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Science: The Skinny on Collagen

Your body is capable of making at least 28 different types of collagen. Don't worry; we don't have to talk about all 28. The two types mainly relevant to skin health and appearance are collagen type I and collagen type III. These are the two types that make up most of the collagen in your dermis.

When you are born, 75% of the collagen in your dermis is type III and only 25% is type I. Type III collagen is found in growing children. By the time you are an adult, those percentages are reversed and you have mainly type I collagen in your dermis. The exception is in a healing skin wound, which reverts back to making type III until a scar has completely formed. Are you still with me?

Collagen is a structural protein. Fibers of collagen support the shape of your skin. Collagen formation and breakdown takes place in the dermis, the thicker, firm layer of skin that lies beneath the paper-thin outer skin or epidermis, kind of like a mattress lies beneath a sheet. In youthful skin, collagen is firm, taut, and abundant, like a new mattress. Just as a foam mattress over time becomes flatter in places and creased as its structure breaks down, aging skin begins to sag and wrinkle when the collagen is diminished and fragmented. The cycle of events involved in collagen loss is complicated. As skin ages, reactive oxygen species (which are associated with ultraviolet radiation, environmental pollution, poor diet, and just normal aging) lead to increased production of the enzyme collagenase, which breaks down collagen. Then fibroblasts, the cells that make collagen, lose their normal stretched state. They collapse, and then more breakdown enzymes are produced. People in their 80's have four times more broken collagen than people in their 20's. In the elderly, in whom the dermis has lost two-thirds or more of its youthful thickness through collagen loss, skin tears and bruises easily.

So what can we do about this? There are several products and procedures that are proven to increase dermal collagen production. Topical retinoic acid, topical alpha-hydroxy acids (such as glycolic acid), carbon dioxide laser resurfacing, topically applied human growth factor proteins, and possibly ingesting supplements rich in the amino acids glycine and proline which make up collagen, can all boost natural collagen production. Talk to your dermatologist about which options are right for you.


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