- Ceramides are lipids that are naturally found in the skin which help maintain the skin’s natural barrier and prevent moisture loss.
- Skin naturally loses ceramides with age, becoming drier and less supple.
- People with skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis generally produce fewer ceramides.
- Moisturizers, creams, cleansers and other skin care products containing ceramides can help repair the skin’s barrier and relieve dryness.
Ceramides are a vital part of the skin’s natural barrier, enabling skin to maintain a healthy appearance. The body’s natural production of ceramides gradually declines with age, leading to drier and less supple skin.
Regular application of skin care products that contain ceramides can help repair the skin barrier, and increase moisture, leading to visible improvements.
What Are Ceramides?
Ceramides are a type of fat, called lipids, contained in the outermost layer of skin. Together with fatty acids and cholesterol, ceramides provide the skin with a natural protective barrier against the environment.
They also prevent the skin from losing moisture. Under the surface, ceramides act as a glue to hold the skin’s matrix—or structure—together, keeping skin firm and supple. However, ceramide production diminishes with age, which contributes to thinning and loosening of the skin.
Structure and types of ceramides
The outermost layer of the skin, called the stratum corneum, has a bricks and mortar design. Skin cells are the bricks, while lipids are the mortar that holds these bricks together. Ceramides make up about 50% of the lipids in the stratum corneum.
Although there are three different types of ceramides (sphingosine, phytosphingosine and dihydrosphingosine) their individual roles in maintaining the skin’s barrier are not clear.
Benefits of Ceramides for Your Skin
Ceramides benefit the skin in two specific ways; by keeping skin adequately moisturized, and by strengthening the skin’s natural barrier.
Dry skin and acne
Exposure to cold weather, wind and chemicals in the environment draws moisture away from the skin, leading to dryness. Ceramides help to bolster the skin’s natural barrier, preventing transepidermal water loss. This action keeps the skin hydrated from the inside out.
Ceramides can also be used to treat dryness in acne-prone skin. One study demonstrated that a combined skin care regimen using a mild cleanser plus a ceramide moisturizer was effective in treating dryness without exacerbating acne.
Eczema and psoriasis
Eczema and psoriasis are two conditions that leave the skin dry, red and itchy. Both cause the skin’s barrier to weaken, resulting in high sensitivity and susceptibility to irritants, as well as the inability to retain moisture.
Using a cream with ceramides strengthens the epidermis and restores the skin’s ability to retain moisture, helping to relieve dryness and itching.
What Causes Skin to Lose Ceramides?
Age, some skin conditions, the use of harsh soaps or exfoliants and exposure to environmental contaminants can all contribute to the depletion of ceramides in the skin.
The skin undergoes many changes with age. It thins and loses some of its elasticity; the production of ceramides and other lipids slows, and years of continual exposure to UV rays also lowers ceramide levels. As these fats are depleted, the skin’s barrier becomes weaker and more vulnerable to damage.
Eczema, also called atopic dermatitis, causes dry, red and itchy skin. People with this condition not only have fewer ceramides, but the ones they do have cover less of the skin’s surface area.
Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease in which skin cells reproduce too quickly and form dry, scaly patches called plaques on the skin. In areas of skin that are covered by psoriasis plaques, the skin contains fewer ceramides and is less able to retain water.
Cold winter air is drier than humid summer air. This dryness can strip the skin of its moisture. Winter also reduces the amount of protective ceramides in skin.
Another study found a 50% drop in ceramides in the skin on participants’ arms during the fall and winter months, compared with the spring and summer. Exposure to strong soaps, exfoliants and harsh chemicals in the environment also reduces the level of ceramides in skin.
How Ceramide Skin Care Products Work
Ceramide skin care products help relieve everyday dryness, as well as dry skin caused by conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. They work differently than typical moisturizers, which simply add moisture to the skin.
Instead, ceramides creams are designed to mimic the skin’s built-in moisturizing systems and repair the natural barrier to retain more moisture in the skin.
Ceramide cream has been found to increase skin hydration and reduced water loss, with the effects lasting for a full 24 hours after application. One 28-day study of a ceramide cleanser used in conjunction with a cream containing salicylic acid resulted in visible improvements in dry skin.
Creams containing a blend of ceramides and other fatty acids can help improve skin dryness that result from psoriasis. For instance, one study found that combining linolenic acid-ceramide cream with a common psoriasis medication improved symptoms such as itching and water loss better compared to the psoriasis drug alone.
Ceramides are also available as an oral supplement. Derived from plants such as wheat, sweet potatoes and rice, phyto-ceramides are similar to the ceramides found in human skin. One study found that a wheat-based ceramide supplement was able to significantly and visually moisturize dry skin, as well as improve other related skin damage.
Phyto-ceramide supplements have also been promoted for reducing the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines by plumping up the skin. However, little research has been conducted to support this claim.
Are Ceramide Products Safe?
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review Panel (CIR) determined that ceramides were safe in skin care products. In addition, ceramide creams have not been linked to any serious side effects. The creams can even be applied on sensitive areas of skin, such as under the eyes.
One reason why ceramides are such a safe product is that they are produced by the body naturally; any topical application is merely supplementing a lack of ceramides that should already be present in the skin.
It is important to note, however, that the added ingredients in combination creams may cause side effects unrelated to ceramides.
Tips for Using Ceramides in Your Skin Care Routine
Ceramides are available in creams, lotions and cleansers. For optimal moisturization, choose a ceramide cream, as creams are often formulated with other lipids specifically to retain moisture.
Look for products that are fragrance-free, and therefore less likely to cause irritation. The first time you use a cream with ceramides, perform a spot test to determine if you have any reaction, such as redness or irritation.
Apply ceramide cream as the final step in your skin care regimen before bed, or after showering to lock-in moisture. Alternatively, if you are using a ceramide serum, it should be applied as the first step after cleansing to ensure proper absorption.
While you can use multiple ceramide products in a skin care routine, using a formulation containing just one single ceramide has been found to be more effective than a product containing more than one.
Ceramides have emollient properties, which means they are already formulated to moisturize the skin. For particularly dry skin however, consider using ceramide products that include other moisturizing properties such as humectants and occlusives.
Humectants, such as glycerol, increase water content in the uppermost layer of the skin by drawing water from the environment and from deeper layers within the skin. Occlusives, such as lanolin, prevent the skin from losing the water it has already absorbed.
How do you store ceramides?
The best way to store ceramides is in an airtight bottle to protect the cream from the air and possible contaminants. When buying a ceramide product, look for one in an opaque bottle with a pump dispenser to protect the contents from light and air.
How to Prevent Loss of Ceramides
In addition to adding ceramides to your skin, you can also prevent the loss of ceramides by following a few simple steps:
- Keep your skin moisturized; use a humidifier in dry weather and apply moisturizer after bathing
- Use SPF sunscreen daily and avoid excessive tanning or sunbathing; UV rays have been found to damage intercellular lipids, such as ceramides
- Use gentle cleansers and soaps; avoid products that contain alcohol or perfume, which can dry the skin.
Ceramides are lipids that naturally make up a large portion of the skin. These levels decrease with age or due to skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.
Ceramide creams and other skin care products help replenish the skin’s natural barrier and restore moisture. This not only keeps skin smooth and soft, but also helps to reduce signs of aging. Additionally, ceramides are gentle on skin and can be used as a moisturizer even for those with acne, psoriasis or eczema.
Ceramides are available in a variety of forms including creams, serums and oral supplements.
Ceramide-based products are safe to use with other anti-aging and moisturizing ingredients, but lose efficacy when exposed to air and sunlight.
If you’re not sure which ceramide product is best for your skin care needs, discuss your options with your dermatologist.