Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
What do wrinkles, sags, and stiff or achy joints have in common? They are all manifestations of a loss of collagen, the most abundant type of protein in the human body. Collagen keeps skin looking youthful, joints cushioned, and more, yet its supplies diminish as we get older.
Collagen’s name comes from the Greek word for glue, kólla. It makes up our connective tissue, providing the structure for our skin, tendons, joint cartilage, organs, bones, and other parts. Our bodies contain over 20 different types of collagen but three of these—types I, II, and III—make up 80-90 percent. Types I and III are the main types of collagen in the skin, tendons, ligaments, and bones, and type II is a major component of joint cartilage.
Time Breaks Down Skin Structure
Once we hit our mid-20s, collagen levels start to decline, and this breakdown accelerates as we get older. Scientists at the University of Michigan, who reviewed research since the early 1990s and published their findings in the Archives of Dermatology, estimate this: Compared to 20-somethings, people in their 80s have four times the collagen breakdown. That’s why age brings wrinkles, creases, and saggy areas around the mouth and neck.
We produce collagen in the underlying layer of the skin, the dermis. Think of it as a mattress and our outer skin, the epidermis, as bed sheets. When collagen breaks down, we end up with an old, saggy “mattress.”
As we live longer, collagen is broken down by an enzyme called collagenase. “What it’s doing is dissolving your skin,” says John Voorhees, MD, lead researcher of the Michigan study; “What you’ve got is a vicious cycle. You have to interrupt it, or aging skin is just going downhill.”
Restoring Collagen in Skin
Supplements of collagen come from the connective tissue of animals, which is tough to break down. Think of the connective tissue in a piece of meat, such as ribs. It’s tough, but when cooked enough, turns into a soft gelatin.
In its natural state, collagen is made of large molecules. In some supplements, the collagen is “hydrolyzed,” meaning broken down into smaller molecules called peptides, for better absorption. Studies have shown that collagen peptides are well absorbed in the digestive system and make their way to targeted tissues, where they act as building blocks as well as triggering our own internal production of collagen.
Research shows that supplements of hydrolyzed type I and III collagen increase collagen levels in the skin. Type I and III collagen also support tendons and ligaments and help with exercise recovery.
In addition, a patented type of hydrolyzed type II collagen, BioCell II, has been shown to enhance skin. As well as replenishing structure, it prevents breakdown of hyaluronic acid, which is naturally present in our skin and holds in moisture.
How Collagen Helps Joints
Type II collagen makes up a major portion of the cartilage that cushions joints. In osteoarthritis, injury or wear and tear break down cartilage and eventually bones rub against bones; inflammation intensifies symptoms, but doesn’t trigger the disease. In contrast, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, where inflammation causes pain, stiffness, and swelling; it stems from an immune-system malfunction rather than wear and tear. Collagen can help with both types of arthritis.
Type II collagen naturally contains two other ingredients known to support joint health, chondroitin and hyaluronic acid. This is how they work together: Type II collagen and chondroitin renew cartilage by providing building blocks and stimulating the body’s own production of collagen. Chondroitin may also fight inflammation and block an enzyme that breaks down cartilage. Hyaluronic acid, naturally found in synovial fluid, lubricates joints.
For osteoarthritis, studies have found that BioCell II improves joint comfort and mobility. In addition, studies show that an “undenatured” type II collagen known as UC II can reduce inflammation in both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
What’s Right for You?
For Healthy Skin: Choose a supplement of type I and III collagen that has been hydrolyzed. For best absorption, take it at least 30 minutes before eating other protein. Or, choose BioCell II. Both types can be taken together as they contain different, complementary components. Topical creams and serums containing collagen are formulated to support skin elasticity. Hydrolized collagen is easily absorbed by the skin to moisturize and temporarily plump lines around the eyes and mouth.
For Healthy Joints: Choose type II collagen such as BioCell II for support of cartilage and joint lubrication. For inflammation, look for undenatured collagen, known as UC II.
For Exercise Recovery: Collagen types I and III support tendons and ligaments while type II supports joints.
For Pets: BioCell II and other type II collagens are available in pet supplements for joint health.
DR. VENESSA’S Anti-Aging 3 Collagen Type I & II is formulated with Type I and II collagen plus amino acids proline, lysine, and glycine, plus vitamin C, to stimulate the body’s own production of collagen.
NEOCELL Super Collagen Type I & 3 is enzymatically hydrolyzed and provides an amino acid ratio with a low molecular weight for maximum bioavailability. Just mix one scoop with water or juice.
REVIVA LABS Collagen-Fibre Eye Pad Kit diminishes wrinkles, dark circles, and puffiness, and temporarily “lifts” the under-eye area. Regular use brings cumulative and longer-lasting benefits.