What Are Ceramides and How Do They Work in Skin Care Products?

What Are Ceramides and How Do They Work in Skin Care Products?

Written by: Bryan Barron

Medically Reviewed by: Corey L. Hartman MD Board-Certified Dermatologist

As far as anti-aging ingredients go, ceramides have a proven, science-backed record. However, they’re often overlooked and rarely explained.

We’re solving the above problem with a deep dive to clarify how ceramides help skin retain moisture, fortify its protective barrier, and keep its appearance firm and plump—especially given the recent research clarifying ceramides’ unique ability to rejuvenate skin’s appearance (1, 2).

Below, we’ve gathered the research-supported answers to your top ceramide-related questions.

What are ceramides?

Ceramides are lipids (fats) that are found naturally in high concentrations in the uppermost layers of skin (3). They make up over 50% of skin’s composition, so it’s no surprise they play a vital role in determining how your skin looks (and how it responds to environmental threats).

What do ceramides do?

Think of ceramides as the mortar between bricks—if the bricks are your skin cells. Ceramides help hold skin together by forming a protective layer that limits moisture loss and protects against visible damage from pollution and other environmental stressors.

In addition, ceramides—even more than retinolniacinamide, and peptides—are one of the anti-aging “powerhouses” responsible for supporting skin’s dynamic nature. Two particular ceramide precursors—phytosphingosine and sphingolipids—actually help skin make more ceramides.

If my skin already contains ceramides, why do I need them in my skin care products?

Age and sun damage reduce the effectiveness of your skin’s natural ceramides—and can eventually deplete them, which weakens your skin’s barrier (4). The results of this process are drier, rougher skin, wrinkles, irritation, redness, and visible signs of dehydration. This is where skin care knowledge comes into play—because it really is possible to significantly restore what’s been diminished.

What are the benefits of ceramides?

Well-formulated (and properly packaged) skin care products with ceramides will help reinforce your skin’s barrier and increase hydration—giving you plumper, smoother, firmer-feeling skin with fewer visible lines and wrinkles, as well as fewer signs of sensitivity (5, 6, 7).

What do you mean by “properly packaged” ceramide products?

Many anti-aging ingredients most beneficial for your skin aren’t stable. Simply put, they lose their effectiveness if routinely exposed to light and air—which is why you should avoid jar packaging. Look for products in tubes or opaque bottles with pumps or airtight dispensers; they’ll keep your anti-aging products performing the way they should.

How will I know if a product contains ceramides?

Generally, you’ll see the word ceramide on the ingredients list (look for: ceramide APEOPNGNP, or NS). Another thing to search for on lists is ingredients related to ceramides. For example, phytosphingosine and sphingosine are ingredients known as ceramide precursors, meaning they can nudge skin into making ceramides. But given ceramides’ stellar anti-aging abilities, most products will put them front and center on their labels or product pages if they’re included in the formula (8).

Which skin types are ceramides best for?

Ceramides fall under the category of “skin-replenishing” (aka skin-identical) ingredients. Because they’re naturally a part of your skin, ceramides are ideal for all skin types—even the most sensitive, breakout-prone, or oily skin. They’re also safe to use around the eyes, if the product is fragrance and irritant free.

Are ceramides okay for acne-prone skin?

Ceramides are suitable for acne-prone skin, since as mentioned above, they serve to restore and shore up skin’s barrier. Anything you can do to improve skin’s barrier function helps with acne. In fact, research shows that a disturbed barrier can lead to the proliferation of acne-causing factors on skin’s surface. (9) Using a ceramide-infused moisturizer designed for acne-prone skin can go a long way to help nourish and strengthen the skin barrier without contributing to new breakouts.

Which other ingredients do ceramides work well with?

Ceramides are most effective when combined with other skin-replenishing ingredients like fatty acids, glycerin, and cholesterol. Lipid mixtures like these are ideal for improving skin tone, skin texture, and relieving signs of sensitivity. But, because no single ingredient can do everything to combat the visible signs of aging or address dryness, be sure your ceramide-enriched product also contains antioxidants and what we refer to as “skin-restoring” ingredients; for example, retinol, niacinamide, linoleic acid, and peptides.

Can you use vitamin C with ceramides?

As with other anti-aging ingredients, you can successfully use vitamin C products with ceramide products for enhanced benefits. In fact, vitamin C and ceramides pair well together in the same products, where they help restore skin’s firmness and supple feel.

Can I combine ceramides with other skin care products?

Products with ceramides can be used with any other Paula’s Choice Skincare products; they’re all designed to work in tandem. Particularly, using a gentle leave-on AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) or BHA (beta hydroxy acid) exfoliant will improve the effectiveness of your ceramide-enriched product because there won’t be a layer of dead skin keeping vital ingredients from absorbing as they should.

Which Paula’s Choice Skincare products contain ceramides?

We recognize ceramides are a powerful player in the skin care game. That’s why we’ve formulated a range of products, everything from moisturizers and boosters to body creams and serums, with ceramides.

  • CLINICAL Ceramide-Enriched Firming Moisturizer for advanced surface repair and renewed resilience
  • CLINICAL Ceramide-Enriched Firming Eye Cream to combat deep wrinkles and brighten under eyes
  • Hyaluronic Acid Booster for a plumper, smoother appearance
  • RESIST Daily Smoothing Treatment 5% AHA for gentle, daily exfoliation
  • RESIST Barrier Repair Moisturizer with Retinol for firmer, more radiant skin
  • CLINICAL 1% Retinol Treatment to diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
  • Omega+ Complex Serum to strengthen skin with essential nutrients
  • Daily Replenishing Body Cream for smooth, radiant skin all over with a non-greasy finish
  • CALM Repairing Serum to soothe and visibly repair skin’s barrier

What not to mix with ceramides?

There’s good news when it comes to mixing other ingredients with ceramides– as you can see above, they go well with other good-for-you skin care ingredients. In fact, the only ingredients you should not use alongside ceramides are those that you shouldn’t have in your skin care routine in the first place, such as fragrance and other irritants. This is because the damage these ingredients cause can undo a lot of the work you’re trying to achieve by using ceramides.

Are ceramides safe during pregnancy?

Current research indicates that ceramides are safe to use on skin conditions during pregnancy. One OB/GYN journal even recommends ceramide-enriched moisturizers as a safe option for those experiencing pregnancy (10). As with all medical decisions during this time, however, it is best to consult with a physician to see what skin care solutions work best for you.

Are ceramides safe while breastfeeding?

As with pregnancy, there is no scientific indication that using ceramides topically is detrimental while breastfeeding. Again, speak with your healthcare provider and consider following their advice.

Ceramide oral supplements

Ceramides are naturally occurring and can be found in many food sources but are mainly in plants. These are typically referred to as phytoceramides. Today you can find ceramide supplements derived from wheat, beet, and most commonly: rice. Research has shown that orally ingested ceramide supplements can improve skin hydration levels (11).

Dairy, eggs, and soybeans also contain large amounts of sphingolipids. As mentioned previously, sphingolipids (e.g., sphingosine) help skin to produce more ceramides.

While you can easily get ceramides from food due to its abundance, it wouldn’t be sufficient if you’re looking to rejuvenate aging skin. The best way to see ceramides’ benefits on skin is to topically apply them. However, you don’t need to take ceramide supplements to maintain a healthy diet.

Learn more about skin care ingredients.

References for this information:

  1. Dermatologic Therapy, October 2019, ePublication
  2. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, March 2017, pages 243-247
  3. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, December 2016, pages 549-558
  4. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, June 2017, pages 284-291
  5. Pharmaceutical Research, February 2018, ePublication
  6. Journal of Investigative Dermatology, June 2015, pages 1501-1509
  7. Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, March 2016, pages 135-147
  8. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, July 2014, pages 177-184
  9. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, September 2017, pages 8-12
  10. Contemporary OB/GYN Journal, April 2021, ePublication
  11. BMC Complementary Medicines and Therapies, January 2020, ePublication