Collagen creams – myths and reality

Over the last few years, there has been a steady increase in the number of collagen creams entering the market. Such products are marketed to give the impression to the unwary consumer that the (animal-derived) collagen contained in the cream can act in the same way as our own naturally occurring collagen

Often described as the ‘elixir of youth’ these creams claim to be able to restore the collagen levels in your skin and thereby reduce fine lines and wrinkles, reverse sagging, and tighten and tone the skin. One would assume from these descriptions that your skin can somehow absorb the collagen and incorporate it into your existing collagen framework. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth


What is Collagen?


There are various types of collagen but for our purposes, we will focus on the type of collagen that dubious creams claim to be able to rebuild.

The ECM framework
The ECM framework

Collagen, together with elastin, is a major component of the Extra Cellular Matrix (ECM) a lattice of protein fibers that give the skin it’s structure, strength, and elasticity. Hyaluronic acid is also a major component of the structure.

In our youth this matrix maintains, it’s structural integrity and so our skin remains supple and well structured. But as we age the ability of our skin to repair and maintain this intricate lattice diminishes as a result of various biological inefficiencies.

Effect of ageing to the structure of the skin
Effect of aging to the structure of the skin

As our skin remains susceptible to intrinsic (chronological) aging and extrinsic (environmental assaults from sunlight, pollution, etc) aging our skin factories simply can not keep up with the ongoing damage to the ECM and collagen and elastin levels decline. The matrix begins to break down with a consequent loss of structural integrity and elasticity. The visible evidence of this breakdown is the appearance of lines and wrinkles and sagging of the complexion.


Why can’t topically applied collagen repair the damage?


The notion that a cream containing third party (animal-derived) collagen can somehow penetrate the skin to a sufficient depth and thereupon miraculously weave itself into the complex structure that is the ECM is as spurious as imagining that we could throw a ball of wool into the air and have a fully knitted cardigan fall to the floor. Animal-derived collagen is not that dissimilar to gelatin and one might as well take a strawberry jelly and massage it into the complexion – good luck with that one!

Applying a collagen cream
Applying a collagen cream


The fact is that the ECM is such a complex structure that the only possibility for repairing the ECM is by encouraging the skins’ own biological processes to increase the manufacture of collagen and elastin.

How the skin makes collagen

Within the skin are specialized cells known as fibroblasts. Fibroblasts secrete the precursors (building blocks) that will be modified to form collagen and elastin fibres. Collagen is composed of chains of amino acids (as all proteins are), most notably glycine, proline, hydroxyproline, and arginine. Some of these amino acids are available in the skin whilst some have to be created by the skin by converting or combining other amino acids. In simplistic terms, the skin will combine long chains of amino acids in a particular sequence to make long strands of collagen and elastin which will then be ‘woven’ into the ECM to replace or repair existing fibres.

So the notion that the skin’s own process of manufacture can be made redundant by applying gelatin to the skin is plain daft.


How can we encourage the collagen manufacturing process?

Thee are two approaches

Controlled injury.

This method involves deliberately injuring the skin to provoke a response. The methods are generally safe as the ‘injury’ inflicted on the skin is minor and is simply designed to force the skin to react in the way that we want. Mild chemical peels, dermabrasion, and other exfoliating methods strip away the surface layer of skin to reveal the layer immediately below. The skin reacts by making new skin in the lower layers and this process necessitates the manufacture of collagen and elastin. By regularly provoking the skin in this way we can increase the amount of collagen and elastin that would otherwise be made.

An alternative method to exfoliation is via the use of skin needling rollers and stamps. These devices create tiny punctures in the skin which necessitate the manufacture of collagen and elastin to repair the holes. By regular employment, we can make the collagen building process more efficient as the skin becomes used to having to make more collagen.

Chemical intervention.

The emergence of peptides onto the skincare market has transformed the sector. Peptides are very small chains of amino acids that act as messengers to the skin cells and tell them how to function. There are several peptides that act as messengers to the fibroblasts and trigger them to make collagen and elastin. As peptides are very much smaller molecules than collagen they can penetrate the outer surface layer and pass on their message.

There are hundreds of skincare products available on the market containing collagen boosting peptides. The rationale behind them is well considered and is backed by positive clinical data testifying to the ability of peptides to increase collagen manufacture.

Only part of the solution

However, one factor is invariably overlooked when looking to provoke the collagen manufacturing process. It’s all very well triggering the response, but it is essential that once the machines have been switched on so to speak, they are supplied with the raw materials.

Collagen is composed of chains of amino acids and it is therefore essential that sufficient amounts of certain amino acids are available to the skin. We consume amino acids in our diet but as other parts of the body will have the first claim on the amino acids little will be available for the skin. Fortunately, amino acids being smaller than collagen or even peptides can be absorbed by the skin and so topical application of a cream or serum containing amino acids will provide the raw materials the skin needs for the conversion process.

The role of vitamin c in the collagen manufacturing process

There are lots of online references about vitamin c’s ability to increase collagen in the skin and it is certainly true that it plays a crucial role. However, it is not the case that vitamin c has the capacity to make collagen. Vitamin c’s importance is rather as a catalyst in the conversion process by which certain amino acids are combined into the required components for collagen manufacture.

Without sufficient levels of ascorbic acid in the skin, the process will be compromised. Vitamin c is ingested from our diet, but as with amino acids, other parts of the body will claim it first. Little vitamin c will actually make it to the skin. The topical application of vitamin c via creams and serums will ensure that sufficient levels are available in the skin to enable the collagen manufacturing process.

A realistic (and effective) approach.

If we accept the argument that applying third party collagen to the skin will not affect an improvement in the extra-cellular matrix, will not improve the suppleness and elasticity of the skin, and will not lead to a visible reduction in the appearance of lines and wrinkles then we need to employ an effective strategy to make those improvements.

There are two basic approaches

Kickstarting the process by ‘injuring the skin.

Chemical peeling, dermabrasion, and skin needling will trigger the collagen building process.

Chemical peeling


Application of a chemical peeling

Chemical peels such as glycolic acid, and dermabrasion will require at least 6 once per week sessions. Skin needling can be employed 2 or 3 times per week over a 6 week period. Extending the intervention ensures that the collagen building is maintained at a heightened level for that time period which is sufficient time tp make a realistic difference. It is worth noting that benefits to the skin will extend beyond simply triggering collagen building. Peels and dermabrasion by removing the tired and dull surface layers of skin will result in a brighter, softer, and smoother complexion.

Amino acid creams can be applied daily or twice daily. and vitamin c serum ought to be applied daily. (Recent research suggests that topically applied Vitamin c remains available within the skin for 2 or 3 days so one could apply a serum on alternate days)

Use of Peptides to trigger the process

There are numerous products available on the market containing collagen boosting peptides. Apply daily or twice daily as desired or follow the makers recommendations.

And apply amino acid creams and vitamin С serum as above.

Avoid products which claim to combine high levels of ascorbic acid and peptides. Vitamin C serums are fairly acidic products and peptides will be affected by the acid environment. It is likely that the peptides will be destroyed. It is a concern that some manufacturers are not aware of this potential.

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