What is Collagen? Health Benefits, Food Sources, Supplements, Types, and More

Defining Collagen

You probably think about collagen in your skin because the word comes up whenever anyone is talking about skin aging. It’s true that this protein plays a role in the perceived youthfulness of your skin, but there’s more to it. “Collagen is a protein and is one of the main building blocks of our skin. It’s also found in our bones, tendons, and ligaments,” says Deanne Robinson, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Modern Dermatology in Westport, Connecticut.

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Time for a fun fact: Collagen makes up 75 percent of skin’s support structure. (1) “Think of collagen as the frame of your mattress; it gives [your skin] structure and support,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. To continue with the mattress analogy, the springs are elastic fibers and the stuffing is hyaluronic acid, he says.

Which Factors Contribute to the Loss of Collagen in the Skin?

Unfortunately, collagen starts to degrade with age, and your genetics can affect how fast that degradation happens. “We lose collagen year after year, and make lower quality collagen,” says Dr. Robinson. Free radicals damage collagen — “they are our skin’s enemy,” says Dr. Zeichner. Environmental factors (like UV rays or pollution), bad lifestyle habits (smoking), and a poor diet (for example one high in sugar) all create free radical formation, which speeds collagen breakdown.

Let’s hit on smoking for a moment. One of the best things you can do for your skin is to never smoke — or quit smoking if you do. “Research suggests that smoking allows free radicals to attack collagen fibrils, rendering them weak and of poor quality. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the skin of a smoker tends to look damaged and wrinkled, particularly around the mouth,” says Cyndi Yag- Howard, MD, the CEO and president of Yag-Howard Dermatology Center in Naples, Florida.

What’s in Collagen? A Look at the Structure of This Essential Protein

Collagen is made up of three amino acids: glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. (2) “The collagen molecule is shaped like a triple helix (triple spiral) that combines with other collagen molecules in the skin to form a mesh-like network in the dermis, which is the layer of skin beneath the epidermis and above the subcutaneous fat,” says Dr. Yag-Howard.

What Are the Benefits of Collagen for Your Body?

The protein has a big job in the body. “Collagen gives body tissues structure, toughness, rigidity, and texture. In the skin, it’s akin to a layer of leather. And when it intermingles with elastic fibers, it gives skin strength and resilience,” says Yag-Howard.

Scientifically Proven Ways to Increase Collagen Production

There are several treatments, performed in-office at the dermatologist, that help increase collagen. “Studies prove that a variety of procedures are able to increase collagen production and improve the appearance of skin,” says Yag- Howard. These include lasers, radiofrequency, ultrasound, microneedling, and fillers, she says.

You’re also best served by maintaining a healthy diet. Protein-rich foods will supply the amino acids your body needs to produce collagen. It also gets some help from other nutrients, like vitamin C, zinc, and copper, according to the Cleveland Clinic. (3) To maximize collagen production, eat a varied diet filled with whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, lean meats, seafood, and nuts. And yes, that sounds like the healthy eating advice you’ve long heard.

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Practice self-care with skin massage. There’s a small amount of data suggesting that regular skin massage may help encourage the formation of procollagen-1 and enhance the benefits of anti-aging creams. (10)

What Are the Different Types of Collagen?

According to one reference, there are 28 types of collagen. (13) Yet resources note that types 1, 2, and 3 are the most abundant collagens in the body, and these are the collagens you’ll find touted in product marketing. (2) Because the full 28 is a long list of collagen types, we’ll cover the three most prominent ones and where they’re found in the body.

Type 1 The major collagen found in the skin. Also found in tendons, bones, ligaments, teeth, and certain connective tissues (2)

Type 2 Makes up cartilage and is found in the eyes. (2)

Type 3 This type of collagen also makes up skin, as well as muscles and blood vessels. (2) This type of collagen is sometimes called “baby collagen” because of its role in embryogenesis and early infant life, according to previous research. (14)

How Can You Get More Collagen?

There’s no shortage of companies trying to grab your attention about boosting collagen — either topically or via a supplement or food. Here’s what you need to know about each.

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Collagen creams and oils Pro-collagen creams on the market claim to lessen the signs of aging by smoothing wrinkles. These contain synthetic collagen that locks moisture into skin, producing a plumping effect. (3) But there’s a lack of research on how to best incorporate collagen into topical treatments. (15)

Liquid Some people choose to drink bone broth, which is packed with collagen from animal bones. (3) While it may be a dietary source of collagen, drinking it has not been proved to have anti-aging benefits for your skin, according to Harvard Women’s Health Watch. (16)

What Are Some Collagen Side Effects and Risks to Be Aware Of?

In general, there aren’t inherent risks associated with collagen — it’s such an important component of a healthy body. But if you’re taking collagen supplements, know that dietary supplements do not need to be proved safe before they're sold. (17) If you’re interested in taking a collagen supplement, do your homework, and work with your healthcare team to choose a high-quality supplement from a trusted brand. It’s also worth noting that the source of the collagen matters. If you are allergic to eggs or fish, for example, you are at risk for a serious reaction to collagen derived from those foods.

How to Talk to Your Dermatologist About Collagen

If you’re interested in improving your skin’s collagen production, it’s important to ask your dermatologist about your options (topicals, in-office treatments), costs, potential pain, any associated downtime, and potential risks. Also inquire about both short- and long-term benefits and low long the effects are designed to last. (5)

Resources for Learning More About Collagen

Interested in learning more? Here are five places to start.

Crushed Tonic

The Collagen Diet

Dr. Kellyann

7 Easy Home Hacks for Healthy Skin

Vital Proteins

Yes, it’s the website run by a company that makes collagen peptide powders and other collagen-infused products (like water). But if you can get past the product plugs, it does dedicate a great portion of its blog to the basics of collagen.


A no-fuss site that includes basic questions on collagen and whether different types (drops, supplements) work for certain health conditions (eye floaters, joint pain, arthritis).

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