There are good reasons why treatments like Ultherapy and products like retinol target collagen production: it’s the most abundant protein in the skin and throughout the body. Some types of collagen fibers are stronger than steel, others are more elastic than rubber. Together the different forms of collagen are necessary for healthy and supple skin. Maintaining robust and resilient collagen is no simple thing however, so here’s a primer on what works and what doesn’t.
Collagen is composed of long coiled strands, which interconnect and weave together to form a structural matrix. There are different types, such as elastin, which as the name implies contribute more to flexibility. Like all molecules in the body, collagen is continually broken down and replaced. It’s sort of like reweaving a tapestry a few threads at a time without unraveling it; quite a trick. However, with age and environmental damage, the new collagen production can’t keep up with the rate of disintegration, which leads in turn to the visible signs of aging in the skin. Almost literally, the fabric of the skin frays, unravels, and sags.
So how do we promote new and healthier collagen? There are several strategies, the primary one being damage control. Excess sun exposure damages collagen, so simple things like sunscreen can have a major impact. A healthy diet may be helpful, but only in a general sense. For example, consumption of specific types of protein is unlikely to make a difference. Vitamin C is often touted, both in the diet and as an ingredient in skin creams. The logic is that since it is a co-factor for the enzyme that builds collagen, extra C would build better collagen. But while it is true that collagen can’t be adequately made if vitamin C is lacking (which is why the disease scurvy develops when vitamin C is absent from the diet), extra dosing doesn’t drive the process any faster. The benefits of vitamin C in skin care are probably more related to its antioxidant properties.
The worst idea of all is collagen in skin creams. Large molecules like these are too big to be absorbed, and aren’t in a usable form. Collagen or elastin in a skin cream I s like throwing bricks at a wall and expecting them to somehow be absorbed, mortared in, and make the wall stronger. Similarly, collagen injections are comparatively short-lasting as wrinkle fillers.
One sure fire way to encourage new collagen is to recruit the body’s healing processes by essentially creating a controlled injury. This is how lasers and other heat-based treatments like Ultherapy and radiofrequency work. Products like SkinMedica’s TNS and tretinoin boost collagen production as well, and should be a mainstay in your skin care plan.