Sagging and wrinkling is a natural part of aging, largely caused by collagen and elastin loss. Find out how they work and how to boost their production, so skin looks young and firm.
What are collagen and elastin?
Collagen and elastin are proteins found in the dermis, a layer of skin just below the epidermis (the top layer of skin visible to us). Special cells called fibroblasts produce both proteins.
Working in tandem, collagen and elastin provide the foundation for skin. Collagen cushions and supports the epidermis, preventing it from collapsing on the muscles and bones, while elastin allows skin to stretch and flex smoothly.
Also, both proteins are excellent water binders, keeping skin supple and hydrated. When skin has sufficient hydration, it stays smooth and unwrinkled.
Why they deteriorate
As collagen and elastin synthesis slows down, the skin starts to sag and thin and develops fine lines and wrinkles. What’s responsible for the breakdown? Blame these three factors.
- Age. Young children and babies have soft, plump, healthy skin because their collagen and elastin levels are high. Though different types of collagen are found in different parts of the body, all of them start decreasing around age 35. In fact, “by the age of 60, all types of collagen are significantly below their youthful levels,” writes Dr. G. Todorov of the Web site, Smart SkinCare. Elastin levels reach their high point in your teens or in young adulthood, and then they also start dropping.
- Sun exposure. Environmental damage — most notably sun exposure — can hasten collagen and elastin loss. In fact, the sun causes 90 percent of wrinkles and sagging skin, writes Eric F. Bernstein, M.D., professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. These effects are cumulative, building up over time and may not show up for many years.
Specifically, sun damage prematurely breaks down collagen and elastin fibers, causing changes to skin tone, texture and density. And it isn’t just outdoor exposure that damages collagen and elastin: Tanning beds also cause these changes, because they use UV lights.
- Smoke. Research has shown that smoking leads to premature aging. Specifically, smoking damages both collagen and elastin. For instance, research from the Nagoya City University Medical School in Japan found that smoking contributes to collagen loss when examining cells, reports BBC News. The study showed that smoking:
- Increases MMP production. Matrix metalloproteinases (MMP) are responsible for collagen breakdown. According to the study, after exposure to smoke, cells produced much more MMP than cells that weren’t exposed. In fact, other research has shown that smokers have a higher level of MMP than nonsmokers, according to YourTotalHealth.
- Decreases new collagen formation. Also, in the study, cells exposed to smoke suffered “a drop in the production of fresh collagen by up to 40 percent,” according to the article.
Slowing down the breakdown
Fortunately, you can prevent some collagen and elastin loss. Here are several steps that can help.
- Avoid harmful exposure. The number one way to minimize collagen and elastin damage is to reduce your sun exposure, which means avoiding both outdoor and indoor tanning. Tanning booths are just as harmful — if not more — as tanning outdoors. For more information, check out the facts on indoor tanning here and here. Also, wear sunscreen on a daily basis (even on cold or cloudy days).
- Stop smoking. As mentioned above, smoking contributes to both collagen and elastin loss. It’s also been linked to crow’s feet, wrinkles around the mouth and eyes and leathery, sallow skin.
- Add effective products. In addition to healthy habits, try products with these ingredients.
- Vitamin C. Research suggests that vitamin C encourages collagen production and fights off free-radical damage. However, vitamin C becomes inactive very quickly when exposed to sunlight, heat and air. Buy vitamin C products that come in tightly sealed dark containers and always keep them in a cool place and away from sunlight.
- Retinoids. Derivatives of vitamin A, retinoids stimulate collagen production and increase cell turnover rate (which helps reveal younger, smoother skin). Talk to your dermatologist about prescribing a retinoid product.
- Peptides. These special proteins also promote collagen production, healthy cell function and cell-to-cell communication.
Reconsider collagen creams. Applying a cream that contains collagen doesn’t actually stimulate collagen in the skin. That’s because “collagen molecules are too large to penetrate into the dermis when applied to the surface of the skin,” explains Dr. Todorov. The collagen in skincare products only helps to moisturize the skin.
Learn everything you need to know about anti-aging skincare in our Anti-Aging Handbook.