What is collagen?

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Being the beauty buffs that you are, you probably know that collagen is essential for supple, youthful skin– but have you ever wondered what collagen actually is? Or how it really works?

We spoke to skin care experts to get the answers to these science-y questions (and then broke them down so they make sense to non-scientists). Beauty school is officially in session!

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What is collagen?

Collagen is the most abundant protein found in our bodies and, as Expert Skin Therapist Robyn McAlpine explains, its primary function is “to provide strength and structure”. The term ‘collagen’ comes from the Greek word ‘kólla’, meaning ‘glue’, which seems appropriate considering how – as Director and Founder of Blyss Skin Clinic Jodie King puts it – “it basically holds the body together”.

There are at least 16 types of collagen, but 80 to 90 percent of the collagen found in the body consists of types I, II, and III*. While us skin care enthusiasts tend to focus on the collagen found in our skin, it’s also an important component of our bones, tendons, muscles and cartilage, as well as blood vessels, intervertebral discs, gastrointestinal tract and even the cornea of the eye. Interesting, right? Our body’s collagen reserve is therefore vital not only to our skin’s appearance, but to our overall health, Robyn says.

How is collagen made?

Collagen makes up a whopping 70 per cent of our skin’s connective tissue. For the most part, this precious protein is produced by cells called dermal fibroblasts, which exist within the dermis – that is, the lower or inner layer of skin which supports it and provides energy and nutrition to the top layer, the epidermis. Fibroblasts also play a crucial role in tissue repair. When tissue damage has occurred, inactive fibroblasts (known as fibrocytes) undergo mitosis or multiplication to produce more collagen to help repair the damage! Pretty cool, huh?!

How does collagen benefit our skin?

As Robyn explains, collagen gives skin “strength and resiliency” and keeps it “firm and plump” (which, let’s be honest, are the Holy Grails of a youthful complexion). Collagen also works with other key fibrous proteins, elastin and keratin, to provide “stretch and give” and keep skin waterproof and smooth. #yesplease

Now that you’ve learned about the anti-ageing benefits of collagen, you might be thinking: then why is my skin not as firm, plump or smooth as it used to be? Well, unfortunately, as we age, our body’s mechanisms for producing collagen becomes less efficient – to the point that “they will only come out to play when prompted; for example, when you cut or graze your skin”, says Robyn.

We hate to burst the bubble more, but Jodie reveals ageing also brings about an “increase in the enzyme matrix metalloproteinases”, which breaks down existing collagen in our skin. The exact science of this collagen loss is pretty complicated, but the result is clear: we see the signs of ageing, including “fine lines, wrinkles, sagginess and a loss of volume in our skin”, says Jodie. *Sad face*.

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What other factors lead to loss of collagen?

While ageing is inevitable, the following internal and external factors (many of which we can control) have been scientifically proven to speed up the loss of collagen in our skin:

Internal

  • Hormonal changes/imbalances
  • Poor nutritional intake and a high sugar diet (this can trigger oxidative stress and the formation of free radicals that “inhibit and damage our collagen fibres”, says Robyn)
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Smoking

External

  • UV exposure (one of the worst offenders, as it “creates a chemical reaction, stimulating an enzyme that breaks down our collagen”, says Robyn)
  • Pollution (watch bh’s Rosie’s video to learn more about how pollution affects your skin)

Your skin care regimen can also impact your skin’s collagen reserves. To keep your collagen levels as healthy as possible, try using anti-ageing products formulated with ingredients to increase cell renewal and support collagen synthesis. These are our picks:

*Lodish H, Berk A, Zipursky SL, et al 2000, Molecular Cell Biology, 4th edition.

What else would you like to learn about collagen? Do you want to know more about how to support your skin’s collagen levels? 

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