How to stimulate collagen production in skin
Jules Walters • published: July 19, 2023
As we age, our collagen production goes down naturally by about 1% to 1.5% a year. Is there anything we can do to stimulate collagen production in skin?
The good news is yes. There is. Collagen loss is inevitable as we get older, but we can influence the rate of decline through menopause skin care.
Collagen is a protein that acts like the scaffolding for our skin, holding everything up and boosting skin health.
How our skin is layered
Most of us have heard that the skin has two layers: the epidermis on top, or the outermost layer of skin, and the dermis underneath. Under those two layers is in fact a third layer of skin, called the hypodermis, which is the innermost or fatty layer.
The epidermis is thin – only about 0.1 millimeter thick – and mainly acts as a protective barrier against harmful bugs.
The dermis underneath is much thicker – up to 10 millimeters thick – and it’s where collagen and elastin live. Elastin is another protein, which helps our skin to stretch.
These two proteins, collagen and elastin, are surrounded by a jelly-like material, called hyaluronic acid. Think of hyaluronic acid a bit like oil in a machine, keeping everything moving smoothly. Hyaluronic acid is also found in our joints and our eyes.
Our deepest layer of skin, the hypodermis, is often thought of as subcutaneous fat. It keeps us warm when it’s cold and helps blood flow up to our dermis.
The thickness of our hypodermis can vary from a thick layer of subcutaneous fat around our belly to a very thin layer of fat on our face, particularly around our eyes.
What happens in skin aging?
Our skin is our biggest organ. It’s also the one that most faces the elements: wind, rain and shine. All that sun exposure in particular speeds up an aging process called senescence, which is when cells stop acting normally.
Senescent cells stop dividing, become like passive bystanders, and don’t absorb enough nutrients. They kind of just hang around well past their sell-by date.
Aging skin has a lot more senescent cells than youthful skin. Scientists are trying to figure out how to remove senescent cells through a process called senolytics.
It’s still early days in senolytic research, so what can we do now to stimulate collagen production?
How to stimulate collagen production in skin: 10 tips
Wear skin protection
If you want to see the difference that the sun makes to our skin, check out this photo of a truck driver in California who has been on the road for 28 years. One side of his face was regularly exposed to much higher ultraviolet radiation through his truck’s side window – and you can see the difference. It’s a vivid portrait of the sun’s role in aging our skin.
It doesn’t need to be sunny for us to get exposed to UV rays. So, wear a broad spectrum sunscreen whenever you’re outside, particularly in the summer months. It will prevent skin damage from both UVA and UVB rays. Dermatologists recommend an SPF of at least 30, ideally 50.
Top up retinol
Retinol is made from vitamin A and has been used in skin care products for over 50 years. Retinol is good at stimulating collagen production, as well as elastin production. Dermatologists particularly recommend retinol at night, as it can make skin more light sensitive during the day.
What we eat makes a big difference to our skin. Healthy skin needs nutrients just like the rest of our body.
Beta carotene gives foods a reddish-orange color and it’s found in big amounts in carrots. Beta carotene is converted into vitamin A. Think about a carrot a day. If you can eat two, even better.
Estrogen is a hormone that stimulates collagen production. Our estrogen levels, particularly one type called estradiol, hit the floor after menopause.
Estrogen levels (estadiol) before and after menopause. Adapted from Everlywell https://www.everlywell.com/blog/womens-health/normal-estradiol-women/
You’ll need to be screened by a doctor first, to check you’re suitable to take a bioidentical hormone like estrogen after menopause to promote collagen growth in your skin. You won’t find these creams in health food stores.
Get your daily intake of vitamin C
We know vitamin C-rich foods are important for our skin thanks to generations of early sailors, who showed what happens when we don’t get enough.
Europeans stuck on a ship for months during the early days of navigation without fruit and vegetables developed scurvy with bleeding gums, skin that bruised easily and wound healing that stopped.
Vitamin C is essential for new collagen production, so make sure you get your daily dose. The recommended daily amount of vitamin C for an adult is 75 milligrams, so one medium-sized orange will get you 45mg according to the USDA. There’s also a lot of vitamin C in kiwi fruit, broccoli and bell peppers.
Procollagen skin care
Collagen is a big protein, so there is no point putting it in a cream. It won’t get through the upper layers of our skin. Some products now use terms like procollagen or boosting-collagen production and that will work to help your skin’s elasticity.
Consider collagen supplements
Another way to boost collagen production is to consume collagen peptides by taking collagen supplements. A recent review of the research found that over 1,000 people who took collagen supplements saw improvements in skin firmness, and that wrinkles appeared less noticeable.
More research needs to be done on what is really driving the change, as the supplements also had lots of other good stuff in them, such as vitamins and minerals and antioxidants. Here’s another summary of the results from Harvard Health Publishing.
Look for a face cream with natural fats
In her excellent book The Scandanavian Skincare Bible, dermatologist Johanna Gillbro recommends looking for a cream that includes fats as an essential component that already exist in our skin.
So it’s NO to olive oil, sunflower oil or shea butter. And yes to fats that are naturally found in our skin, like squalene, ceramides, cholesterol, omega 3s and omega 6s.
Types of fats found naturally in skin.
Boost hyaluronic acid
Human skin naturally produces and uses hyaluronic acid to keep our skin moist. It has the amazing ability to bind up to 1,000 times its weight in water.
Hyaluronic acid is also a big molecule so it can’t get through the top layer of skin if put in a cream. It sits on the top layer of skin, giving moisture just on the surface layer. Dermal fillers containing hyaluronic acid do go below the surface, though, and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
What is a dermal filler?
Dermal fillers are given through an injection, usually around the areas where our skin is thinnest around our eyes and mouth. They are now a common procedure, with over three million people a year in the US undergoing the procedure. It’s not normally covered by insurance.
Check that the dermal filler you are considering is approved by the drug regulator, the FDA.
Another option to boost hyaluronic acid without going as far as a dermal filler is to consider N-acetylglucosamine. This is a precursor to hyaluronic acid and it’s better at getting beneath the skin surface. This could be an ingredient in a cream.
Wear dark clothes outside
Dark or brightly colored clothing absorb more UV rays than lighter colors like white. So black, red or dark blue is a good choice, particularly a heavy material like denim. The more skin you cover the better.
In summary to stimulate collagen production in skin
I hope this has given you some good ideas on boosting collagen.
The human body is a complex machine but there are common paths to produce collagen and to protect the collagen we already have. Collagen production decreases as we age, so it is worth paying attention to this precious resource.
Diet + sunscreen are the foundations of great skin
Diet is important. Remember that vitamin C (oranges & kiwi fruit) and betacarotene (carrots) will help your body to produce collagen.
A good sunscreen will reduce wrinkles, and stop that UV light getting through and weakening the collagen we already have. Our body makes collagen and external factors like sunshine will break them down.
We can push the balance towards collagen production, rather than collagen breakdown. A broad spectrum sunscreen, ideally SPF50 or above, is a big part of that protection.