What Is Elastin? Plus, the Skin-Care Benefits of Elastin Protein

Collagen may get all the attention, but elastin is just as important to your skin's overall appearance and health.

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Photo: Getty Images - Design: Alex Sandoval

Various types of proteins help provide structure to your skin, but of those, collagen tends to hog most of the attention in the skin-care world. Yes, collagen is the most abundant structural protein in your skin, but it doesn't work alone. Elastin — the Gretchen Wieners to collagen's Regina George, if you will — also serves an important function, and if you want a grasp on the inner workings of your skin, you'll want to learn all you can about elastin.

What Is Elastin?

Elastin is a protein that gives skin — and other tissues and organs throughout your body — elasticity. "Along with collagen, elastin is a major structural protein in the skin," says Brendan Camp, M.D., dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology in New York. Both are found within the extracellular matrix, aka the material between cells that consists largely of proteins. Elastin is 1000 times more flexible than collagen, meaning elastin can stretch and recoil like a Slinky.

Just as collagen is responsible for skin's firmness, elastin plays a role in your skin's appearance, according to Dr. Camp. "Elastin helps keep skin tight; A lack of elastin leads to skin laxity or sagging skin," he says. Additionally, it aids in wound and scar healing, says Whitney Bowe, M.D., a New York-based dermatologist. "Damaged, disorganized or deficient elastin can show up as wrinkled, saggy skin, and can make scars and stretch marks more noticeable," she says.

Can You Enhance Elastin Function?

As with collagen, elastin production begins to slow down in your mid-twenties, according to Dr. Camp. Unfortunately, while there are some very promising solutions for people who want to boost their collagen production, reigniting your elastin production isn't as straightforward. "Unlike collagen, elastin has a very low and slow turnover rate, which makes it particularly susceptible to damage over time," says Dr. Bowe. "While the skin can synthesize new collagen if it's given the right building blocks and favorable conditions, it has a much more challenging time creating new elastin." (For instance, fractioned laser treatments such as Fraxel may help stimulate collagen production.)

Scientists are still trying to crack the code on how to stimulate elastin production, says Dr. Bowe, adding that while "research is underway looking for ways to boost new elastin production," there's currently no treatment protocol to help skin simply make more of this protein.

That means it's all the more important to think of elastin as a precious resource and protect what you've already got. These are the three main factors that can make a difference.

How to Retain the Elastin Protein In Your Skin

Lifestyle Habits

"Intrinsic factors, meaning the normal aging process, and extrinsic, or environmental factors" can both contribute to a decline in elastin production, says Dr. Camp. While aging is just a fact of life (and a privilege!), the external factors are more so within your control. They include smoking, UV radiation, and pollutants, which can all contribute to the formation of free oxygen radicals, aka unstable oxygen molecules that damage cellular structures, he says. Avoiding smoking and seeking shade from the sun can work in your favor.

It's easier said than done, but it also helps to also keep your stress levels low — not just for the sake of your skin but also for a slew of other health reasons. "Decreasing your cortisol levels can also help to counter the degradation of your extracellular matrix," says Dr. Bowe, recommending stress management techniques, adequate sleep, and regular exercise.

Your Skin-Care Routine

As mentioned, researchers are still trying to find ways to boost elastin production, so you won't find a skin-care product to do the job. That said, there's a chance that some skin-care ingredients can help. "Elastic fiber synthesis is complicated, and requires multiple assembly steps and crosslinking steps that occur in the dermal layer," says Dr. Bowe. "There is limited evidence that topical skin-care products can reach the dermal layer of the skin at a high enough concentration to stimulate elastin production. Some studies suggest ingredients such as retinol, peptides, and growth factors might help, but most topical skin care is focused on preserving the elastic fibers you already have."

The best way to preserve those existing fibers through skin care is by using sunscreen, says Dr. Bowe. That's because sunscreen protects your skin against the aforementioned UV radiation that can contribute to free radical formation. Look for a broad-spectrum formula — a product that protects skin from UVA and UVB rays — such as Supergoop PLAY Everyday Sunscreen Lotion (Buy It, $32, sephora.com) or La Roche-Posay Anthelios Ultra-Light Fluid Face Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 60 (Buy It, $31, dermstore.com).

For extra credit, add a vitamin C serum to the mix. While sunscreen can protect from free radical damage from UV rays, vitamin C's antioxidant powers can take on free radicals generated from exposure to blue light, infrared heat, and pollution, according to Dr. Bowe. Try: SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic (Buy It, $169, dermstore.com).

What You Eat

How and what you eat can also affect your body's elastin. Essentially, consuming antioxidants may give you an added layer of protection from oxidative stress beyond what your skin-care products are providing, explains Dr. Bowe. "Through diet and supplementation, you can boost the effects of your vitamin C serum and your sunscreen," She says. "While it's no excuse to skip your sunscreen, there is convincing science that eating or drinking certain nutrients at high enough concentrations each day can protect skin from oxidative stress that can lead to loss of elasticity in your skin."

More specifically, these nutrients include carotenoids and polyphenols, which research suggests may provide antioxidant benefits, says Dr. Bowe. You can get each through food — for instance, tomatoes and kiwi are rich in carotenoids while pomegranate and dark chocolate are good sources of polyphenols — but in some cases supplementation may be helpful, says Dr. Bowe. "Although I always recommend trying to get as many nutrients as possible through your diet, it can be challenging to get sufficient amounts of certain nutrients through diet alone, especially to meet the doses studied in clinical trials," she says. "…Consequently, more and more dermatologists are recognizing the validity of smart, or targeted supplementation to support skin health from within." Always check with your doctor for personalized advice before starting a supplement.

The good news is that if you've been taking steps to protect your skin's collagen, you probably noticed, these healthy skin habits offer a lot of overlap when it comes to the best ways to maintain your elastin. Protecting skin from free radicals is the key where both proteins are concerned.

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