What Is Collagen? Health Benefits, Food Sources, Supplements, Types, and More

What-Is-Collagen

Collagen is one of the latest buzzwords in health. It’s hard to escape a grocery store without seeing tubs of powdered collagen or browse in a drugstore without noticing creams that claim they’ll boost collagen to keep you looking young for decades to come. But how important is it for your health, really?

Here’s a look at this popular protein and a scientific analysis of whether a collagen boost is worth the investment.

What Is Collagen Exactly?

You probably think about collagen in your skin because the word comes up whenever anyone is talking about skin aging. It’s true that this protein plays a role in the perceived youthfulness of your skin, but there’s more to it. “Collagen is a protein and is one of the main building blocks of our skin. It’s also found in our bones, tendons, and ligaments,” says Deanne Robinson, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Modern Dermatology in Westport, Connecticut.

Time for a fun fact: Collagen makes up 75 percent of skin’s support structure.  “Think of collagen as the frame of your mattress; it gives [your skin] structure and support,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. To continue with the mattress analogy, the springs are elastic fibers and the stuffing is hyaluronic acid, he says.

Which Factors Contribute to the Loss of Collagen in the Skin?

Unfortunately, collagen starts to degrade with age, and your genetics can affect how fast that degradation happens. “We lose collagen year after year, and make lower quality collagen,” says Dr. Robinson. Free radicals damage collagen — “they are our skin’s enemy,” adds Dr. Zeichner. Environmental factors (like UV rays or pollution), bad lifestyle habits (smoking), and a poor diet (for example one high in sugar) all create free radical formation, which speeds collagen breakdown.

Let’s hit on smoking for a moment. One of the best things you can do for your skin is never smoke — or quit smoking if you do. “Research suggests that smoking allows free radicals to attack collagen fibrils, rendering them weak and of poor quality. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the skin of a smoker tends to look damaged and wrinkled, particularly around the mouth,” says Cyndi Yag-Howard, MD, the CEO and president of Yag-Howard Dermatology Center in Naples, Florida.

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What’s in Collagen? A Look at the Structure of This Essential Protein

Collagen is made up of three amino acids: glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline.  “The collagen molecule is shaped like a triple helix (triple spiral) that combines with other collagen molecules in the skin to form a mesh-like network in the dermis, which is the layer of skin beneath the epidermis and above the subcutaneous fat,” says Dr. Yag-Howard.

What Are the Benefits of Collagen for Your Body?

The protein has a big job in the body. “Collagen gives body tissues structure, toughness, rigidity, and texture. In the skin, it’s akin to a layer of leather. And when it intermingles with elastic fibers, it gives skin strength and resilience,” says Yag-Howard.

When collagen begins to degrade in skin and levels drop in the body, you may notice wrinkles, stiffer tendons and ligaments, weaker muscles, joint pain, and even GI problems, according to the Cleveland Clinic.  It’s clear that collagen is vital for the health of every system in your body.

5 Scientifically Proven Ways to Increase Collagen Production

Here’s a not-so-great reality: “Every year after 30, we lose collagen, and our ability to produce high-quality collagen can diminish,” says Robinson. She recommends using topicals that enhance collagen production to help replenish collagen stores. One is retinoids or retinols, often formulated in anti-aging creams and serums. Research in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology in March 2016 found that retinoic acid and retinol stimulate collagen synthesis in the skin.  Zeichner adds that applying products containing alpha hydroxy acids, like glycolic acid, and peptides can trigger collagen formation.

There are several treatments, performed in-office at the dermatologist, that help increase collagen. “Studies prove that a variety of procedures are able to increase collagen production and improve the appearance of skin,” says Yag-Howard. These include lasers, radiofrequency, ultrasound, microneedling, and fillers, she says.

You’re also best served by maintaining a healthy diet. Protein-rich foods will supply the amino acids your body needs to produce collagen. It also gets some help from other nutrients, like vitamin C, zinc, and copper, according to the Cleveland Clinic.  To maximize collagen production, eat a varied diet filled with whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, lean meats, seafood, and nuts. And yes, that sounds like the healthy eating advice you’ve long heard.

Finally, wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30. “This is the best way to ensure healthy collagen,” says Zeichner. “Make sure to wear it every day, as even incidental sunlight exposure adds up over a lifetime,” he says. Your first line of defense is to protect the collagen you have, rather than trying to make up for bad sun protection habits later. 

Practice self-care with skin massage. There’s a small amount of data suggesting that regular skin massage may help encourage the formation of procollagen-1 and enhance the benefits of anti-aging creams.

What Are the Different Types of Collagen?

According to one reference, there are 28 types of collagen.  Yet resources note that types I, II, and III are the most abundant collagens in the body, and these are the collagens you’ll find touted in product marketing.  Because that’s a long list of collagen types, we’ll cover the three most prominent ones and where they’re found in the body.

Type I The major collagen found in the skin. Also found in tendons, bones, ligaments, teeth, and certain connective tissues. 

Type II Makes up cartilage and is found in the eyes. 

Type III This type of collagen also makes up skin, as well as muscles and blood vessels.

How Can You Get More Collagen?

There’s no shortage of companies trying to get your attention about getting more collagen — either topically or via a supplement or food. Here’s what you need to know about each.

Collagen powders and capsules These have been trendy lately as an addition to coffee and smoothies. There is some evidence, published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, that oral collagen supplements, including the type of collagen that’s often found in powders, are “promising” when it comes to lessening the appearance of aging.  That said, Robinson offers some perspective: “Collagen powder is a protein, and when we ingest it, our body digests it the same as any other source of protein, like chicken or fish. Collagen powder won’t go directly to the skin and plump it,” she says.

Collagen creams and oils Pro-collagen creams on the market claim to lessen the signs of aging by smoothing wrinkles. These contain synthetic collagen that locks moisture into skin, producing a plumping effect.  But there’s a lack of research on how to best incorporate collagen into topical treatments. 

Liquid Some people choose to drink bone broth, which is packed with collagen from animal bones.  While it may be a dietary source of collagen, drinking it has not been proved to have anti-aging benefits for your skin, according to Harvard Women’s Health Watch.

What Are Some Collagen Side Effects and Risks to Be Aware Of?

In general, there aren’t inherent risks associated with collagen — it’s such an important component of a healthy body. But if you’re taking collagen supplements, know that dietary supplements do not need to be proved safe before they’re sold.  If you’re interested in taking a collagen supplement, do your homework, and work with your healthcare team to choose a high-quality supplement from a trusted brand. It’s also worth noting that the source of the collagen matters. If you are allergic to eggs or fish, for example, you are at risk for a serious reaction to collagen derived from those foods.

How to Talk to Your Dermatologist About Collagen

If you’re interested in improving your skin’s collagen production, it’s important to ask about your options (topicals, in-office treatments), costs, potential pain, any associated downtime, and potential risks. Also inquire about both short- and long-term benefits and low long the effects are designed to last. 

5 FAQs and Answers on Collagen

Q: What is the purpose of collagen?

A: Collagen is a protein that gives structure to skin, joints, and bones.

Q: What is collagen made of?

A: Collagen is made up of three amino acids: glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline.

Q: What foods are high in collagen?

A: Protein-rich foods, like meat, eggs, fish and seafood, beans, and dairy will all supply your body with a range of amino acids needed to make collagen.  Bone broth and gelatin are other foods that are collagen-rich.

Q: What is the difference between collagen and gelatin?

A: When collagen is heated, it breaks down to form gelatin.

Q: What are collagen peptides?

A: Collagen peptides are collagen molecules that are broken down, making them more easily digested and absorbed by the body.  Collagen peptides readily dissolve in liquids, if you’re choosing to drink your collagen.

A Final Word on the Function of Collagen in the Body

Collagen is a protein that’s found throughout the body, particularly in skin, bones, ligaments and tendons, teeth, and connective tissues. A healthy, well-rounded diet that includes enough protein, good sunscreen habits, and topicals and other dermatologic procedures can ensure your body gets and produces what it needs to feel great and lessen the appearance of aging.

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By Jessica Migala

Medically Reviewed by Ross Radusky, MD