What Is Collagen, Really?

Collagen is often touted and portrayed as the elixir to youthful looking skin and beauty with products of many forms in the market — from beauty products like oral capsules, facial masks and serum, to foodstuffs like collagen drinks and hot pot soups.

As your body’s most abundant protein, it is found all over your body’s make-up — skin, muscles, bones and tendons — and holds your body together like glue. In fact, its ‘adhesive’ properties are behind its Greek origin, from κόλλα (kólla) which means “glue”, and the suffix -γέν (-gen) which means “producing”. Ancient Greeks would boil animal skin and tendons to extract collagen to use as an adhesive.

Natural collagen produced and synthesised in the body is termed ‘endogenous collagen’ and has many important functions. Deficiency in endogenous collagen is linked to various health problems. Artificial and synthetic collagen from outside sources, such as in supplements, is called ‘exogenous collagen’ and is used in medicine and cosmetics.

 

Roles Collagen Play

For most collagen, the protein molecules are joined together to form fibrils that are long and thin, acting as anchors and supporting structures to each other that gives skin their strength and elasticity. This is why people with insufficient collagen intake or have trouble producing collagen may experience weak skin and slow skin renewal.

Collagen exists in at least 16 different types where 80 to 90 per cent of them belong to types 1. 2 and 3, and the remainder in other types. Each type has a different structure and function.

  • Collagen is all over your body in the skin, bones, connective tissues like tendons
  • Fibrils, one of many types of collagen, are stronger than steel gram-for-gram
  • Collagen production is adversely affected by age and factors like smoking and UV exposure
  • Collagen dressings applied on wounds can be used to accelerate healing
  • Cosmetic lotions are ineffective as molecules are too large to be absorbed through the skin

Collagen is secreted by various types of cells, but predominantly by tissue cells. As mentioned earlier, there are factors that affect collagen production and quality. With age and certain unhealthy habits, collagen quality deteriorates and lead to the formation of wrinkles and cartilage issues. Post-menopause women experience a reduction in collagen production to a large extent. It is also normal to experience a considerable decline in its production in people in their 60s.

Within the middle layer of the skin, called ‘dermis’, collagen forms a network of fibres called fibroblasts where new cells can grow in. This network also helps in the replacement and renewal of dead skin cells.

 

Uses Of Collagen

Collagen, being resorbable, it can be broken down, processed and converted, and be reabsorbed into the body. It can be formed into solid states like cartilages, or be made into lattice-like jelly substances such as in gelatin. Being multifunctional and having the ability to exist in different forms, collagen is a versatile material suitable for medical and cosmetic uses.

Within the middle layer of the skin, called ‘dermis’, collagen forms a network of fibres called fibroblasts where new cells can grow in. This network also helps in the replacement and renewal of dead skin cells.

Skin Fillers

Collagen injections are helpful in improving skin contour and fill spaces where there are skin depressions, creating even and smooth skin surfaces. These fillers can be used in cosmetic treatments to remove wrinkles and lines. They can also help to reduce the visibility and improve the look of scars. These fillers are usually derived from humans and cows.

Wound Dressings

Collagen, being a key component in tissue repair and skin growth, can ain wound-healing by providing a good platform for skin tissues to grow on. Collagen-based dressings may aid chronic wounds that do not respond well to traditional treatment, wounds that expel body liquids like urine and perspiration, necrotic wounds where cell die easily, certain burns, sites of donated skin or graft. However, collagen dressings are not recommended in treatments for third-degree burns, wounds with dry eschar, or for people with sensitive to products derived from bovine.

Guided Regeneration

Membranes based on collagen have been used widely in periodontal/dental treatments and surgeries to promote regeneration of specific cell types. To prevent the rapidly-regenerative cells around the gum to migrate into a wound in a tooth, collagen barriers are used to preserve a space for tooth cells to regenerate in. These membranes not only help in the healing but also are resorbable, therefore surgical removal is not required.

Osteoarthritis Treatment

Supplements may help in the treatment of osteoarthritis. The most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis is caused by the wearing of the protective cartilage at the ends of bones. A medical review in 2006 found that such collagen supplements were helpful in easing painful symptoms associated with osteoarthritis and improves joint function. As the collagen is absorbed, they are then accumulated in the cartilage and help rebuild the extracellular matrix.