You have probably heard about ceramides in skincare. They are often advertised as both magical and “latest-research-based” ingredients. They are also used to justify a higher product price. Is skincare with ceramides worth your money?
What are ceramides?
Ceramides are chemicals that are naturally part of our skin. What makes ceramides stand out among other components of our skin is that they perform two major functions.
The first function is that they are one of the key building blocks of the skin’s lipid barrier. In this sense, they are similar to other emollient substances (cholesterol, free fatty acids) that sit in the very top layer of the skin on making it harder for, on one hand, microbes and pollutants to get into our body, and, on the other hand, for water to evaporate from it. In addition, some types of ceramides are involved in holding the components of the protective layer of the skin together.
The second function of ceramides is cell signaling. They interact with cells receptors and, by doing so, “tell” skin cells to do certain things. For example, to divide and produce more of their kind, embark on a journey of becoming a dermal cell, launch an inflammatory response, or even die and eventually be shed away from the skin surface. In total, there is at least a dozen ceramide classes and over 340 different ceramides in human skin — each likely having each own function.
Our skin “manufactures” ceramides from “raw materials” (amino-acids, lipids). Malfunctions in ceramide synthesis are linked to different skin disorders like dermatitis, psoriasis, and potentially even acne. In addition, cleansers that raise skin’s surface pH can interfere with production of ceramides. This means that cleansing with harsh foaming products and cleansing too often can weaken the skin barrier and lead to dry, sensitive skin.
The bottom line is that ceramides are absolutely essential to keep our skin hydrated, soft, free of irritation and inflammation.
Does it mean that ceramides in skincare products can bring about these benefits, too?
As you might have guessed, things are not straightforward. To start with, ceramides in cosmetics are not able to perform the cell signaling function of their “native” skin ceramides: they simply won’t be able to penetrate the horny layer of the skin to be able to “talk” to the living cells. No less important, many ingredients advertised as ceramides in skincare products are actually pseudo-ceramides: they are similar, but not identical to the ceramides present in skin. Even if these ingredients were to reach the living skin cells, they are unlikely to talk to them as our “native” ceramides do. In addition, we simply don’t know enough about the way cell signaling works in skin to be able to design ceramide products capable of working in this capacity.
The good news is that clinical studies show that skincare products with both human-identical ceramides and pseudo-ceramides can work for supporting skin barrier function. They can improve skin hydration levels, reduce water loss, calm down inflammation and irritation in skin. They are particularly helpful if you have sensitive skin, use retinoids, or suffer from a seasonal skin dryness (aka “winter skin”).
Simply looking for a ceramide on the ingredient list or on the label is not enough to choose an effective product. First of all, not all ceramide types are called as such on the ingredient list (the so called INCI list). For example, some of the ceramide types appear as hydroxylauroyl phytosphingosine and 2-oleamido-1,3-octadecanediol caproyl sphingosine.
No less importantly, having a ceramide ingredient included does not mean that the product will be effective. The formulation as a whole matters. For example, studies have shown a topical formulation with ceramides needs to include the other two main components of the skin lipids: cholesterol and free fatty acids. Each one or even two components on their own have a potential to worsen rather than improve the skin barrier. Another complication is that not all ceramides types work the same. For example, the type I ceramide has been shown to work on its one, while the ceramide 3B seems to be effective only in combination with others.
This is one of the reasons you should not rely on a product texture, label or even a simple ingredient list check: you need to take into account how ingredients interact, their concentration and many other details about the formula. It is a lot to process, and you might need to quit your day job to do it right.
Ok, just kidding: this is exactly why we are building the smart WIMJ algorithm. Learning over time, it is growing to be able to take all these complications into account and give you a simple but accurate verdict on the product.
So what’s the conclusion on ceramides in skincare?
They are definitely useful ingredients in skincare, even though they won’t be able to fully compensate for the malfunctions of skin’s own ceramide synthesis. Basically, do not count on miracles (aka anti-aging benefits) but you can expect a solid moisturization. In addition, not all products advertising their ceramide content will be effective, so it’s a good idea to ask a dermatologist for a recommedation or use a smart skincare evaluation algorithm to choose your product.