Spend a minute or two looking at skincare products in your local drugstore and you’ll spot one ingredient in just about everything: collagen.
Collagen is a fibrous protein found in essentially all of your body’s tissue. It’s particularly abundant in your skin, where it plays an essential role in providing structural support and giving your skin its texture and appearance.
Like many other essential components of healthy skin, your body’s collagen levels deplete over time, due to both intrinsic and extrinsic factors.
Enter collagen lotions, supplements and other products. Formulated to increase collagen levels and slow down the effects of aging on your skin, these products often make big promises about reducing wrinkles and improving your skin’s appearance.
Below, we’ve dug into the science to explain exactly what collagen does, as well as the effects that aging can have on your body’s collagen production.
We’ve also shared what you can do to increase collagen levels, slow down the effects of aging on your face and enjoy smooth, great-looking skin as you get older.
What Is Collagen?
Collagen is a fibrous protein. It’s the most abundant protein in the human body. In fact, research has found that collagen is the most abundant protein in the entire animal kingdom.
As a fibrous protein, collagen is found in your skin, organs, connective tissue and bones. It’s an essential component of the extracellular matrix — a complex scaffold of molecules that provides support for numerous different cell types throughout your body.
Collagen helps give your tissue its structure and strength, allowing it to tolerate stretching without being damaged.
In a way, you can think of collagen as a building block for your skin — a kind of natural adhesive that holds together the various forms of tissue that make up your body.
Although collagen is essential throughout your body, most people are primarily familiar with its role in your skin. As one of several key structural proteins, collagen provides your skin with its durability and thickness.
It also plays an essential role in supporting other key components of your skin.
For example, the collagen fibers in your skin provide support to elastin — a structural protein that gives skin its ability to return to its normal shape after contracting or stretching.
This allows your face to “bounce back” and return to its normal shape and appearance after you smile, frown, laugh or make other facial expressions.
Aging and Collagen Levels
As you grow older, your skin changes. Part of this change is intrinsic and is determined by your genes, while other parts of the aging process are extrinsic and driven by factors such as stress, diet and your level of exposure to sunlight.
One of the most significant age-related changes that occurs in your skin is a steady decrease in collagen turnover — the process by which your skin creates new collagen.
As you get older, your skin produces smaller amounts of collagen, as well as other skin proteins, such as elastin.
This decline in structural protein content causes your skin to gradually become thinner, less elastic and less able to retain its shape.
This is why many skin imperfections, such as fine lines and wrinkles, become more pronounced and common as you get older.
While this decrease in your body’s collagen production is part of the skin aging process, it’s not the only factor that causes your skin to change with age.
As you become older, your body’s subcutaneous fat content (the fat located just beneath your skin) decreases.
Your melanocytes (pigment-producing cells) decrease in number, giving your skin a paler, more translucent appearance.
Although many aspects of the aging process on your skin are unavoidable, it’s possible to slow down some aspects of skin aging with the right habits, skin care products and medications.