Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 10/5/2021
When it comes to anti-aging treatments, you’re likely to hear about collagen and its role in fighting wrinkles and sagging skin, especially when it comes to your face. It’s what you see every day, after all.
Yet collagen is neither a magical cure for aging woes, nor is it something you can obtain overnight with a pill.
Collagen is certainly a key element when it comes to maintaining youthful skin and a young face, but the relationship between collagen production and youthful skin isn’t so simple.
Collagen is a natural part of the human body (and every other animal’s, for that matter), but while more of it is good, how you get more matters.
And since you can lose it as you age, it’s important to know the best ways to restore your collagen levels.
To understand how to do that, we need to start with the basics.
Considering your skin’s relative thinness, it’s actually quite a big organ with a lot of complex elements working together. We’re going to focus on three: collagen, elastin and keratin.
Keratin is a sort of hardened barrier protein. You can think of it like armor. Elastin is like a mesh weave that keeps all your cells together, and keeps your skin from getting “stuck” when you stretch it.
Then there’s collagen. Collagen is the most plentiful protein of the three, and the largest component of connective tissue in your skin.
Connective tissue is what keeps your skin firm and protected from damage.
Skin damage can be seen in many ways. Lines can form on your face from stress, for example, but they’ll stay because your body lacks the resources to repair those lines and nourish and heal your skin.
Several things can cause these lines, too. It’s not just stress. The sun, air quality, your diet and even your sleeping position can contribute to wrinkles.
The actual mechanism of how wrinkles form isn’t exactly understood, but there are some theories.
One of the two primary theories focuses on intrinsic sources, like the decreasing function of your skin over time and your reduced cellular lifespan.
The other theory relates to extrinsic factors: external sources of damage that cause inflammation and the formation of problematic molecules like free radicals.
Both of these theories have their merits — and it’s best to keep them both in mind when protecting yourself from the sun and pollution.
Let’s talk about those free radicals. Reactive oxygen species are a form of free radicals known to cause oxidative stress to skin.
These free radicals will steal electrons from collagen, elastin and anything else lying around under your skin — which can lead to damaged cells and a reduced regeneration efficiency.
Antioxidants (most commonly, vitamin C) can act as a sort of reservoir of electrons for your protection.
They can donate their electrons to the hungry free radicals under your skin, which can neutralize the problem without causing damage.
A vitamin C rich diet is great, but adding a vitamin C serum to supplement your skincare routine can help you continue to fight free radicals even after you’ve digested that orange.
One of the ways to prevent wrinkles is simply to exfoliate dead cells, which with their dull appearance, can bring more attention to fine lines.
The best way to do this is with retinoids: chemicals derived from vitamin A that can both evaporate away dead cells and reinvigorate your skin to encourage the production of healthy, new cells.
Retinoids can be found in over-the-counter and prescription treatments like tretinoin, which in addition to its other benefits can improve the synthesis of collagen. Tretinoin has been shown to help with the acne fight as well; just be mindful of side effects like irritation and peeling.
Learn more about tretinoin here, and see if it’s right for you.
There are plenty of foods that contain a natural supplemental source of collagen to boost your dietary intake.
Studies have shown that foods high in protein like beef, pork, veal, lamb, game meats and poultry can be great sources of collagen protein.
Likewise, seafood and lunch meats can be great for collagen intake.
The link between collagen consumption and collagen in your face (and your skin, in general) hasn’t been fully established. As recently as 2019, studies have been inconclusive regarding whether or not natural food sources like bone broth can provide collagen in adequate levels to act as a stand-in for collagen supplements.
Peptides are short chains of amino acids which can signal to your skin that your collagen production should move into a higher gear.
While they may “support” healthy skin, the relationship between the collagen you supplement and the collagen in your face is not exactly one to one.
We don’t fully understand the relationship between collagen in its dietary form and the stuff propping up your cheeks.
What we do know is that increasing your collagen intake does tend to lead to increased levels of collagen where you need it, including your joints.
More studies are needed to determine exactly how.
You have a variety of preventative aging measures at your disposal, from lifestyle changes you can make, to topical formulations for your skin which can help you keep it looking younger and beautiful for years and years to come.
Want to do the most for your face? Start with protecting your skin from the harmful radiating effects of prolonged UV ray exposure due to the sun.
UVA and UVB rays are a group of external irritants that can cause skin damage, so make sure to use sunscreen with an appropriate SPF, and also do your best to limit yourself from prolonged sun exposure without adequate protection.
As an added benefit to your face, sporting sunscreen can also reduce your risk of developing skin cancer later on.
It’s not likely a surprise that stress and a lack of sleep can damage your skin. But did you know these two issues can actually weaken the skin’s DNA?
According to a 2014 report, the stress hormone cortisol can damage the DNA in your skin, slow its repair and even exacerbate conditions like psoriasis.
Furthermore, stress releases chemicals that can impair blood circulation — thus reducing your skin's supply of important nutrients by narrowing your blood vessels.
In short, stress and sleep loss are bad news for the health and wellbeing of your skin, and in the long term, that can contribute to photoaging and reduced sun damage resiliency, and it can even increase your signs of aging.
Cortisol is produced by lifestyle stress, work stress, relationship stress and lack of sleep. The report mentioned above also confirmed something you probably already know: There’s no magical de-stress solution.
What you can do for yourself, though, is work to mitigate your stress responses, and consult a healthcare professional for help if you feel regularly overwhelmed.
Drop the bad stuff. Smoking is obviously terrible for your lungs, but it can also cause premature aging too, and can slow healing of your wounds. It can further lead to psoriasis, some cancers and even hair loss.
Smoking can cause skin damage by weakening and slowing your normal skin cell growth cycles, which then leads to the formation of wrinkles.
Here’s more information on how to quit smoking…if you’re ready to quit tobacco.
Water, meanwhile, is incredibly important for healthy skin growth and regeneration. Studies have frequently shown a correlation between dehydration and poor skin cell growth.
Boosting your water intake so that you’re hydrated can help enhance the quality and health of your skin. Hydrating your skin directly, however, can require a bit more work.
You might employ a proper topical moisturizer containing hyaluronic acid, which has been shown to help your skin better retain moisture.
Facial wrinkles are inevitable, but your body’s own collagen production is what can keep the clock ticking slowly, rather than speeding up.
Wrinkles and fine lines are of course unavoidable — though there are ways to keep them from readily forming.
Collagen supplements might help, and moisturizers containing peptides can also help improve the look of your skin.
The best first step in determining what’s best for your face would be to consult with a healthcare professional, to see how to properly care for your skin and stave off signs of early aging.
Collagen may be an important part of that problem solving, and you’ll never know until you take the next step.
Insider tips, early access and more.