Collagen: it’s the building block of bouncy skin, and it starts tanking in our twenties. Here’s how to enhance collagen production, from simple diet tweaks to cutting edge treatments (and the supplements that actually work)
Collagen is the protein behind pretty much everything holding you up currently- bones, skin, muscle- all collagenous (not a word but ought to be). It’s strong stuff and supports us from within, keeping us bendy, bouncy and generally supple, but despite the fact that it constitutes up to 40 per cent of our body composition, it starts to dip with age, and unfortunately we’re not talking retirement- Dr Paris Acharya, aesthetic specialist at the Waterhouse Young Clinic , explains the repercussions and timeline for our skin in particular:
“Skin is your largest organ with collagen being one of the main components. Ageing results in collagen depletion and this process starts as early as your mid twenties resulting in wrinkles, sagging and loose skin.”
Tidings of great joy we know, but everything from skincare to supplements can rev up collagen production, while certain factors are well known for damaging our poor old collagen proteins (namely cheery stuff like sugar and sunlight). Here are the treatments, skincare ingredients, foods and lifestyle habits that protect your precious collagen according to the derms and doctors in the know, and what not to do where collagen preservation is concerned. Not that collagen is a fun sponge but...
There are two particular hero skincare ingredients to have in your arsenal when it comes to boosting collagen:
Retinol and retinoids
Retinoids have been shown to be one of the most effective ingredients out there for slowing the skin ageing process, partly down to their collagen-stimulating capacities. Dr Acharya explains why, when it comes to upping your collagen, they’re first-class:
“The gold standard, evidence-based skincare ingredients to help rebuild collagen are retinoids. Retinoids are derived from vitamin A, they are topical creams that can be applied to your skin to improve its appearance by reducing lines and wrinkles, fading pigmentation, reducing acne and breakouts and improving pore clarity. Vitamin A plays a fundamental role in reversing the signs of ageing by increasing cellular turnover, promoting new collagen formation and exfoliating dead skin cells, resulting in smoother, brighter, more even-toned skin.
“ There are many different forms of retinoids available . Over the counter products contain weaker strengths compared to those available from doctor-led clinics. I recommend ideally using topical retinoids under the guidance of a specialist, as side effects may include irritation, sun sensitivity and an initial worsening of breakouts (retinoids are not recommended in pregnancy or while nursing).”
“They can irritate, so should be introduced gradually and only used as tolerated. Everyone is different and some people might just tolerate them twice a week or so, preferably in the evening, which is fine.”
The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion, £8 for 30ml
Dr Dennis Gross Ferulic + Retinol Wrinkle Recovery, £89 for 30ml
It’s over ten times the price of the previous retinoid pick, but as intensive collagen building treatments go, it packs a punch. Retinol is the star where collagen synthesis is concerned, niacinamide soothes and helps to strengthen the skin barrier while antioxidant ferulic acid stabilises and enhances the effects of retinol.
The second essential collagen enhancing VIP to invite into your bathroom cabinet according to Dr Acharya:
“The antioxidant vitamin C is essential for collagen production and maintenance. Not only does it play a fundamental role in prevention of photo ageing, its potent antioxidant action reduces inflammation and promotes wound healing.”
Dr Williams also underlines that topical antioxidants such as vitamin C can help to protect skin from oxidative stress that triggers collagen breakdown- think pollution , smoking and sun exposure (we’ll come to these and other collagen saboteurs later). By lowering free radicals in the skin directly, vitamin C and other powerful antioxidants help the skin to maintain its elasticity, resilience and collagen levels.
Skinceuticals CE Ferulic, £135 for 30ml
Triple figure spendy but adored by derms across the globe for a reason. This 15% ascorbic acid-based formula is suitable for all skin types and helps to protect skin from UV damage, inflammation and general free-radical onslaught while brightening and slowing collagen breakdown. The packaging and formulation also keep the notoriously difficult-to-stabilize vitamin C molecules active and effective. If your budget doesn’t stretch this far, give Boots Ingredients' Vitamin C Serum , £6, a go and see how you get on.
The one preventative health and beauty measure that the world seems to agree on, “wear sunscreen” will never get old, but as well as protecting your skin from harmful UV rays, SPF helps to combat the collagen sabotaging effects of sunlight- Dr Williams gives it to us straight:
“Certain environmental factors such as sun exposure will hasten collagen breakdown, so it’s important to avoid excessive sun exposure and protect your skin with an SPF between 30 and 50 each day.”
Heliocare 360 Gel Oil-Free SPF 50, £28 for 50ml
Dr Acharya’s non-comedogenic choice for protecting the collagen you already have while shielding skin from the sun’s rays, with added vitamins C and E and antioxidant green tea extract for further free-radical defense. It’s very lightweight and slips nicely under makeup too.
Diet and lifestyle
Collagen is a sensitive entity- the usual suspects such as cigarettes and alcohol can cause it to breakdown, but equally you can tailor your lifestyle and habits to beef up the collagen you have. First off, here’s what compromises collagen levels according to Dr Acharya:
“Diet and lifestyle can impact your general and skin health, resulting in depleted collagen levels. Smoking, sun exposure, pollution, stress, alcohol and an unhealthy diet all wreak havoc on your skin- each of these elements have individual effects on the stability and production of the collagen protein by activating pathways that damage collagen and reduce its formation. As a result the ageing process is accelerated, impairing our body’s ability to heal and repair, resulting in poor quality and reduced levels of collagen overall.
Collagen food fixes
To promote collagen growth, start with your shopping trolley. Consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Hextall has a skin friendly shopping list as a rough guide:
“To help your skin in the long run, start thinking about what’s on your plate. It’s the cheapest way to good skin! A diet focused on high-quality lean protein, fibre , fatty acid rich oils, fruits and vegetables and spices is best for supporting healthy skin. These foods tend to contain high-quality amino acids – the foundations of firm skin – plus anti-inflammatory and antioxidant rich ingredients that promote optimal skin metabolism and defence against environmental stressors, including free radicals. In particular, don’t skimp on protein, which is needed to produce collagen.”
Dr Acharya specifically lists “lean meats, quinoa, salmon, beans, lentils, nuts, leafy greens, berries and citrus fruits” as especially collagen favourable foods, and nutrient wise she advises prioritising “vitamin C, lysine and proline, vitamin B3 and vitamin A. These all contribute to higher levels of collagen production and healthier skin, hair and nails.” In terms of collagen loss, general good health counsel prevails- “limit salty, sugary foods, alcohol and caffeine.”
No doubt you’ve encountered those little collagen juice bottles on the shelves at your local chemist, promising to elicit an elixir of life effect on your skin. Is there are grounds for investing in a collagen supplement, and if so, which ones should you look out for? Dr Williams thinks that certain supplements can improve collagen retention and synthesis:
“When patients have regenerative treatments in clinic, we often also combine them with a high-grade bovine collagen supplement. Collagen supplements have become something of a trend and I admit that I was sceptical about them at first. But recent clinical evidence has made me change my mind.”
They work along these lines...
“Natural collagen is too huge a molecule to reach your skin intact after swallowing: to be absorbed by the gut, it would have to be digested into smaller units. Collagen supplements contain small collagen fragments, namely peptides and amino acids, that are easily absorbed by the small intestine and distributed throughout the body via the bloodstream, where they remain for up to 14 days.
“Because there are suddenly unusually high amounts of collagen ‘building blocks’ floating around, your skin is tricked into thinking that there must be some breakdown- a major injury, perhaps. If you’ve just had regenerative procedure in clinic, that will reinforce this message- think of the tens of thousands of micro-wounds induced by medical needling for example. So your skin responds to both of these alerts by increasing its own collagen production – conveniently using the building blocks we’ve just supplied by way of a supplement. This collagen stimulating trigger leads to tissue remodelling, skin regeneration and ultimately firmer, more refined-looking skin.”
“Personally, my preferred collagen supplements contain a superior-quality bovine collagen which is more similar to human collagen than marine types. My dose recommendation is 10g collagen per day, but always discuss your unique needs with a medical specialist.”
As well as bookmarking bovine collagen when looking for a supplement (clearly avoid if you’re vegan or vegetarian) Dr Acharya has a few other stipulations to make sure that you’re getting your money’s worth:
“When looking for suitable supplements or collagen drinks it is important to search for ones that contain hydrolysed peptides as these are the best way for the collagen stimulating molecules to reach your bloodstream and not be digested by the acidic conditions in the stomach.
“Look out for other nutrients, for example, lysine, which increases calcium thereby helping form collagen, MSM (methylsulfonylmethane), which is an organic form of sulphur that stimulates collagen and keratin, plus antioxidant vitamin C, which is essential for collagen production.”
“It is also recommended to avoid consuming caffeinated drinks an hour either side of a collagen nutraceutical drink or supplement."
The pro-collagen lifestyle
Collagen just loves clean living apparently, as Dr Acharya confirms. Turns out that lifting weights isn’t only good for your guns...
“Exercise, and especially resistance training , has been found to boost collagen levels through growth hormone and fibroblast activity, resulting in healthier, thicker skin.”
R&R has its role too:
“Reduce stress where you can and work on improving sleep quality, as this helps to prevent excessive cortisol levels, which can contribute to decreased collagen stability. The amino acid glycine, part of the protein that makes up collagen, can promote restful sleep and calm the nervous system.”
Now you’ve got your collagen stimulating daily plan in action, you could book in for a pro treatment to give your collagen production a kick up the bum, funds allowing (skincare and self-care come first the collagen maintenance hierarchy). Here are some of the most popular collagen regenerating treatments available, why they work, and what they entail.
Biostimulating fillers and treatments
Collagen boosting may not be at the forefront of your mind when considering fillers ( here’s what you should consider before you do go there ), but Dr Acharya notes that they have a collagen spiking side effect: “Dermal fillers, including hyaluronic acid fillers and Radiesse (calcium hydroxyapatite) both offer immediate lift and corrective volume to the skin tissues while also stimulating your body to create its own collagen.”
This year we’re expecting to hear a lot about biostimulating treatments, created to kick start the body’s type 1 collagen production. In a nutshell, biostimulators are treatments that work by stimulating your own collagen so the plumpness you are left with is mainly your own, making them an attractive option for people looking for a more natural results.
Biostimulators don’t stay in the body very long (six weeks to three months) - your body breaks them down and what is left is your own collagen.
Falling into this category is Ellansé, a stimulating dermal filler than not only instantly volumises the skin for immediate results, but continues to do so for up to four months thanks to microspheres in the filler gel that encourage the body to produce Type 1 collagen.
While biostimulators don’t stay in the body very long (six weeks to three months) your body breaks them down and what is left is your own collagen, so the results of Ellansé can last up to four years, and the filler can be used not only to fill and correct wrinkles but also to volumise, contour and sculpt the face, improve scarring and rejuvenate hands to make them appear more youthful.
“In our clinics we use Ellansé to treat patients in all age groups, allowing us to naturally boost their collagen levels in the skin of their faces, necks, décolletage and hands with exceedingly natural results, so no one notices they’ve had anything done, but our patients remain looking young and fresh and healthy,” say Dr Charlotte Woodward and Victoria Manning of River Aesthetics .
Read how one writer got on when she tried Ellansé .
Not to be confused with the one-stitch facial , thread lifts are a minimally-invasive treatment with a dual effect (much like Ellansé). The skin is raised upwards by around a centimetre by up to ten threads (sometimes known as sutures) which are inserted just below the surface of the skin. You will see an immediate skin lifting which repositions sagging tissues around the mid-face, jaws and jowls – and sometimes the neck and/or brow. Plus, thanks to deep-collagen regeneration it brings about, a biological lift which you’ll see in around three months - the time it takes for the new collagen to flourish.
How do threads in your face encourage collagen regeneration? The threads stimulate the network of supportive collagen fibres within the skin, which form around the thread, supporting the skin and improving its texture. The threads then dissolve leaving the scaffold of healthy collagen.
We first wrote about Profhilo in early 2019; not a replacement for filler or Botox, more of an add on, this 100 per cent synthetic hyaluronic acid injection rehydrates and re-textures dry, crepey skin. You don't get immediate results as with Ellansé, but after a week or so your skin becomes perkier and smoother, then for six to eight months the hyaluronic acid keeps on stimulating the collagen receptors in the skin to maintain the youthful plumpness of the skin.
One of the most popular collagen revving treatments at Dr Williams’ Eudelo clinic, and for good reason:
“PRP Needling is treatment that combines of medical needling and PRP (platelet-rich plasma). Medical needling - or collagen induction therapy (CIT) as it’s also known – gives skin a gentle nudge to remind it to keep making fresh collagen. It’s a very natural regenerative treatment that helps the skin help itself.
“It involves an electric needle pen equipped with multiple ultra-fine, sterile needles (after numbing cream, the procedure is painless). Medical needling creates tens of thousands of microscopically small punctures in the dermis. These intentional micro-injuries induce tiny, controlled wound-healing responses in the skin’s deeper layer. Consequently, natural growth factors are released, and fibroblasts are stimulated into synthesising new matrix tissue including collagen and elastin. In time, this will lead to a firmer, more elastic skin, and the skin’s surface will also look more refined.
“Studies confirm that needling provides both epidermal as well as dermal benefits with an increase of dermal and epidermal thickness, up-regulation of youthful collagen type 1 (there are 16 types of collagen, but the 80-90 per cent of our bodies are composed of types 1, 2 and 3) and significant clinical improvements. Medical needling not only rejuvenates the skin, but can also greatly improve the appearance of enlarged pores and acne or chickenpox scarring.
“One of the advantages of medical needling is that we can induce positive effects deep in the dermis without stripping off the protective outer, epidermal layer of skin. For even better results, medical needling can be combined with infusion of a growth factor containing ‘booster’ solution. This advanced form of medical needling not only stimulates the skin mechanically but also evenly infuses it with the PRP ‘booster’ solution directly into the dermis, where it’s needed most.
“Generating the PRP solution to be needled into the skin involves taking a blood sample from the patient’s inner elbow. Then we then isolate a fraction of plasma from the blood that is rich in platelets (platelet-rich plasma or PRP). These platelets are an important reservoir of growth factors (GFs) which further activate collagen-building cells and dermal tissue regeneration. PRP needling is generally done in a course of three to six sessions at four- to eight-week intervals for maximum efficiency.”
Another treatment that’s very effective for slowing collagen loss- Dr Williams walks you through an appointment:
“For the laser facials at our clinic, we use fractionated Q-Switched Nd-YAG technology. Sounds techy, but essentially this laser emits short yet powerful bursts of light that reach underneath the skin’s surface. The light causes a ‘photoacoustic’ effect to create tiny punctures in the dermis, which stimulates collagen and also helps to fragment unwanted pigmentation in the skin.
“This laser has a fractional pattern, which means that the laser beam creates microscopic ‘columns’ of skin regeneration, leaving pillars between untouched, which greatly lowers the risks and side-effects of treatment. This laser technology is non-ablative, meaning that it leaves the skin surface intact. It leads to regeneration with collagen stimulation selectively in the deep backbone of our skin, the dermis, without any downtime.
“You can probably see a picture emerging that many regenerative treatments work by creating tiny wounds in the skin that trigger repair and remodelling. Our laser’s mechanism of action is somewhat similar to medical needling, albeit without puncturing the skin’s surface. A course of six laser facials at two-week intervals will give the best results.”
Dr Acharya advocates a course of LED light sessions “to build collagen and stimulate cellular regeneration. LED facials also increase blood flow to give skin a plumper texture and help to improve texture and reduce the appearance of fine lines.”
Radiofrequency facials, whereby skin is gently heated using a radiofrequency device to around 40ºC, are also designed to give collagen production an uplift, and they could be a good follow up to fillers, as Dr Acharya highlights:
“Radiofrequency stimulation (for example with Endymed Pro 3 Deep) is a great treatment for tightening the skin- it activates the skin’s natural collagen production and can be used to maintain results following injectable restoration of tissue.”
Just swerve if you suffer from rosacea or any other inflammatory skin condition.
Skin peel ingredients, formulations and strengths differ widely, so make sure you seek out a qualified professional and opt for a peel that’s right for you , but as a rule Dr Acharya assures us that they’re good news where collagen is concerned:
“Chemical peels can be used to boost collagen production by exfoliating the sun-damaged, thickened epidermis. This creates brighter, smoother more even toned skin that looks fresher almost immediately.”
Follow Dr Williams on Twitter @DrStefanieW