Think of collagen like a thick rope similar to those found on ships. The strands are tightly intertwined and strong, which helps it keep its form. Over time, the individual fibers begin to break, the rope frays and it begins to lose its strength. In our skin, collagen literally plays a supporting role, lending structure to the skin, and maintaining its smooth, line-free, youthful appearance.A protein that occurs naturally in most animals, collagen is the primary connective tissue found in the skin, muscles and tendons—and makes up the framework for all soft tissues. But collagen gets a lot of attention in terms of the aging process, and its decline is the main culprit for fine lines, wrinkles and furrows.Collagen is abundant in young skin, and its rate of production is able to keep up with the rate of its degradation until about the age of 25. At this point, collagen begins to be destroyed faster than it can be replaced, which leads to telltale signs of aging such as fine lines, wrinkles and sagging. The symptoms of collagen loss become more apparent around the age of 45, when the skin becomes significantly thinner, more fragile and further susceptible to damage due to changes in hormone levels.Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is the main culprit for the breakdown of collagen, as it damages the actual structure of the protein as well as the DNA of the fibroblasts—the component of the skin responsible for producing collagen. Other factors that contribute to collagen damage include excessive heat and cold, the stress hormone cortisol (which is also produced when a person gets too little sleep), smoking, poor nutrition, and, of course, free radicals.Free radicals are created by UV light, pollution and other environmental factors. They damage cells by stealing electrons and creating an unstable environment. As one electron is stolen, another free radical is created, and this vicious cycle contributes to the breakdown of all cells in the body (including collagen). Antioxidants have extra electrons to “donate,” which stop the cycle and create stability. This is why a skincare regimen that includes antioxidants—as well as a nutritious diet—is essential for preventing the breakdown of collagen.The good news is, you can preserve the naturally occurring collagen in your skin by shielding it from environmental aggressors like the sun and cigarette smoke along with a proper skincare regimen. Sun protection, antioxidants and extra hydration go a long way for making your skin’s environment healthier and less damaging.Repairing damaged collagen is easier said than done, which is why the best way to preserve collagen levels is to stimulate collagen production. Fibroblasts are skin cells that play a vital role in this process. A proper skincare regimen can keep collagen production going, and there are a variety of ingredients that have been proven to jumpstart the fibroblasts, and speed up their collagen output. Retinoids are able to help increase skin-cell turnover, increase collagen production, penetrate the skin and get down to where the fibroblasts reside, which is why an over-the-counter retinol or prescription retinoid is essential for keeping skin in great shape. Another key collagen producing ingredient is vitamin c, in addition to being an antioxidant that helps prevent free radical damage, vitamin C has been shown to increase the skin’s collagen production as well.There are also in-office treatments that can help boost collagen production. Hyaluronic acid injectable fillers like Juvéderm have been found to not only plump up wrinkles instantly, but can also prompt the skin to produce collagen. When placed in areas of the face where skin needs thickening, the body senses the filler and responds by producing new collagen in those areas.Another collagen-stimulating treatment is laser resurfacing, especially with fractional lasers. The laser energy penetrates the skin and causes thermal injury in the lower layers of the dermis, which in turn triggers the skin to produce collagen as part of the wound healing process.More than a mere protein, collagen is responsible for the skin’s youthful appearance and it’s never too early to start protecting it. Maintaining the skin’s collagen levels can help prevent visible signs of aging, keep skin healthy, beautiful and at its best for years to come.