We forget that the skin is the body’s largest organ. It’s common for us to think of the skin in terms of beauty regimens, but the truth is that beauty is much more than skin deep. We’re hearing a lot about collagen these days. Not only in terms of beauty, but also in fitness and wellness. Which comes as no surprise when you consider that collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body.1 Comprising one third of all protein, collagen makes up 75-80% of your skin alone. So, what is collagen exactly?
Collagen is a group of proteins found in the connective tissues and extracellular space of cells. Collagen can be found not only in skin, fat, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage but also blood vessels, bones, cornea, intervertebral discs, and even in the dentine of your teeth. Collagen acts as a cellular glue, supporting and connecting tissues and organs.2 In fact, the word collagen comes from the Greek “kólla” literally meaning glue.
As the body ages both the production and quality of collagen decreases. You see this manifest in the form of weakened cartilage in the joints, in wrinkles and loss of firmness in the skin. In addition to the natural decline of collagen, other factors can disrupt collagen production such as sugar, refined carbohydrates, free radicals, smoking, and illness. Damage to collagen can not only impair wound healing,3 but also make skin more susceptible to bruising. Which leads us to ascorbic acid (known on the shelf as vitamin C) and the crucial role it plays in the production of collagen. So crucial that no vitamin C, means no collagen synthesis.4
Vitamin C plays an all-star role throughout the body, from immune stimulation, to tissue and wound healing, iron absorption, even eye health. Vitamin C is a critical part of connective tissues. The body uses vitamin C to synthesize collagen, carnitine, tyrosine, steroids, and neurotransmitters. In fact, according to vitamin C researcher Mark Moyad, MD, MPH of the University of Michigan "Vitamin C has received a great deal of attention, and with good reason. Higher blood levels of vitamin C may be the ideal nutrition marker for overall health."5
First vitamin C is transported from the bloodstream to skin via ascorbic acid transport proteins called keratinocytes. Once keratinocytes make the drop, collagen is synthesized by specialized cells called fibroblasts utilizing vitamin C and three amino acids (namely: glycine, lysine, and proline). And, boom: collagen. But, that’s not all. Because vitamin C also stimulates collagen production by stabilizing collagen mRNA (or messenger RNA). In cell culture studies, a 2-to-3-fold increase in mRNA resulted in a 3-to-4-fold increase in collagen synthesis.6 And, if that’s not enough, vitamin C also stimulates collagen production because it increases the proliferation rates of fibroblasts themselves.
But what happens if collagen in the skin is damaged such as the case with free radicals? Ultra-violet (UV) rays are one of the main sources of free radicals in the skin7 and they directly damage collagen.8 Plus, we know that exposure to UV light decreases the actual skin concentrations of vitamin C.9
Here, vitamin C steps in, both preventing and reversing UV induced damage. How? As a superhero free radical fighting antioxidant that’s how. Vitamin C targets free-radicals accomplishing three things: first it limits the damage from UV light exposure, second it repairs already damaged skin cells10 and third it suppresses UVB-induced inflammation (aka sunburn).11 Let’s be clear, you still need your sunscreen. Because unlike sunscreen, Vitamin C does not absorb or reflect UVA or UVB spectrum light. Instead, vitamin C aids in the skin’s natural regeneration process, helping to repair damaged skin cells.
In a human study,12 oral supplementation (500mg/day) for eight weeks resulted in significant rises of vitamin c in both the plasma and skin content. And since nearly all skin cancer is a result of UV radiation (sun, sunbeds and sun lamps)13 evidence suggests that vitamin C may also protect skin from precancerous changes caused by UV exposure. In a separate culture study of keratinocytes, the addition of vitamin C increased cell survival following UV exposure.14
Vitamin C plays a critical role in so many aspects of health. It’s perhaps hard to understand then why vitamin C has consistently ranked as one of the top six (top four in 200915) nutritional deficiencies in the US.16 We know that a number of factors can affect the absorption and circulating concentrations of vitamin C including medical conditions.17 The good news is that including a high quality vitamin C into your ingestible skincare routine can have a real impact on the health of your skin. And, while there are studies that show a benefit to topical vitamin C serums, we suggest that real beauty comes from within. And, that the best skincare can be found by adding nutrient dense vitamin C foods to your diet and with a quality.