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What is collagen—and why is it essential for youthful skin?

A dermatologist explains the science behind this ingredient.

A person looks into a mirror while smiling and touching their face. Credit: Getty Images / mapodile

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Whether you’re aware of it or not, many skincare products include ingredients that mimic what our skin naturally produces. This rings true for two popular examples of skincare add-ins, ceramides and collagen. But over time, your body may slow its production of these vital skin elements. For this reason, you’ll see beauty potions containing collagen to supplement your body’s lack of it—the hoped-for result being stronger, healthier skin. But can a topical product actually make up for what your body doesn’t produce?

To learn how collagen affects the skin—and how a serum or moisturizer containing the ingredient may impact your complexion—we spoke with Dr. Suzanne Friedler, a board-certified dermatologist with Advanced Dermatology PC in New York City.

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What is collagen?

A diagram of the skin that shows the epidermis, dermis, and the layer beneath that contains elastin and collagen.
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Collagen is a protein found in the skin.

If you’ve heard of collagen in the context of protein powder you may mix into a smoothie, there’s a reason for that. “Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body,” Friedler says. Collagen is also the “main structural protein” in the connective tissue throughout the body, including in the dermis, the layer below the skin’s outer surface called the epidermis.

Collagen is linked to better skin elasticity, hydration, firmness, and smoothness. But your body’s production of collagen begins to decrease by about 1% each year beginning in your 20s, according to Friedler. She explains: “With loss of collagen, we see loss of the firmness and elasticity of the skin. Layers of the skin become progressively thinner and wrinkling becomes more pronounced.” Because of this, anti-aging ingredients like retinol or products like a jade roller aim to stimulate collagen production (with varying efficacy). And some skincare topicals even claim to include collagen in them to supplement your skin’s lack of the protein.

How can you boost your skin’s collagen at home?

A person's hand reaching into a medicine cabinet to grab a jar.
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Retinoids and vitamin C are two products that can help your skin boost its production of collagen.

Applying topical retinoids (which are derivatives of vitamin A) and vitamin C are the two most effective ways you can stimulate collagen production in your skin. Ideally, you’ll want to use both. Retinoids should be applied at night because they can make the skin sensitive to the sun and while you sleep, the retinoid will chemically exfoliate old skin cells for a smoother appearance and reduction in fine lines and wrinkles. Vitamin C is best used in the morning as it contains antioxidants that ward off environmental aggressors your skin encounters throughout the day; in addition to boosting collagen, it helps to brighten the complexion.

If you’ve never used a retinoid before, start off with a retinol (a less potent retinoid), such as the Amazon bestselling Lilyana Naturals Retinol Cream that also contains hyaluronic acid to hydrate the skin. Integrate the cream into your routine gradually, beginning with once or twice a week and working up to daily use—too much too soon can cause redness or irritation and if you experience either, stop using and consult your doctor if you experience burning or redness. Also, retinoids are not safe for use during pregnancy. On the other hand, if you’re an experienced retinol user and want to upgrade to a stronger retinoid, consider Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1%. If you haven’t seen the results you’d hoped for from over-the-counter options, consult your dermatologist for a stronger, prescription-grade retinoid like Tretinoin, or to get advice specific to your skin.

For best results from vitamin C, a.k.a. ascorbic acid, look for a serum that comes in an opaque, air-tight bottle—the key ingredient is unstable and can lose its efficacy with exposure to sunlight or air, according to Dr. Farah Moustafa, a Boston-based dermatologist with Tufts Medical Center, who spoke to Reviewed in an article about creating an anti-aging skincare routine. Moustafa also recommended choosing one that contains ferulic acid and vitamin E, as these antioxidants can stabilize the vitamin C. One product that fills the bill is the Paula’s Choice C15 Super Booster, which aims to even out the skin’s tone and texture. Apply vitamin C in the morning before moisturizer and sunscreen to take advantage of its antioxidant benefits.

You should also apply sunscreen daily to prevent the breakdown of collagen. “Wearing a high SPF physical block sunscreen and using topical antioxidants in addition to a retinoid and vitamin C will prevent premature degradation of collagen and help your skin to age its best,” Friedler says. A physical, a.k.a. mineral, sunscreen you can lean on is the Supergoop Mineral Mattescreen Sunscreen SPF 40 that offers a shine-free finish on the skin and contains antioxidants from bamboo extract to prevent skin damage from harmful environmental factors like pollution.

Can skincare products containing collagen prevent signs of aging?

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Credit: Getty Images /12963734

Applying collagen to the skin won't actually help your body's supply of the protein.

While applying products that contain collagen to the skin may seem like an obvious solution, you won’t see results. Friedler explains: “This does not work because topically applied molecules of collagen are too large and dense to penetrate the epidermis (outer layers of the skin). Only very small molecules can cross the skin barrier.”

Are there in-office procedures to boost the skin’s collagen?

A closeup on a person's face as they receive a laser treatment in a doctor's office.
Credit: Getty Images / andresr

There are a few medical treatments that can help boost collagen supply in the skin.

Topical products may take you far, but in-office procedures offer guaranteed results and take the guesswork out of applying products. Lasers, chemical peels, and microneedling are all procedures that cause minor injuries to the skin that can result in the stimulation of collagen production.

Some factors to consider when choosing a procedure include your skin type, the required downtime post-procedure, and the cost. For example, some laser treatments may cause unwanted pigmentation for those with darker skin, says Moustafa in an article about treating acne scars. As for downtime, most procedures result in red, flaky, or sensitive skin that needs to be protected from the sun; as a result, many patients opt to stay home for a few days following a treatment. Cost can vary depending on where you go, what procedure you choose, and how many treatments you’ll need to see your desired results. Moustafa estimated a cost of $1,000 to $1,500 per session for in-office procedures like lasers or microneedling in that same article about acne scars.

For more information catered to your specific skin needs and desires, it’s best to speak with a dermatologist.

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