Existentialism aside, we all know what collagen does and means for the skin. It’s a special matrix made up of protein molecules, aka amino acids. It provides structural support to the extracellular space of connective tissues like tendons, bones, ligaments, between muscles, in the gut, and of course, in the skin. It holds up against sagging skin (for as long as possible, anyway!) and gives that “bounce-back” appeal.
The problem is that much like many compounds in our bodies, collagen production slows down as we age. I mean, way down. In fact, at the ripe young age of just 25, collagen synthesis starts to decrease, gradually decreasing more with each passing year — and for women, really falling off at the time of menopause. We realize this sounds very doom and gloom, but it’s a natural process, and it happens to us all.
Unfortunately, ingesting our collagen protein is not going to have a direct effect on the collagen in our skin and ligaments, so don’t count on that collagen latte to bring volume back to your undereyes. Whether we get them from animal protein, collagen protein, or even plants, amino acids will circulate in the bloodstream. So how do we convert them into actual collagen that our bodies use to create this beautiful matrix to support our skin and prevent sagging?
It comes down to genes. The genes that control collagen protein are genetically programmed to deplete, no matter who you are. We tend to expedite this process by drinking alcohol, eating processed foods high in sugar, smoking, and exposure to free radicals from pollution and even good ol’ sunlight (we can’t stress it enough: wear sunscreen!). But this also happens just from regular wear and tear on our muscles and ligaments, and from our facial expressions, etc. It can’t be helped. We gotta live a little.
So besides not smoking (and we hope that’s obvious), we need to convince our keratinocyte cells, aka the major cell type of the epidermis, to create new collagen. To do this, we have to activate genes. Sound science-y yet?
The best way to activate these genes for new collagen production is to produce small injuries that trigger collagen production, but are not scarring. Basically, we have to make collagen synthesis think that this was its idea all along. Pretty crafty.
These injuries create a small amount of heat, something known as Heat Shock proteins. This is when cells detect injury in the body and boost healing. Heat Shock proteins help other proteins create a three-dimensional shape more quickly — think of it as a defense response. We have to scare our skin into healing in order to reverse signs of aging.
Any treatment that produces meaningful heat in your skin will promote collagen production. This could mean dermarolling at home (make sure to only do so with new, sterile surgical steel needle rollers on clean skin), or professional microneedling, intense pulse light, professional LED treatments, certain lasers like non-ablative fraxel, dermablading, microdermabrasion, and even facial acupuncture.
Another way to promote collagen production is by introducing what we call “foreign bodies.” These are kind of exactly what they sound like: small amounts of a foreign substance placed within the skin. This can be PDO smooth threads, botox, or filler injections, like hyaluronic acid.
The needles themselves create a heat reaction, but the substances injected under the skin cause an important reaction as well. Collagen forms around these foreign bodies, walling them off. Even after they dissolve, a layer of collagen has formed in the area around them, plumping the skin and securing the area like your own personal Secret Service.
The best and easiest way to promote collagen production is by hormone regulation. Hormones are the greatest messengers in the body for gene reaction and cellular communication. They will work as messengers to go into our cell nuclei and turn genes on or off. Since collagen synthesis is a result of gene response, we want to engage the collagen-production genes to turn on. And which hormones do that? Estrogen is a huge promoter of collagen synthesis.
Because estrogen drops significantly during menopause, the dramatic drop in collagen synthesis ensues. Sigh. This is when we need to adjust. There is a compound that works to turn the collagen synthesizing gene back on, and while it’s not quite a hormone, it functions like one. Cue: vitamin A.
We know this ingredient in skincare best as retinol. It’s easily absorbed by the skin, penetrates our cells and delivers right into the nucleus, turning on this gene. Dermatologist prescribed concentrations are the most effective, but we can see results from over-the-counter products as well; it just may take a bit longer to notice the effects.
While a combination of all 3 of these collagen-production-inducing treatments is an incredible defense against collagen degradation, they should be heeded at differing intervals. All of these treatments are mildly invasive or disrupt the skin barrier, so be sure to be gentle and do them at separate times to allow space for healing and restoration. We definitely don’t want to overdo it when it comes to the health of our skin barrier.