Collagen 101: The Building Block for Better Skin

A wide array of different collagen-rich foods, like salmon, berries, greens, nuts, and legumes

By Jae Curtis

Is it a skin cream or a supplement? Collagen is a unique ingredient because you can find it in more than just the skincare aisle. This powerful ingredient can be found in products, supplements, and even the grocery store aisle in many of the foods you eat.

But how does the collagen you consume compare to what you apply to your skin? Getting to know collagen, what it does, and how it affects your body will help you decide how to best fit it into your skincare routine, your diet—or both.

What Is Collagen?

If you think of your skin as a structure, you can imagine collagen as a key building block. When you’re young, those building blocks are firm and strong; collagen is actually a pretty fibrous protein, and it makes up about 30% of your body’s overall protein mass. As you age and expose your skin to free radicals from things like UV light and pollution, those building blocks begin to deteriorate. As a result, skin might feel thin and look saggy or dull. What’s more, your body also slows collagen production with age, so it’s less able to repair the damage done by everyday life.

What Are the Benefits of Collagen?

The trifecta of collagen benefits boils down to your hair, skin, and nails; basically, the parts of your body that are made of keratin. Collagen helps build and protect the structure that keeps hair, skin, and nails healthy and hydrated. When your body is producing enough collagen, your hair looks glossy and full, your nails are strong and smooth, and your skin is firm and glowy. Collagen can also contribute to reduced joint pain, since it’s one of the key components of the cartilage, and may even help you repair and build muscle – it’s been shown in studies to improve muscle recovery, body composition, and muscle protein synthesis, which is why it’s a favorite ingredient for athletes’ diets.

Where Does Collagen Come From?

While your body naturally produces collagen as part of the cell renewal process, it is possible to help fortify your skin structure by adding collagen to your skincare and diet routine. Keep in mind that because collagen fibers are fairly large, it’s difficult to get them to penetrate the skin’s surface deep enough to really see an impact (peptides, which are smaller protein chains, are a better bet for topical application). But supplementing with collagen is one of those skincare secrets that can work amazingly well from the inside out.

Here are some of your options for increasing and supporting your body’s collagen production:

  • Supplementation. Collagen supplements are a great way to crank up your intake of collagen and support your body’s natural production of the protein. When choosing a collagen supplement, look for one that contains hydrolyzed collagen. Hydrolyzed collagen is usually made from animal bones or fish and then broken down into easily digestible amino acids. Don’t worry if that doesn’t sound all that appetizing – collagen can be made into a tasteless powder or capsule, making it easy to add to your diet in a smoothie or simply taken as part of your morning routine. It can also be flavored so it tastes like a delicious drink.
  • Diet. Because collagen is a protein, you can consume it as part of a protein-rich diet. Lean meats like fish, chicken, and beef are a great place to start. You can also add collagen to your meals by eating nuts (cashews are a definite favorite), egg whites, avocados, and leafy greens like spinach. Sounds like the makings of an amazing collagen salad to us!
  • Protection. It’s important to keep your body’s natural collagen production as high as possible for as long as possible. It’ll naturally slow with age, but protecting your skin from free radicals can help stave off the inevitable slowdown to keep your skin looking younger, longer. Make sure to wear a daily sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher and reapply throughout the day. You should also avoid smoking, which breaks down your existing collagen.

Supporting your skin’s collagen production might be as simple as taking a supplement and indulging in your favorite salmon recipe. Collagen can restore your skin’s glow from the inside out and should definitely be on your skincare radar.