Collagen is one of those skincare words that gets tossed around a lot. As a beauty assistant, I see the term on a daily basis: in serums trying to preserve it, supplements claiming to "plump" it, and clinical trials attempting to further understand it. Luckily, we have dermatologist Melanie Palm, MD, director and founder of Art of Skin MD, to help us wade through the misconceptions.
Here's what you need to know:
Collagen isn't just a beautifying asset, but a vital layer of the skin.
"It's the structural network for your entire dermis, or second layer of skin, and the protein that provides a cushion for the skin's daily movements," Dr. Palm says. Healthy, cohesive collagen will lay horizontally, almost like stacked logs, she adds.
There are more than a dozen types found in humans.
Type I is the most common, making up 90 percent of the body's supply. The rest support everything from the corneas to cartilage. Fun fact: Type III, the variety cultivated in the womb, is the reason babies will never scar during in-utero surgery. Once we're born, we begin to lose our Type III molecules and trade down for the more mature and less resistant Type I.
You do lose it over time, and yes, it's inevitable.
Production starts to dwindle in our mid-to-late 20s and early 30s, and we start losing 1 percent of our collagen per year after that. "Our natural aging process bends the collagen, while UV exposure and pollutants like smoking cause the strands to fray and tangle," Dr. Palm explains. "Instead of a cohesive pattern, unhealthy skin will look like a spaghetti under a microscope." Moral of the story? SPF is a must on the beach and in the streets. And cigarettes are a non-starter — but you already knew that, right?
Good news: It can be regrown with the right skincare routine.
"The number one thing you can do to increase and enhance your collagen is use a retinoid, which is typically prescription-strength, or retinol, which is available OTC," Dr. Palm explains. If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, skip these and try products containing vitamin C or glycolic acid, which are said to promote growth. Although collagen molecules are too large to be absorbed topically, clinical trials suggest that these ingredients unlock a pathway for "messengers" from the first layer of your skin to send messages to the second layer to produce new collagen.
In-office treatments are very effective, but women of color should do extra research.
Some methods like Ablative laser skin resurfacing, which are the gold standard in regeneration and can be costly, are rendered somewhat ineffective by large amounts of melanin in the skin. Newer technologies that utilize radio frequencies, however, are colorblind.