In order to understand what collagen and elastin do, we must first understand;

  1.   what these molecules are and;

  2.   what are their functions in the skin.

What is collagen and elastin?
Wikipedia edition June 2014 quotes that:
Collagen is the main structural protein of the various connective tissues in animals. As the main component of connective tissue, it is the most abundant protein in mammals, making up from 25% to 35% of the whole-body protein content. Collagen, in the form of elongated fibrils, is mostly found in fibrous tissues such as tendons, ligaments and skin, and is also abundant in corneas, cartilage, bones, blood vessels, the gut, and intervertebral discs. The fibroblast is the most common cell that creates collagen.
Elastin is a protein in connective tissue that is elastic and allows many tissues in the body to resume their shape after stretching or contracting. Elastin helps skin to return to its original position when it is poked or pinched. Elastin is also an important load-bearing tissue in the bodies of vertebrates and used in places where mechanical energy is required to be stored. In humans, elastin is encoded by the ELN gene

Figure 1 of the skin structure in relation to the effects of collagen and elastin 1

What is the function of these molecules in the skin?
In essence we note that the role of these molecules is to act like a “spring” so as to return the plumpness in the skin. When you visualise the skin surface having folds and crevices (as seen in the above schematic diagram), then the role of the collagen and elastin is to “push” these creases out from the inside in order to reverse the aging process. This naturally happens in young skin when it is pinched or distorted in some way.
Unfortunately, as we get older that “springiness” in our collagen and elastin start to break down and cannot function well to prevent the signs of aging. These molecule then become stiff and brittle.
Following is a detailed description taken from the website for The Dermal Institute (Postgraduate Education in Skin and Body Therapy) of an article “Structural Changes Associated with Aging Skin” by Dr. Diana Howard 2
“Breakdown of Collagen and Elastin
The majority of age-dependent changes that occur in our skin happen in the dermis, which can lose from 20-80% of its thickness during the aging process. This is the result of changes in the fibroblasts, the cells responsible for collagen, elastin and glycosaminoglycan (GAG) biosynthesis. Not only is the collagen and elastin produced at a slower rate, which impacts the skin’s inability to repair itself, but the organization of the protein also changes, affecting the skin’s structure.
The breakdown of collagen and elastin is controlled by the activity of Matrix Metalloproteinase (MMP) enzymes known as collagenase and elastase, respectively. Studies have shown that UV radiation activates these enzymes within hours of UVB exposure. Long-term elevation of the MMPs, which is typically found in people with prolonged exposure to sunlight, results in disorganized and clumped collagen and elastin that is characteristic of photodamaged skin.
Changes in elastin fibers are so characteristic in photoaged skin that the condition known as elastosis is considered a hallmark of photoaged skin. This is characterized by an accumulation of amorphous elastin protein and a breakdown in the typical structural layout, which results in decreased skin elasticity and tensile strength. This phenomenon accounts for why more mature skin takes longer to assume its original position when extended or pulled.”

So what can be done to repair the collagen and elastin in the skin?
There are many collagen and elastin skincare creams on the market that claim to help stabilise the collagen and elastin levels in the skin. These creams contain the molecules. Only problem is that for these elements to have any effect they must be somehow “placed” under the skin as shown in the following picture.

Figure 2 Simplified model of collagen and elastin 3

These proteins do not travel through the skin and so there is some doubt cast over these claims. At best these creams would only help to “fill in the nooks and crannies” on the skin, much like spakfilla does in the cracks and holes in a wall. These creams help to bridge across the crevices but unfortunately once the cream dries out on the skin, then the creases reappear to then have to undergo the same procedure again.

Needling is another method to repair the creases but this method is painful and invasive. This method is not always a guarantee of success.
The only effective way of rebuilding the collagen and elastin under the outer skin layer is to allow the body the ability to naturally fabricate it. This is what normally happens in the body when it is young but diminishes with age. One of the recognised methods to do this is by use of vitamin C (ascorbic acid). 4
An article presented in the NYU Langone Medical Centre website, showed that apart from using alpha-lipoic acid or other anti-oxidants have shown that:
A small, 3-month, double-blind, placebo-controlled study found benefit with a cream containing 5% alpha-lipoic acid . Use of this antioxidant substance improved several measures of aging skin as compared to placebo, especially skin roughness. Benefits have also been seen in preliminary studies with a cream containing vitamin C .”
Antioxidants are substances that neutralise free radicals. These free radicals are created by ultraviolet light from the sun. They are naturally occurring substances that can harm many tissues of the body, including the skin. 5

Vitamin C is a powerful, naturally occurring anti-oxidant that acts as a trigger mechanism for the body to rebuild the 2 proteins in the area where the ascorbic acid is present. Any topical oil in water cream applications will not have many benefits because ascorbic acid is easily hydrolysed when in contact with water and so is very unstable. The molecule readily undergoes breakdown to form inefficacious hydrolised by-products.

Using derivatives of ascorbic acid, such as ascorbyl palmitate, will give little results because these types of molecules are too strongly bound for the body to be able to break down to yield the useful acid form. Too much energy is necessary to be able to break the molecule to the acid form of the vitamin C.
So the only problem remains is how to transport the vitamin C to the areas where it is needed namely under the subcutaneous layer of the skin?

This will be discussed in the next  blog on “Vitamin C and its relationship to Anti-Ageing products.