What Are Ceramides?

Ceramides are lipids found naturally in the epidermis, the outermost layer of the skin. These fatty molecules help protect the skin and prevent water loss. Cold weather, low humidity, aging, and atopic dermatitis (eczema) can reduce ceramides, resulting in dry skin.1

Many skincare products, such as creams and moisturizers, contain synthetic ceramides. You can apply these products to restore the skin barrier and hydrate your skin. Read on to learn about ceramides, including how to use them and where to find them.

Person applying moisturizer to their face.
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What Are Ceramides?
Ceramides are a type of lipid, or fatty molecules found naturally in the skin. Ceramides comprise nearly 50% of the lipids in the stratum corneum.2 This is the most superficial layer of the epidermis, or the outermost layer of skin. The epidermis protects you from environmental irritants, like pollution and dirt. 

The stratum corneum has a brick-and-mortar-type structure. The bricks are corneocytes, which are skin cells. The mortar includes lipids, such as ceramides, cholesterol, and free fatty acids.3

Types of Ceramides
There are natural and synthetic ceramides that all act similarly to protect the skin barrier. There are more than 12 of these ceramides, including:4

Ceramide 1 (EOS)
Ceramide 2 (NS)
Ceramide 3 (NP)
Ceramide 6-II (AP)
Ceramide 9 (EOP)
Natural ceramides are also found in animal and plant-based foods, such as dairy products, eggs, and soy.5 You'll often see synthetic ceramides in skincare products, such as creams and moisturizers. These man-made ingredients are made up of a chemical compound known as sphingosine. This compound binds to fatty acids to mimic natural ceramides.6

What Do Ceramides Do?
Ceramides help maintain the skin barrier. The skin has a permeable barrier, which prevents environmental irritants from harming you. This barrier also protects against water loss to keep the skin hydrated.3

Certain factors can reduce ceramides and break down your skin barrier. These include:1

Chemical irritants
Cold temperatures
Low humidity
Microorganisms, like bacteria and viruses
Skin conditions (e.g., eczema)
Manufacturers have developed topical products that contain synthetic ceramides to protect the skin barrier against these factors. Replenishing the skin barrier with ceramides can hydrate the skin and protect it against irritants.1

Benefits of Ceramides
Topical ceramics replenish and repair the skin's natural barrier. These skincare products can hydrate the skin, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and prevent acne.

Hydrate the Skin
Research has found topical ceramides can hydrate the skin, repairing its natural barrier from dry skin and eczema. A study published in 2018 found that a ceramide cream hydrated the skin significantly more than other moisturizers after 24 hours. The study authors noted that the ceramide cream also protected against water loss.1

Ceramide creams may benefit people with skin conditions like eczema, which causes dry, itchy skin. Some evidence suggests that people with eczema have fewer ceramides than normal, which weakens their skin barrier.3

Prevent Acne
Ceramides might help get rid of acne. In a review published in 2014, dermatologists advised that the ingredient may treat acne. The dermatologists noted that a weak skin barrier may cause acne.7

One of the side effects of several acne treatments, such as retinoids, is dry skin and irritation. These side effects often cause people to stop treatment. The dermatologists concluded that topical ceramides might prevent dry skin, helping people adhere to treatment guidelines.7

Protect the Skin
The skin barrier protects you from allergens, bacteria, and environmental irritants, such as pollution and toxins. A lack of ceramides weakens this barrier, making you more vulnerable to harmful substances. Topical ceramides can strengthen the skin barrier.8

Reduce Fine Lines and Wrinkles
Topical ceramides may reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. A study published in 2019 looked at the effects of topical ceramides on older adults with dry skin. The researchers found that the ingredient significantly decreased the appearance of wrinkles after 28 days.9

How To Use Ceramides
Use topical ceramides twice daily, especially after cleansing your skin. Apply the product to slightly damp skin to help lock in moisture. You can use ceramides on your entire body, from your face to your legs. 

Topical ceramides mimic the lipids naturally found in the skin. The skin more easily accepts and absorbs topical ceramides than other ingredients. Ceramides do not penetrate the skin deeply since they are only needed on the top layer. 

A topical formula will sink into the skin, filling any cracks from ceramide depletion. Manufacturers often pair ceramides with humectants, such as hyaluronic acid and glycerin, for additional moisture. 

What To Look For
Topical ceramides are available in many skincare products. You can find the ingredient in cleansers, moisturizers, serums, and toners.

Steer clear of products with added scents. Fragrances can irritate the skin, especially in people with dry skin or eczema. Make sure to check the label for added fragrances. Many "unscented" products contain scents that you cannot smell. Organic products might have ingredients that trigger allergic contact dermatitis.10

Some evidence suggests that oral ceramides may also benefit the skin. A study published in 2020 found that oral ceramides hydrated the skin after 12 weeks. However, more research is needed to determine the full effects of oral ceramides.11
Potential Side Effects
There are no known side effects of topical or oral ceramides. Some people may be more sensitive to certain skincare products than others. These products can trigger allergic or contact dermatitis symptoms in people who are sensitive to specific ingredients. 

You can try a patch test on your skin to see whether you are sensitive to topical ceramides.12 Dermatologists consider patch tests the "gold standard" of testing for allergic contact dermatitis.13

Here's how to do a patch test at home:12

Apply a quarter-sized amount of topical ceramides to your skin twice daily for at least one week. 
Do not wash off the product right away. Leave the product on your skin for as long as you use similar products.
See whether you have any reaction after one week. Side effects might include red, itchy, or swollen skin. 
Wash off the product right away and stop using it if you develop a reaction. Apply a cool compress or petroleum jelly to alleviate side effects. 
Consult a dermatologist if you have severe symptoms.