Contrary to what current self-care trends would have you believe, collagen isn’t solely for the benefit of our appearances.
What is collagen?
Collagen is a critical component of the overall health of a human body (which, yes, includes your skin, but there’s more to collagen than a pretty face!).
The most abundant protein in the body — organs, bones, blood vessels, muscles, skin, etc. — it’s the building block that allows our cells to form other structures. To keep the construction metaphor going, it’s also the support beam that keeps things strong, the foundation that keeps things secure and whatever architectural marvel it is that allows tall things to sway slightly without toppling over aka elasticity. It’s the complex protein glue that holds everything together, and our body houses would be in pretty dire states without it.
How does it work?
There are 16 types of collagen that our bodies produce on their own, with four types doing the bulk of the work. Type I is made of densely packed fibers that give structure to your skin, bones, connective tissue, cartilage, and teeth. Type II consists of more loosely packed fibers to cushion joints. Type III supports the structure of organs, muscles, and arteries. And Type IV’s job is filtration (and it’s also found in your skin).
Now for some science! Collagen starts its life as procollagen, which starts its life when two amino acids — glycine and proline — get together. Basically, vitamin C plays matchmaker, sets glycine and proline up on a date, they fall in love and make procollagen, which grows up into collagen. And they live happily ever after for 25 years.
Why should I care?
Remember that 25-year love story? That’s when your body naturally produces the collagen it needs. Then you hit the quarter-century mark and that production starts to slow way down. Our skin goes from springy, supple and hearty to fragile and less elastic. Our hair starts to lose its color and strength. Our joints aren’t as flexible…you get the picture.
Cool. I’m on the collagen train! Now what?
Luckily, you can still get your collagen fix even after your body has decided it’s done with the stuff. First, consider your diet. Load up on natural sources of the nutrients needed to produce collagen: vitamin C, proline (eggs, dairy, asparagus, mushrooms), glycine (animal protein) and copper (lentils, cashews, sesame seeds). Avoid sugar and refined carbs that mess with collagen’s ability to repair itself. You can also boost your intake with collagen powder you can add to smoothies or coffee and glow-inducing supplements.
(If you’re going the ingestible supplement route, know that there are two different types popular right now: hydrolyzed collagen and gelatin aka cooked collagen. Both forms consist of types of collagen where the large protein structures have been broken down into smaller peptides, making them easier for your body to absorb. The major difference between hydrolyzed and gelatin collagen is that the former doesn’t gel when mixed with liquid while the latter does. Keep that in mind when choosing a formulation or your breakfast smoothie is going to turn into a gelatinous blob.)
When it comes to skincare, you can apply products that contain collagen topically, but it’s not going to work the same way as naturally produced and ingested collagen. Since collagen is a large protein with large molecules, it can’t penetrate the skin’s barrier. Instead, it acts as a humectant, grabbing onto moisture and keeping it in your skin so you’re super hydrated and glow-y.