When I first heard about ceramides, I thought maybe they were a new weird protein or some kind of herbal supplement. Definitely edible, in any case. (They are in many foods, for the record.) But, really, you’ll get the most out of ceramide—which might be a lot—if you put them on your skin in the form of a cream.
They’re touted to have incredible moisturizing benefits and to help reduce signs of aging, like fine lines. And, unlike so many of the ingredients in over-the-counter products, ceramides have a fair amount of research to back up some of those claims.
Here’s what you need to know about ceramides and why you might want to add some to your skin-care regimen.
What actually are ceramides and why would I want them on my skin?
Your skin already makes ceramides and they are a crucial part of the stratum corneum, that outer protective layer of skin, Mary L. Stevenson, M.D., assistant professor in the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at NYU Langone Health, tells SELF.
“The analogy we usually use [to describe the stratum corneum] is bricks and mortar,” Rajani Katta, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in Houston who specializes in sensitivity and allergic reactions, tells SELF. Where your skin cells are the bricks, the lipids between them—which include ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids—represent the mortar.
When this structure of the stratum corneum is intact, it keeps hydration in and helps protect against anything that might irritate your skin. When it isn’t working properly, it lets water out (a process called transepidermal water loss, or TEWL) which can cause your skin to dry out and possibly become more reactive to irritants.
Unfortunately, our bodies naturally make less and less of these intercellular compounds as we age. And having too few of them or an incorrect ratio of them contributes to skin disorders like atopic dermatitis (eczema), Dr. Stevenson says. So, if your intercellular lipids are out of whack, you might notice irritation, dryness, or flaking.
But does putting more ceramides on your face actually help the issue? Actually, yes, say both Dr. Stevenson and Dr. Katta.
Here’s what the research says about ceramides.
The science on ceramides is pretty encouraging, especially when it comes to those who have skin issues like atopic dermatitis. For instance, Dr. Katta cites a 2002 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology in which researchers gave 24 children with atopic dermatitis a “ceramide-dominant” emollient. The majority of patients (22 out of 24) saw significant improvements in their symptoms and a decrease in TEWL within three weeks of treatment with the emollient.
And according to the results of a meeting of 11 Canadian dermatologists, published in 2014 in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, ceramide-containing moisturizers may have a particularly important role to play in acne treatment. The current acne medications we have—retinoids, for instance—often come with notoriously annoying side effects, like redness, flaking, and irritation, that make it hard if not impossible to stick with treatment. So, the panel argues, treating patients with a ceramide-containing moisturizer at the same time can help counteract those effects and help people stick with their acne medication.
Topical ceramides are so effective (especially when combined with other skin lipids) that there are actually prescription versions of them, Dr. Stevenson explains, which are classified as medical devices because of their innovative formulas.
One prescription medication, Epiceram, is used to treat eczema and contains a mixture of ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids that mimics the ratio found in skin normally. In a study published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, researchers tested Epiceram against fluticasone cream (a standard steroid cream) in 121 patients with moderate-to-severe atopic dermatitis. After 14 days, the fluticasone-treated group showed significantly more improvements. But at 28 days, the two groups evened out, suggesting that those who can’t or don’t want to use fluticasone may be able to use just Epiceram.
However, other research has found that over-the-counter petrolatum-based moisturizers (Aquaphor, essentially) are just as effective as prescription creams for mild childhood atopic dermatitis. So, if your eczema is on the milder end, your dermatologist may point you towards a standard OTC moisturizer instead.
Here’s how to add ceramides into your skin-care routine.
If you have a diagnosable skin condition for which a prescription ceramide product might be useful, it’s important to talk to a dermatologist about what products make the most sense for you.
And, sadly, even though over-the-counter products that contain ceramides are piggybacking on some robust research, we simply don’t have studies to back all of them up. Some researchers even argue that the concentration of ceramides present in many over-the-counter products is simply too low to be helpful even though ceramides at much higher concentrations can provide significant results. Because over-the-counter products don’t go through FDA approval, we just don’t have the data to support or disprove their claims.
But for those of us who just want to experiment with ceramides, there are a ton of products out there for both your face and body (eczema can occur pretty much anywhere, after all) to choose from. For instance, ceramides are a fixture among CeraVe products (ceramide…CeraVe…get it?). The classic CeraVe Daily Moisturizing Lotion ($13) and Moisturizing Cream, $17, both contain ceramides and Dr. Stevenson says she always keeps some on hand. Because these are so affordable and easy to find, they’re also a go-to recommendation for Dr. Katta.
For another drugstore pick, Dr. Stevenson directs us to Aveeno’s moisture repair line, including the Active Naturals Skin Relief Moisture Repair Cream ($13), which contains ceramides in addition to the colloidal oatmeal the brand is known for. Ceramides are also present in Aveeno’s (SELF Healthy Beauty Award-winning) Ultra-Calming Daily Moisturizer with 30 SPF ($14).
Ceramides are also the star ingredient in Dr. Jart’s Ceramidin Cream, ($48), and Elizabeth Arden’s nifty Ceramide Capsules ($80). And skin-care connoisseurs and probably already acquainted with SkinCeuticals’s Triple Lipid Restore cream ($128), which contains a specific ratio of ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids.
Some products specifically call out which ceramides (such as ceramide 1 or ceramide 3) are in their products and there are a few that are unique to human skin, Dr. Stevenson says. But ultimately it’s not worth paying a ton of attention to the exact ceramides you’re putting on your skin, Dr. Katta says. Just getting something with ceramides in general should be helpful.
Is there anyone who shouldn’t use ceramides? Basically no, Dr. Stevenson and Dr. Katta say. Even—or especially—those with sensitive skin may see benefits with a product like this. That said, it’s still important to keep your expectations in check and an eye on the other ingredients in the product that may cause a reaction in sensitive or irritated skin.
And, as always, if you have any questions about using ceramides or want guidance in finding the right product for your skin, talk to your dermatologist.