Ceramides can be naturally found on the skin’s upper protective layer (skin barrier). The skin’s barrier system is made up of Ceramides (~50%), Cholesterol, and other Fatty Acids.
Ceramides are lipids (fat) which holds the barrier together to help prevent moisture loss and protect skin from the external environment. A compromised barrier system is one which does not contain as many ceramides, cholesterol, and free fatty acids as compared to a healthy one. This then leads to skin dehydration, roughness, wrinkles, sensitivity, and makes skin more prone to irritation.
The skin's barrier can be weakened as we get older, due to the natural slowdown of ceramide/fat production, or through certain conditions such as acne and eczema. The great news is that topical application of ceramides and other fatty acids can help to support a weakened skin barrier.
How Are Ceramides Lost?
The most common factor for ceramide loss is due to aging. As we age (starting around our 30’s), the body’s ability to produce ceramides naturally slows down. Research also points to a direct correlation between ceramide production and the level of estrogen in the body. Older women in their 50’s who experience a drop in estrogen levels (due to menopause) have a reduction in the ability for their skin to produce ceramides.
People with acne, dermatitis (eczema), and psoriasis have lower levels of ceramides in their skin. Their barrier system is naturally weakened and is more exposed to external environmental factors. Furthermore, the ratio of different ceramides in the skin is different from those with a healthy barrier.
For those who suffer from acne, they have a decreased level of the particular ceramide precursor: Phytosphingosine. This leaves their skin more vulnerable to inflammation and infection which in turn leads to comedones (pimples, blackheads, whiteheads). However, the direct usage of ceramide products is not a treatment for acne.
Instead, ceramide-enriched products such as moisturizers and serums are great complimentary products to support acne treatments as they typically can dry out skin. Furthermore, they can help support the skin barrier in repairing itself and better resist future acne formation.
Recommended for Oily Skin: COSRX Honey Ceramide Full Moisture Cream
Skin afflicted with eczema are irritated easily and have a dry, sometimes flaky appearance. Eczema suffers have a weakened barrier which increases transepidermal water loss (TEWL): the loss of moisture via the skins top layer. This is due to the loss and imbalance of ceramides in skin, particularly Ceramide EOS (CER 1) & Ceramide NP (CER 3).
For those with mild to moderate eczema, a ceramide moisturizer, or a gentle ceramide-enriched cleanser can help with the symptoms.
The condition where skin cells are overproduced is called Psoriasis, which can be caused by genetic factors. Those suffering from psoriasis have scaly, flaky skin, typically accompanied by redness, commonly around the elbows, knees, and scalp. This condition creates a compromised skin barrier where sufferers have lower levels of Ceramides NP (3), AP (6), EOS (1), EOH (4), and AS (5).
Because this condition is chronic without a known cure, it’s best to consult a medical professional first before self-treating symptoms.
Xerosis and Pruritus (Dry and Itchy Skin)
Experienced typically by most senior adults, Xerosis (dryness) and Pruritus (itchiness) are due to the natural shift of skin type towards one that is drier as we age.
A 15-day study conducted with volunteers of 60-73 years old showed improved visual dryness when they used a moisturizer containing ceramides at least once daily. It also improved their quality of life, as pruritus (itchiness) can cause impaired sleep, and further skin damage when scratched. However, there is no comparison to a similar moisturizer without ceramides, so we can’t conclusively say that ceramides will help, but it may help.
Recommended for Dry Skin: Dr.Jart+ Ceramidin Cream
Types of Ceramides
While ceramides can be from botanical sources, it’s more commonly lab-made when it comes to skincare. There’s no research that one is better or safer over another. There are at least 9 types of Ceramides and two main ceramide precursors. Precursors are ingredients which help the skin to produce more ceramides instead of being a replenishment source.
- Ceramide EOS (Ceramide 1)
- Ceramide NG (Ceramide 2)
- Ceramide NS (Ceramide 2)
- Ceramide NP (Ceramide 3): most common type found in skincare
- Ceramide EOH (Ceramide 4)
- Ceramide AS (Ceramide 5)
- Ceramide AP (Ceramide 6)
- Ceramide NH (Ceramide 7)
- Ceramide AH (Ceramide 8)
- Ceramide EOP (Ceramide 9; Ceramide I; Ceramide IA)
- Phytosphingosine (e.g. Caprooyl Phytosphingosine)
- Sphingosines (e.g Hydroxypalmitoyl Sphinganine, or Caproyl Sphingosine [Ceramide 6 II])
Ceramides are great skincare ingredients, especially for anti-aging. Because of this, many companies will prominently display on the product label that it features ceramides – so you don’t have to go hunting in the ingredients list for them! But ceramides alone are not enough for anti-aging and barrier-repair. Look out for other ingredients such as cholesterol and antioxidants to truly get the full benefits out of a product!
Recommended for Anti-Aging: KLAVUU White Pearlsation Special Divine Pearl Serum
Ceramides vs. Hyaluronic Acid
Ceramides and Hyaluronic Acid are commonly thought to both moisturize the skin, but they work in fundamentally different ways.
Hyaluronic acid is a humectant which attracts and ‘pulls’ water from both the atmosphere and from the lower layers of the skin to hydrate the upper layer of skin. This can result in an instantaneous feel of bounciness and hydration.
Ceramides, on the other hand, function like an occlusive but are not technically considered as one. Occlusive ingredients work by creating a layer or barrier to prevent moisture loss. But, instead of doing so, what topically applied ceramides does is to repair and strengthen the skins natural barrier so that it works optimally to prevent moisture loss by itself.
Replenishing Ceramides in Skin
Replenishing ceramides in the skin can help to normalize barrier by accelerating its recovery to keep skin looking firm and plump. Here are a few ways to do so:
Ceramide-enriched creams have been shown to be effective in restoring skin integrity, which will help with texture, elasticity and all the other signs of youthful skin. Since ceramides are naturally a part of your skin, it ideal for all skin types—even for those with extra sensitive, breakout-prone, or oily skin. They’re also safe to use around the eyes!
Recommended for Sensitive Skin: Pyunkang Yul ATO Cream Blue Label
If you’re looking to boost the effects of ceramides and its healing properties, combine them with a gentle AHA or BHA exfoliant to keep the top layers of skin clear from dead skin cells. This way, your ceramide-enriched product can absorb quicker and be more effective. Another upside is that Lactic Acid (AHA) can also increase the rate of ceramide production in the skin.
Another great ingredient to spur ceramide production is Niacinamide! It’s been shown to increase the levels of ceramide in the skin, and other free fatty acids which make up that essential protective skin barrier.
You can also increase ceramides in your body through your diet. Phytoceramides are naturally occurring ceramides from plants such as rice, wheat, and beet. The easiest way to get this benefit is from ceramide supplements – these have shown to improve skin hydration.
Ceramide-precursors which help your body produce ceramides are also found naturally in dairy, eggs, and soybean. A healthy diet should already be composed of these elements. However, if you’re lactose intolerant, supplements are a good way to support your ceramide intake and production.
Recommended for Irritated Skin: COSRX Balancium Comfort Ceramide Cream