What Is Collagen and Elastin?

Anyone concerned about skin aging has heard about collagen and elastin — and that we’re supposed to avoid losing them at all costs. But what exactly are these skin components, and how do we get more?

According to Sandra Lee, MD (aka Dr. Pimple Popper), collagen and elastin are proteins in our dermis — part of the extracellular matrix, or ECM — produced by specialized cells called fibroblasts. They’re responsible for keeping our skin plump, resilient and youthful, but they start to diminish with age. Can we do anything about that? Read on.

3 minute read

A woman with young and undamaged collagen and elastin 

What is collagen?

The most abundant protein in the human body, collagen is a type of connective tissue found in skin, tendons, organs like the eyes, and more. It makes up somewhere between 70–80% of the dry weight of the skin, and is contained mostly within the dermis (the lower layer of the skin). 

There are sixteen different varieties of collagen in the human body, composed of slightly different combinations of amino acids. Type I collagen is what gives skin its structure and strength. Dr. Lee says that when we’re young, the protein is arranged neatly in fibers, keeping the skin plump and youthful looking.

What is elastin?

If collagen is what makes skin plump, elastin is what makes it pliable — it’s about 1000x more flexible than collagen. Elastin forms when many molecules of a large, flexible peptide molecule called tropoelastin bind together.

Though much less abundant in the skin than collagen, elastin gives skin its stretch. It’s also found in the lungs, bladder and heart, helping to regulate liquid and air flow.

Collagen and elastin in young vs. aging skin

What causes collagen and elastin loss?

As we age, collagen and elastin production naturally slows down. It’s estimated that once we hit our mid-thirties, we lose about one percent of our collagen every year. After menopause, the decline is even more dramatic: as much as 30% of collagen is lost due to the lack of estrogen, which is necessary for collagen production.

Another major factor in the loss of these vital skin proteins is extrinsic aging — aka photoaging, or sun damage. According to Dr. Lee, UV radiation causes genetic mutations that damage the structure of the skin’s dermal collagen and elastin. 

Not surprisingly, a variety of lifestyle choices — alcohol use, smoking, stress, lack of sleep and exercise — have also been implicated in accelerating the loss of collagen and elastin.

What happens when we lose collagen and elastin?

When these proteins begin to break down due to both intrinsic and extrinsic aging, they become misaligned, tangled, and more compact. Combined with the natural loss of hydration over time, these changes result in telltale signs of aging, including:

  • Fine lines wrinkles
  • Sagging
  • Crepiness
  • Skin thinning
  • Slow/poor wound healing

How do you boost collagen and elastin?

Most experts agree that there’s not much evidence to support slathering on collagen-enriched creams (it’s too big a molecule to be absorbed) or popping handfuls of collagen pills (the proteins break down in your gut). Instead, you can try to increase your body’s natural ability to produce these dermal proteins by trying things like:

  • Controlled trauma: In-office dermatological treatments like microneedling and lasers create micro wounds within the dermis, stimulating the production of collagen and elastin as the skin heals.
  • Topical skincare: Retinoids boost production of both collagen and elastin, while vitamin C also encourages collagen formation. These antioxidants also help prevent the breakdown of both collagen and elastin.
  • Nutrition/supplements: The jury is out on whether collagen supplements can actually target skin aging, but a diet rich in the building blocks of these proteins is necessary to maintain skin health.

“Of course, the easiest way to prevent all forms of photodamage (including collagen and elastin breakdown) is to practice sun safety,” suggests Dr. Lee, “including wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen every day.”

Try: SLMD Retinol Serum, Dream On Retinol Night Cream, Night Light Retinol Eye Cream, Bright Future Vitamin C Serum, Facial Moisturizer with Vitamin C, Dual Defender SPF 30.

Contributing sources:

Dr Sandra Lee

Dr. Lee's Last Word

Collagen and elastin are essential proteins that keep our skin healthy and youthful, but we lose them with age and environmental damage. The key here is prevention: use sunscreen, retinol and antioxidants like vitamin C to avoid long-term damage.

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