What collagen-boosting ingredients are found in skin care?

By: Sara Elliott

You don't need to turn to needles and knives to boost the collagen in your body.
You don't need to turn to needles and knives to boost the collagen in your body.
Hemera/Thinkstock

Collagen is the biological equivalent of the fountain of youth where skin care is concerned. You've probably heard about it and read about it, but the real role of collagen in the body -- and in skin care -- is often misunderstood. Collagen is a protein made up of building blocks called amino acids. It constitutes about 25 percent of the protein in the human body. It can be soft and fibrous, and with some chemical embellishment, it can be used in the development of bones and teeth, too. Think of it as one of the body's basic structural resources.

Collagen constitutes a large part of the dermis, the layer of skin just below the surface you moisturize every morning. The collagen in the dermis is a bit like the padding inside a comforter that keeps the pretty fabric on the outside smooth and plush. Children have a nice padding of collagen under their skin, so even if they're slender, their faces look full, radiant and healthy. As people age, they produce less collagen. As the collagen layer becomes thinner, the skin on top starts to sag and develop lines and wrinkles. The amount of collagen loss people experience as they age can vary based on genetics and environmental factors. The basic rule here is simple: Less collagen means more and deeper wrinkles, the most recognizable signs of aging.

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Many face creams have little positive impact on the collagen skin layer, the dermis. They provide moisture to the surface of the skin, though, which causes it to swell a little, reducing the look of wrinkles. Creams are very ingenious in the way they make use of moisture to keep the skin's surface saturated. Substances called humectants draw moisture out of the air and emollients like lanolin create a barrier holding that moisture trapped and available to the skin. These measures really aren't getting to the real problem of skin aging, though, which is loss of collagen in the dermis. They make skin look more youthful, but only temporarily. When that hard-won surface moisture begins to evaporate, the wrinkles come back.

The obvious solution is to add collagen to the dermis, but that can get complicated. The collagen molecule is large, too large to slip through the outer layer of the skin to the dermis underneath. Slathering on a palm-full of collagen won't help. There are some ways to make the skin more permeable, but skin creams containing collagen aren't quite the answer. It turns out that the most effective way to increase skin collagen, short of injecting animal collagen directly into the skin, is to coax the body to produce more collagen on its own. This is actually pretty practical. After all, the body already makes collagen. The idea here is to encourage it to make a little more and direct it over to the dermis.

On the next few pages, let's take a look at some common ingredients in skin care products that help boost collagen production and perform other skin-friendly maintenance duties that can make you look rested, younger and healthier.

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Youthful Skin Care: Peptides

Collagen is made up of amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Some amino acids are produced by the body, while others need to be introduced through the foods you eat. Peptides are made up of amino acids too, but in a special way.

Let's back up a second and take a look at the nature of amino acids. An amino acid is said to be "essential" when it can't be produced by the body and needs to be introduced through the diet. Animal products are considered "complete" proteins because they contain all of the essential amino acids the body can't produce on its own. Amino acids play a big role in maintaining whole body health and youthful skin.

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It turns out they're so important that the body uses the appearance of different types of amino acid combinations to help it diagnose where and when it may need to perform regular collagen-related maintenance chores. Here's how it works: When collagen starts to break down in the body, its long chains of amino acids turn into shorter chains of substances called peptides. The body identifies the presence of peptides a little like the way you realize you need to buy milk. You think you have milk in the fridge, then one day you take a sniff and realize what you have has turned and you need to buy more. The body recognizes the presence of peptides, realizes there's been a loss of collagen and starts to make more collagen to compensate.

Skin care products that contain peptides are really good at tricking the body into producing new collagen on demand. It's a pretty slick way to alert the body's maintenance and repair system that it needs to put in a little overtime. Peptide-enhanced products can help eliminate fine lines, reduce the appearance of wrinkles and increase the skin's elasticity.

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Youthful Skin Care: Kinetin

Kinetin is an interesting substance. It's primarily a plant hormone, but it also occurs naturally in the DNA of most living things, including people. It has some interesting properties, too. It accelerates a plant's ability to repair itself after an injury and appears to work on human skin in a similar way by promoting rapid cell division and enhanced scab formation. There is evidence that kinetin stimulates the production of collagen in the body, too. It also functions as an antioxidant that may reverse some of the effects of free radical damage caused by lifestyle factors like sun exposure and smoking. That's a lot of skin protection and repair, and all from one simple ingredient.

There are still a few questions about the way kinetin actually works, but a number of recent studies support the fact that it does produce results. As a skin care ingredient, kinetin also has some of the advantages of a retinoid in treating skin conditions like acne, without the unpleasant side effects of a retinoid-like irritation and copious exfoliation. Kinetin is generally considered gentle and safe where most retinoid products are not recommended for use by women who are pregnant or nursing.

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Beyond its ability to enhance skin healing and collagen production, kinetin use has also shown results in helping to diminish the appearance of age spots, reduce fine lines and wrinkles and improve skin elasticity.

Kinetin is often promoted as a "natural" healing and moisturizing plant ingredient that's a safe alternative to chemical cosmeceuticals. This is more marketing wizardry than fact, though. You may sometimes see kinetin listed on ingredient labels under its trade name N6-furfuryladenine.

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Youthful Skin Care: Glycosaminoglycans

Super moisturizer to the rescue.
Super moisturizer to the rescue.
©iStockphoto.com/Thinkstock

Skin hydration is important, but one of the big problems with relying on it to keep skin youthful is that most moisturizing agents only saturate the top layer of the skin, or the epidermis. This top layer is relatively thin and dehydrates rapidly. It's also at the mercy of outside forces like the heat, cold, wind and humidity (or lack of humidity). This is one good reason to use a moisturizer often throughout the day. It's also a good reason to look for other creative ways to keep your skin looking soft and supple.

Enter hydrolized glycosaminoglycans. These tiny, positively charged mucopolysaccharides are complex, hygroscopic proteins. That means they absorb and bind moisture like minute sponges and carry it deep into the epidermal layer of the skin -- and even on into the dermal layer itself. This isn't your grandmother's skin care ingredient. It's a targeted approach to thorough skin hydration and renewal on a cellular level.

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The human body actually produces its own glycosaminoglycans (GAGs). They work in part to regenerate and hydrate the dermal layer from the inside. Hydrolized glycosaminoglycans are slightly altered to enhance their water retentive ability. This sounds complicated, and the science involved probably is pretty complicated. The takeaway is that products containing hydrolized glycosaminoglycans are like super moisturizers that can penetrate where simple surface moisturizers can't go. Once absorbed into the skin, they also help repair and revitalize skin tissue, making it look softer, smoother, younger and healthier. Glycosaminoglycans are considered safe and effective, and you'll find them in skin care as well as some hair care products.

You're probably beginning to notice the important role proteins (and their constituent amino acids) play in the health of your skin. In addition to good hygiene and a consistent skin cleansing regimen, eating a diet high in protein can help your body make many of the raw materials it needs to repair and maintain healthy skin.

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Youthful Skin Care: Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid is a mild form of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA). The presence of the word acid in the description may seem a bit alarming, but a mild acid can be very effective when it comes to skin care. Here's why: The surface of your skin is protected by a thin layer of moisture and oil. Your skin is also constantly shedding dead cells. The dead cells can sometimes become trapped under or settle onto the protective moisture layer instead of falling off. Accumulated dead skin cells can create big problems, especially when you don't cleanse your face regularly and well. It can block tiny pores in the skin that can become infected and painful. It may also be a contributing factor in the development of skin conditions like acne. When your skin begins to age, dead skin cells can also settle into lines and wrinkles, making them appear more pronounced than they actually are.

This coating of dead skin and oil can sometimes be hard to wash off, too. That's were a mild acid comes in very handy. Glycolic acid is stronger than the natural acid balance of your skin but not strong enough to be harmful. Applying it regularly for a prescribed period can help make skin look younger, reduce the appearance of wrinkles, reduce discoloration and help control breakouts by stripping away dead skin and stimulating the new skin underneath. This process of removing dead skin and other debris is called exfoliation. Glycolic acid is available in over the counter as well as in stronger prescription strength preparations for use as an exfoliant.

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Where glycolic acid and other AHAs were originally used as exfoliants and in the treatment of acne and other skin conditions, it wasn't long before dermatologists discovered a side benefit. The use of AHAs also increased the production of collagen in the dermal layer of the skin. Collagen synthesis benefits are usually associated with more concentrated glycolic acid formulations like deep peels, though. Today, glycolic acid is used in varying concentrations in many skin care products.

Glycolic acid isn't for everyone. If you have a rash or damaged skin, consult a dermatologist before using any AHA product. If you're pregnant or nursing, glycolic acid preparations are generally safe to use. Read the informational material and instructions on the products you buy carefully, and discuss changes to your skin care regimen with your doctor.

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Lots More Information

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