidal oatmeal to soothe and seal in moisture, this rich moisturizer has a little bit of everything your stressed-out skin needs.
Vitamin C+ Collagen Deep Cream
Vitamin C serums may get all the glory, but it can be pretty fantastic in moisturizer form too. Case in point: This formula, which pairs the brightening ingredient with plumping collagen for an all-around glow.
Regenerist Collagen Peptide 24 Moisturizer
One of the best anti-aging moisturizers you can buy at the drugstore, with or without collagen. Plus, it’s fragrance-free and hydrates for up to 24 hours.
Night Complex with Collagen & Woodmallow
There are creams you wear at night, and there are night creams—this is the latter. In the short term it will make you look like you slept a full eight, and in the long term it drastically reduces the appearance of fine lines. If you’re willing to invest, this formula is worth it.
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Stress can bring out signs of age more easily (fun!) and this vegan moisturizer has calming ingredients specifically to keep skin feeling soothed—even if only on the outside. Plus, plant-derived collagen and bakuchiol (a gentler alternative to retinol) are there to help plump up fine lines.
Vegan Collagen Every Day Lotion
Collagen doesn’t always have to appear in thick, rich formulas—case in point: this lightweight lotion. Formulated with hyaluronic acid and SPF 30 protection, it’s a great addition to any daytime skin routine.
Derma E Advanced Peptides & Collagen Moisturizer
Another affordable option with a growing fanbase, this vegan formula contains multiple skin-strengthening peptides and plant-derived collagen-boosters. Meanwhile, vitamin C and green tea provide a boost of antioxidant protection.
Collagen Moisture Filler Daily Moisturizer - Unscented
Fragrance-free, tested on sensitive skin, and under $15, this is the ultimate starter moisturizer for anyone dipping their toes into serious skincare.
Confidence In A Cream Hydrating Moisturizer
Ceramides, vitamin E, hyaluronic acid, squalane, collagen—name a powerhouse ingredient, it’s probably in this moisturizer. But it’s not all talk, no action; the best-seller firms, hydrates, and even skin tone, plus it’s suitable for most skin types.