Dermatologists Say Ceramides Are the Key to Firmer Skin

Jessica Teich
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Good Housekeeping

Anyone who suffers from dry skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis has probably seen the word "ceramides" on some of their skincare products — but what actually are they? We asked top dermatologists to break it down for us.

What exactly are ceramides and how do they work?

"Ceramides are a type of fat, or lipid, that contribute to the 'mortar' that holds skin cells in the epidermis together," says Brendan Camp, M.D., double board-certified dermatologist and dermatopathologist at Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery in New York City. "Ceramides, along with cholesterol and free fatty acids, make up the lipids in the top layer of skin, the stratum corneum." Translation: Your body makes 'em naturally to keep your skin healthy. "Ceramides help to keep skin hydrated by sealing in moisture [which] can help the skin appear smooth and plump and even out fine lines," says Dr. Camp.

"Think of them like grout between your skin cell tiles," illustrates Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Like grout keeps tiles in place and structured, ceramides "help form a waterproof seal on the surface of the skin, preventing loss of hydration, maintaining a healthy skin barrier, and preventing environmental irritation."

What's the deal with ceramide depletion?

OK, so your skin naturally produces ceramides — why would you also need a skincare product that contains the ingredient? Simple: "Our skin’s ability to produce and maintain the right balance of lipids diminishes over time," says Dr. Camp. That means that no matter what you do, your ceramide production will decrease with age (sad!), but ceramide depletion can actually happen at any time. "It has been well-documented that ceramides are deficient in a variety of skin conditions, including dry skin, eczema, and even acne," says Dr. Zeichner.

Without a proper amount of ceramides, skin suffers. "If you have diminished ceramides in the skin, the barrier won’t be able to work properly," says Danusia Wnek, chemist at the Good Housekeeping Institute Beauty Lab. "You will have an increase in transepidermal water loss and the potential for irritants and allergens to enter skin increases."

To complete the tile metaphor, think of what happens when grout begins to crumble: Your tiled surface suffers from leaks and damage, maybe even deterioration. In the case of skincare, "too few ceramides can lead to dry skin that loses water too easily and becomes rough, red, and irritated," says Dr. Camp. This translates to breaks and tears in the skin that lead to angry, dehydrated skin and the uncomfortable feeling that comes along with a compromised barrier, vulnerable to pollution, harsh weather, or infection.

So how can you prevent ceramide loss?

Outside of natural aging, your skin can also suffer premature ceramide depletion if you don't care for it properly. "Ceramide loss occurs when we overextend our skin or expose it to extreme environments," says Dr. Camp.

That means the wrong behavior will actually expedite the loss of ceramides and leave you with noticeably uncomfortable-feeling skin well before nature may intend. "Over-scrubbing, use of the wrong type of soap, or even extremes in weather (e.g. cold, dry air) can lead to depletion of ceramides in the skin," says Dr. Zeichner.

Here's how to avoid stripping the skin of ceramides:

  • "Keep showers on the short side (no more than 10 minutes), use lukewarm to warm water, gentle soap or cleanser," says Dr. Camp.

  • Post-shower, pat skin dry instead of rubbing to avoid physically irritating the skin.

  • "Apply moisturizer right after showering when your skin is still a little damp as the lotion will help seal in some of this moisture," says Dr. Camp.

  • Keep a humidifier or two in your house to combat dry air if you notice your skin gets dry and itchy in the winter.

  • Incorporate a ceramide-rich moisturizer to your skincare regimen, especially if you have sensitive or compromised skin. "Ceramide-containing products help prevent too much water from evaporating from our skin," says Dr. Camp. "They are especially useful in eczema-prone patients, since ceramides can help repair a poorly functioning skin barrier which is common among eczema-sufferers.


Are there different types of ceramides?

Yep! "There are several types of ceramides and they are identified by numbers 1-9," confirms Wnek. What's the difference between them all? "Ceramides differ in the lengths of their fatty acid chains, the nature of their sphingoid bases, and the ways in which these two entities are attached," says Craig A. Kraffert, board certified dermatologist and president of Amarte Skin Care.

"While there may be differences from one to another in terms of adaptogenic properties, they appear to serve in similar fashion." That means that the presence of any ceramides in your skincare means the same thing as far as payoff.

What's the difference between natural ceramides and those formulated for skincare?

"Ceramides are oily waxes synthesized by both plants and animals," explains Dr. Kraffert, but the ceramides that are most commonly found in skincare are synthetic (a.k.a. man-made) and don't come from animal sources, explains Paul Jarrod Frank, cosmetic dermatologist and Chief Medical Officer and founder of PFRANKMD.

As far as the difference between naturally-occurring ceramides and the synthetic ones, "there really is no major difference structurally," says Dr. Frank. In fact, these formulas are "bio-identical," says Dr. Kraffert. When mixed with cholesterol and fatty acid, a synthetic ceramide "mix closely resembles the lipid mix in naturally occurring ceramide compounds found in the outermost layers of human epidermis," says Dr. Kraffert. Translation: The ceramides you can buy in an OTC cream are very similar to what your young, healthy body would naturally produce."In addition to natural human bio-equivalent ceramides, phytoceramides (typically found in yeast and plants) and pseudo-ceramides (ceramide analogs) are also included under the wide umbrella of skin care ceramides," says Dr. Kraffert. These plant-based [ceramides] are fine and can add extra moisture and added extra skin barrier protection," says Dr. Frank.

Can anyone use products with ceramides?

Mature skin can benefit from ceramide-containing products, and our experts confirm that since ceramides are a naturally-occurring lipid found within the skin, they're safe to use for all skin types. Leave-on products like serums and creams allow for maximum absorption. Use them alone or alongside retinoids hydroxyacids, and exfoliants to stave off potential irritation.

Can I just take ceramide supplements?

If you don't want to physically slather your skin with ceramides every day, ceramide supplements have also come into popularity — but our pros don't love them. "It’s always better to have your own natural ceramides," says Dr. Frank. Ceramides can only be produced in the body "by internal cellular machinery," Dr. Kraffert explains, and "oral ceramide consumption is unlikely to have any effect on these intracellular biochemical processes," adding that there are virtually "no conclusive studies that clearly support skin benefits from digestive system ceramide consumption."

So, skip the pills: You're better off sticking with topical application and eating a robust diet filled with natural ceramides. "Ceramides naturally occur in our skin, but certain foods also contain them," explains Good Housekeeping Institute Registered Dietitian Stefani Sassos, MS, RDN. "In general, for skin health you’ll want to focus on eating a lot of brightly colored produce that is rich in antioxidants." In addition, Dr. Frank says, "eating essential fatty acids for the body will also help in oil production." These are our experts' recommendations for rich food sources of natural ceramides:

  • Soy beans

  • Eggs

  • Dairy

  • Brown rice

  • Sweet potatoes

  • Wheat germ

  • Spinach

Are ceramides also good for your hair?

They might be, but there's not much research to show one way or the other. Just like skin, ceramides are also naturally found within your hair's cuticle. In the same way that ceramides in skincare act as a binder, ceramides in hair care work may help keep keratin more tightly bound and hold the cuticle closer together, says Dr. Kraffert. "In theory, this may result in flatter and smoother hair strands with enhanced shine and silkiness."

The same environmental aggressors and lifestyle choices that can deplete ceramides in skin can also rob hair of ceramides. Repeated exposure to heat styling, chemical treatment (dyeing, relaxing, or otherwise altering your hair's structure or porosity), and over-cleansing with harsh shampoos can lead to dry, coarse hair. It would make sense that applying ceramides to hair topically might help counteract those effects, but Dr. Kraffert notes that "benefits of ceramide-containing hair care products vary and are not always impressive."

So if your hair is feeling thirsty, you're better off turning to the top-tested hair masks and leave-in conditioners that were proven to be super hydrating in our Beauty Lab testing.

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