What are collagen and elastin?

by Hannah de Gruchy January 04, 2022

What are collagen and elastin?

Collagen and elastin are proteins that are found in the human body, most notably in the connective tissues including the cartilage, tendons and blood vessels. They’re both also found in the skin where they play an important role in looking youthful, suppleness and elasticity.

As we age, we lose our levels of both collagen and elastin and this can lead to the development of fine lines, wrinkles and sagging skin. But, it’s possible to increase collagen levels through diet and supplements. Whilst there are so far no known ways of boosting elastin levels, it is possible to help improve the skin’s elasticity with carefully chosen products.

Collagen and elastin: fast facts

  1. Collagen and elastin are both proteins that have a structural role within the skin.
  2. Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body and supports and adds strength to the skin.
  3. Elastin adds suppleness and elasticity to the skin.
  4. Consuming collagen-rich and collagen-boosting foods can help to increase levels of collagen, as can collagen supplements.
  5. There is no evidence that we can boost our levels of elastin. 

Is collagen the same as elastin?

Collagen vs. elastin - skin detail

Collagen and elastin are both proteins that play a structural role in the skin. Since they’re both proteins, they’re both made up of the building blocks – amino acids. However, they differ slightly in their structure and therefore their role.

Collagen acts as a biological scaffold, forming criss-cross layers under the skin to provide lift. When we lose collagen, we notice fine lines and wrinkles as the scaffold begins to develop weaknesses.

Elastin is different in that it does the opposite job – it has the ability to contract or expand and then snap back into its original form. This allows movement, but when we lose elastin, we lose the ability of our skin to bounce back, producing the tell-tale sagging effect of ageing. 

What is elastin and what does it do?

Loosing elastin

If we think of collagen as the strength-giver - the protein that provides structure to the make-up of the skin, elastin is the protein that provides elasticity and movement.

Gently tap your cheeks, and you’ll notice that the skin covering this area bounces back. That’s elastin, acting like a rubber band or a coiled spring, giving the skin its bounce, or recoiling mechanism.

The “bouncier” the skin, the more elastin we have, and this usually coincides with how youthful we look. Because like collagen, as we age, we naturally begin to lose elastin. This means that we might notice our skin gradually begins to lack resilience, loses its ability to bounce back and begins to sag or droop.

A good example of this is seen in our frown lines. When we’re young, we can move our face muscles into a frown, and then the skin snaps back to its smooth state when we relax. From our 30s and into our 40s, we might start to notice one or two vertical frown lines developing between our eyebrows. Over time, these lines become deeper and permanent – and it’s all down to a loss of elastin preventing the skin from bouncing back into place.

Why do we lose collagen and elastin? 

Sun exposure

Collagen and elastin can be damaged by lifestyle activities such as smoking, eating a diet high in sugar, exposure to environmental pollutants, and UV rays from the sun.

Losing collagen and elastin is a part of the natural ageing process that we cannot prevent. As we age, we produce less of these important proteins, and we’re therefore unable to replace lost collagen and elastin. 

Not only that, we may notice that our joints, muscles and bones become weaker.

In female bodies, the onset of the perimenopause and the menopause also accelerates the loss of collagen and elastin. This is due to the decline of the female hormone oestrogen, which affects the production of these proteins.

How can I increase my levels of collagen and elastin?

Consuming a diet high in collagen-boosting and collagen-rich foods can help to boost our levels of collagen. Collagen-boosting foods include those rich in vitamin C (which is important in the manufacture of collagen) such as citrus fruits, berries, broccoli and potatoes. Collagen-rich foods include bone broth, lean chicken breast, fish (particularly fish with the skin still intact) and egg whites.

Marine and bovine collagenCollagen supplements include grass-fed, organic bovine collagen powders such as Pure Collagen by Planet Paleo and marine collagen from sustainable sources such as Marine Collagen by Planet Paleo.

As yet, researchers haven’t found a reliable dietary source of elastin. However, it is possible to improve the elasticity of our skin by using targeted skincare products that contain retinol and hyaluronic acid.

Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A and can improve the elasticity of the skin when combined with vitamin C. Hyaluronic acid naturally occurs in the skin and is responsible for retaining water, helping to keep it plump and hydrated. Applying serums and moisturisers that contain hyaluronic acid can help to improve suppleness and hydration, in turn improving its elasticity.

Collagen and elastin

Collagen and elastin are both important proteins in the human body, helping to add structure and elasticity to the skin and other connective tissues.

As we age, we lose our natural levels of both, which leads to skin ageing. However, eating a diet rich in collagen-boosting and collagen-rich foods, taking care to avoid smoking, sun exposure, sugar, alongside taking collagen supplements and using skincare products that contain retinol and hyaluronic acid can help to keep the skin healthy for much longer.

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Hannah de Gruchy
Hannah de Gruchy

Author

Health and wellness author and biologist specialised in sustainability, nutrition and eco-living.


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