Elastin: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on October 03, 2022
5 min read

If you're looking to improve the appearance of your skin, you've probably come across the terms elastin and collagen

There are similarities and differences between elastin vs collagen, though. While they are both proteins that work together in your connective tissue, collagen gives the skin strength and resilience, and elastin allows the skin to be flexible while also returning to its original shape. 

Collagen fibers make up 90% of the skin, and elastin makes up 10%. Both are produced by fibroblasts.

Let's dig deeper into what elastin is, though, to answer questions like: What is elastin made of? Where is elastin found? What conditions affect elastin? Are there ways to prevent damage or further damage?

Elastin is a naturally occurring, stable protein in the extracellular matrix (ECM) that provides resilience and elasticity to vital organs in the human body.

As the main component of elastic fibers, it stores energy. This elastin protein also enables connective tissues to recoil. As a result, elastin is much more flexible than collagen. Elastin is actually 1,000 times more stretchy than collagen. 

Certain vital tissues in the body contain elastin, including blood vessels, the lungs, and skin. Without your elastin, your skin and other tissues would sag. 

You can't get elastin directly from your diet because it occurs naturally through elastin fibrillogenesis. This process uses tropoelastin molecules in a chain-like structure with a scissor shape to produce elastin.

Some interesting facts about elastin: 

  • The protein synthesis of elastin occurs within a short window. It only forms from the fetal development stage to late adolescence. Elastin has a long half-life, though, of around 70 years. As a result, it should last a lifetime in most healthy humans.
  • Elastin makes up around 2% to 4% of the dry weight in the dermis of the human body.
  • Over 75% of the makeup of this protein includes just four amino acids: 
    • Proline
    • Glycine
    • Valine
    • Alanine

Elastin consists of cross-linked tropoelastin monomers that make up about 90% of elastic fibers; the rest are fibrillin microfibrils. 

Elastin's primary function is to allow tissues to stretch and return to their original size. Your arteries, for instance, transport blood to and from your heart and to the rest of your body. Elastin makes the arteries stretchy enough to carry blood to the heart.

Elastin is also beneficial to lung function and breathing. When you exhale, elastin in the respiratory apparatus stores energy as the diaphragm contracts. That energy then releases, and your lungs expand again with air.

The rubber-band-like properties of elastin are due to the amino acids that make up its composition. Together, these non-polar amino acids cause a hydrophobic interaction that produces the elastic properties of elastin. They include:

Proline is a water-repellant amino acid that is also abundant in collagen. It makes up 14% of the elastin structure.

Glycine makes up 35% of the elastin structure. It is a simple amino acid with only one hydrogen atom as its side chain.

Valine is a branch-chain hydrophobic amino acid found in elastin. It has stimulant qualities.

Alanine is glucogenic and a branch-chain amino acid found in elastin. It assists in protein synthesis.

Tropoelastin is the precursor of elastin. It is a water-soluble molecule that is spring-shaped and can stretch up to eight times its normal length.

You can find elastin in connective tissues, skin, blood vessels, and anywhere else in the body that needs to be able to stretch and recoil.

For instance, you can locate elastin in:

  • Large arteries
  • Heart valves
  • Pulmonary tissues
  • Ligaments
  • Cartilage
  • The liver

Elastin can be found in the skin's dermis layer. The elastin in your skin enables it to stretch and rebound: for instance, when you smile or eat.

Most of the arteries' elastin makes up the walls' extracellular matrix. However, as you age, this elastin degrades. When this happens, elastin-derived peptides (EDP) are released, which may lead to vascular disease.

Elastin is also found in the tendons. For example, the Achilles tendon contains elastin. If the tendon is injured, the elastin will act as a protective shield from future injuries until it is healed.

Aging is a natural process, and you can't avoid it. Unfortunately, as you age, the collagen and elastin in your body deteriorate, leaving your skin less firm and youthful.

As the result of elastin damage, you may observe:

  • Thin skin
  • Permanent frown or smile lines
  • Wrinkles 
  • Loose, saggy skin
  • Fine lines

The environment can play a significant role in the degradation of elastin. UV rays from the sun, for example, can damage elastin. Cigarette smoke in the lungs can also lead to the degradation of this elastic fiber, as can emphysema and other lung diseases or a high-glucose environment produced by an illness like diabetes. The resulting elastin deficiency can cause life-threatening problems.

Some other examples of illnesses relating to elastin include:

Williams–Beuren syndrome (or, Williams syndrome) is a genetic developmental disorder that affects chromosome 7, which regulates the elastin gene (ELN). Those with this condition may have facial deformities and learning disabilities.

Autosomal dominant cutis laxa (ADCL) is a rare disorder causing mutations in the elastin gene (ELN). Those affected will typically encounter inguinal hernias, saggy skin, and emphysema.

Supravalvular aortic stenosis (SVAS) is a heart defect caused by an elastin gene mutation (ELN). It affects the aorta and causes it to shrink, resulting in symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain, and heart murmurs.

Atherosclerosis is an inflammatory disease where plaque forms in large and medium-sized arteries. The result is a degradation of the elastin, which usually provides the elasticity of the arteries. As this disease progresses, blood clots, heart attack, or stroke can occur.

Marfan syndrome is a connective tissue disorder that causes elastin reduction in the aorta. The resulting aortic rupture often results in death and is usually unexpected.

When you get older, your elastin will decrease, and your skin will wrinkle. However, there are ways that you can slow down elastin depletion.

Some of these methods include:

  • Using sunscreen
  • Taking antioxidants
  • Eating leafy greens, fruits, fish, and berries
  • Drinking plenty of water
  • Using moisturizers that contain Vitamin A, Vitamin E, and Vitamin C 
  • Exercising
  • Not smoking