Some of us don’t think nearly enough about the structure of our skin – we’re far too preoccupied with its condition and how we can improve its appearance with the latest skincare! Nearly everyone will have at least heard of collagen though, be it through tales of lip-filler-fails in Hollywood or a fleeting mention in a long-gone biology lesson. We Beauty Geeks are here to give you a crash-course in this molecule and why it’s important for your beloved skin! It’s become somewhat of a popular target for lots of skin products, so let’s get to grips with collagen!

Collagen Basics
Collagen is actually the most abundant protein in the animal kingdom. Quite simply, it’s a fibrous protein which has a major role in the structure of the skin (as well as many other tissues in the body). Collagen is a major component of the extracellular matrix, a scaffold-like structure, which physically supports tissues. As skin ages the rate at which collagen is made declines and the thickness of collagen bundles decreases. In photoaged skin, where the sun has caused accelerated skin ageing, collagen fibres are more fragmented and also thickened.

One collagen, two collagen, three collagen, four… and more?
Collagen comes in many different types (at least 16 in fact!) but for the skin, types I and III are the most essential. At the point of the skin’s formation, 85% of collagen is provided by type I and type III makes up the rest. But these proportions don’t last forever! It has been shown in many studies that the relative amounts of these different types change with age, causing changes in the skin’s appearance and its ability to effectively repair itself. The total collagen content of our skin falls too! In youthful skin, the collagen fibres are in an organised arrangement and allow the skin to be flexible yet strong. When there is less collagen present, the remaining fibres in the skin are arranged more randomly and in dense clumps – this is why our skin loses elasticity and starts to sag, argh!

So what is to blame for this wrinkle-causing decline of collagen?
Fibroblasts are the cells that produce collagen and research has shown that they slow down production as we get older, by approximately 1% each year after we turn twenty! Not only are our cells producing less collagen, but annoyingly enzymes that degrade collagen start to work a bit harder! Matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) cause fragmentation of the collagen fibres and this disrupts their organised structure. The increase in MMP action is gradual in most individuals, but if you are a fan of long summer sunbathing sessions, beware! UV rays in sunlight speed up collagen-degradation by MMPs, contributing to the premature ageing associated with sun-damaged skin. Pass the SPF and sunhat please!

So is collagen the answer to youthful skin?
Now that we know that collagen is essential for healthy and youthful skin, it’s no surprise that there are many beauty products out there aiming to increase collagen production. We’ve already featured some of them here at Beauty by the Geeks! Ginvera Green Tea Marvel Gel contains royal jelly, which has been shown to increase collagen production, as do some of the vitamins in the Environ Moisturiser Range and Sunday Riley Start Over Cream. With most modern products, the chances are if it says ‘anti-ageing’ on the bottle, the formula will try to enhance collagen levels!

Is all collagen good?
Collagen isn’t always our friend (things never are that simple in science!). The balance of collagen types is very important, especially when it comes down to the beauty scourge that is scarring. Type III collagen production is increased during the initial stages of wound healing, which encourages blood vessels to form. With an increased blood flow, the scar can often appear raised and very red. Usually the type III collagen will be degraded and gradually replaced by type I, as the healing process progresses to produce skin that looks as good as new. In cases where inflammation has continued longer than usual (for example, if you’ve just kept on squeezing that pesky spot!), type III production may continue to lead to a bigger, more visible scar that can persist even after the skin has healed. Some products, like SkinMedica Scar Recovery Gel which we looked at recently, aim to reduce type III collagen production in favour of type I to reduce the appearance of scars. With a wealth of positive reviews and substantial science, we’d advise scar sufferers to give our review a read!

The diet, vitamin C and collagen
You may well hear a lot of beauty buzz around the diet and collagen levels (particularly on the web!). Much of this is based around the fact scurvy, a disease where collagen cannot effectively be produced, is caused by a lack of vitamin C in the diet. The logic is that because lack of vitamin C causes loss of collagen production, then eating loads of vitamin C will boost collagen levels. Unfortunately, studies haven’t really backed up this idea, and it is generally thought that so long as you’re not deficient in vitamin C, then the body (including the skin) is likely producing collagen at around the same rate whatever your actual vitamin C intake.

Saying that, the diet is actually thought to affect skin appearance, and high intake of vitamin C has been linked to better skin ageing appearance (although importantly this has not been linked to collagen). On top of that, it has been observed that the use of topical vitamin C to improve skin appearance is less effective in those who have a large dietary vitamin C intake, and so it’s all a little confusing! The likely explanation is that dietary vitamin C is affecting vitamin C levels in the skin, which is showing benefit, but that these benefits are not related to collagen (vitamin C has other benefits too which we’ve explored here!).

On another interesting dietary note, some studies have shown that dietary intake of bioactive collagen peptides (very short components of collagen) does affect levels of structural proteins in the skin, including collagen precursor molecules and elastin (an elastic molecule). This was linked to reduced skin wrinkling. It’s new and exciting research, but it’s a little way off being proven as a viable treatment for aged skin.

A word on topical collagen
You will likely have seen products (and adverts for products!) using topical collagen, with clever diagrams of how important collagen is for the skin’s structure. Whilst it’s true that collagen has an important structural role in the skin, collagen itself is far too big to penetrate past the top layer of the skin, let alone being able to provide structural support to the deeper dermis! Topical collagen may well have some skin benefits, but wise Beauty Geeks will note that these benefits do not include the integration of the collagen they include into the structure of the skin!

So that’s a whistle-stop tour through the world of collagen (believe it or not, we’ve barely scratched the surface here!). We hope we’ve shed a little light on this important molecule and its relevance to the beauty world!

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Molecular mechanisms of skin ageing
The content and ratio of type I and III collagen in skin differ with age and injury
The Principles of Wound Healing
Decreased Collagen Production in Chronologically Aged Skin
Scars – NHS Choices
Scurvy – NHS Choices
Collagen: The Fibrous Proteins of the Matrix
COLLAGEN STRUCTURE AND STABILITY
Skin wrinkling: can food make a difference?
Dietary nutrient intakes and skin-aging appearance among middle-aged American women.
Accelerated wound healing with topical application of complement C5.
Oral intake of specific bioactive collagen peptides reduces skin wrinkles and increases dermal matrix synthesis.
Images: http://www.people.vcu.edu/~glbowlin/research.html, http://www.organicapoteke.com/blog/2009/09/wrinkle-reduction-and-anti-aging-skin-care-tips/ , http://www.bio.miami.edu/tom/courses/bil255/bil255goods/03_proteins.html