science

What Exactly Are Ceramides? (And Should You Be Taking Them?)

Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS

Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS

5 min read

two partial faces/eyes smiling

Ceramides provide a natural protective barrier to help skin stay hydrated and prevent aging. Supplements can help restore the ceramides lost over time.

You may have heard about ceramides on social media. There’s no shortage of buzz all over TikTok and Instagram, singing their praises as a beauty aid. So is all the internet chatter backed by science? Is this viral beauty trend worth following?

What are ceramides?

To understand how ceramides work, let’s first do a quick tour of the largest organ of the body – the skin. The skin has three main layers:

  • The hypodermis: The inner layer of your skin, it both protects the body and connects the skin to bones and muscle, all while providing insulation and storing energy.
  • The dermis: The middle layer, it’s mostly made up of fibroblasts, collagen, and elastin.
  • The epidermis: This is the outer layer that contains the stratum corneum, the exterior layer of the skin (the part we see), where cells known as keratinocytes and corneocytes form the skin’s surface using cholesterol, ceramides, and free fatty acids. This layer is the body’s barrier, and it helps the skin minimize water loss.

Ceramides are sphingolipids, a naturally occurring lipid found in the stratum corneum of the epidermis. Ceramides have many functions, including creating a permeable barrier and helping to maintain skin health. They’re essential for helping the body to retain water within the skin. People with skin issues often have fewer ceramides, and ceramides quantities go down as we age, which causes more dryness. Conversely, some clinical trials have shown people who take ceramides showed improvements in the smoothness of their skin as well as skin hydration and elasticity.

Types of ceramides

You may have heard of Alpha-hydroxy fatty acid on beauty videos and skin cream ads. It’s notable because it is one type of ceramide: ceramide 6-II or ceramide AP. Other types of ceramides include ceramide 2 (NS or NG), ceramide 3 (NP), and ceramide 9 (EOP). The letters after each describe what the bond type of each ceramide is. For instance, ceramide NP stands for N-stearoyl phytosphingosine and has an astounding ability to maintain moisture within the skin. There may be over 1000 different species of ceramides, but they are generally classified as 12 distinct types, found in varying concentrations across the area of the skin. Take the face, for example. Some types of ceramides are found in greater concentration there than on the hands or knees, based on the needs of each area.

What do ceramides do?

You can think of ceramides as the protective barrier that locks in liquid to keep your skin soft and supple. They are a type of lipid that prevents water loss on the outer layer while helping to prevent free radicals from damaging the skin’s elastin and collagen. This protection helps to prevent skin from aging prematurely. Ceramides also help maintain good skin health and can keep skin cells strong, minimizing the effects of irritants and allergens.

Do I need ceramide supplementation if there’s ceramides already in my skin?

It’s a great question: If my body produces ceramides, why do I need more? The fact is that many factors in life reduce the ceramides and break down their protective barrier. For instance, as we age, our body produces fewer ceramides. In fact, this decline begins fairly early in life. Most people begin losing ceramide production as early as around age 20. Environmental hazards and skin conditions can also deplete ceramides. But the good news is, since many natural ingredients can easily duplicate the makeup of ceramides, supplementing is a convenient option. By supplementing with a topical or oral ceramide supplement, we can replace the ceramides we lose and help support skin health and longevity.

Benefits to ceramide supplementation

Ceramides provide a protective skin barrier, which prevents moisture loss and can help soothe irritated skin and prevent premature aging. Since we continuously lose ceramides at an increasing rate as we get older, supplementing with natural ceramides can help restore their quantities.

Oral ceramide supplements, like Care/of’s Ceramides: The Great Barrier, offer the benefit of providing a direct nutrient that skips the metabolism pathway. In fact, a 2017 randomized double-blind clinical trial showed that those participants who ingested oral ceramide supplements reported improved hydration and anti-aging effects. In addition, skin elasticity also increased and wrinkles were observed to be minimized. Another 12-week study looked at the safety of oral ceramide supplements. The participants here saw improved skin quality with no occurrences of harmful side effects.

Which skin types are ceramides good for?

Because ceramides are fatty acids that naturally occur in the skin (making up a majority of the outer surface), supplementing with an oral or topical formulation of ceramides is appropriate for all skin types. Dry skin, aging skin, or skin that suffers from various issues also can be supported with ceramides. Virtually all skin types can benefit from the addition of ceramides. One study showed that those who experience seasonal winter skin dryness and chapping saw improvements with a 1.8 mg glucosylceramide supplement.

What to look for in a ceramide product

Topical skin care products with ceramides can be beneficial to the skin. Since different types of ceramides can perform specific functions, it’s best to choose the ones that are best for your skin type. Dry skin can be improved with products with ceramides like 1 and 3. It’s also helpful to look for ingredients that facilitate absorption of the ceramides, like ingredients with penetrative properties. Finally, ceramide moisturizers can be applied twice daily. It’s recommended that you apply the ceramides post-bathing to enhance moisture replenishment. Before using ceramide skin care products, talk to a dermatologist to learn about which types will suit your skin type.

Potential side effects and risk factors

Ceramides have shown no risk of side effects. However, it’s still important to patch test a small amount of any new topical skin care to make sure you don’t have an allergic reaction to any of the ingredients in it. You can also consult with a board-certified dermatologist, who can make recommendations for the best ceramides for your skin type. If you’re considering an oral supplement, always consult your healthcare provider before beginning any new supplement.

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