That ceramide-rich cream you’ve been eyeing? What does it do? It’s complicated, of course, but here’s the science: Ceramides are naturally occurring lipid molecules in all four layers of the epidermis, but particularly the outermost layer, known as the stratum corneum.
They (along with cholesterol and fatty acids) bind healthy skin cells together, effectively creating a protective shield that supports the skin’s barrier layer and allows skin to retain moisture and a plump appearance.
After age 30, ceramide levels drop drastically and continue to do so. Because ceramides play such a huge role in the stratum corneum, this is not a development you want to ignore. Think of it this way: Your outer layer of skin is your first line of defense against environmental aggressors like pollution, bacteria, sun, and allergens. Once that barrier becomes compromised, skin suffers — think: redness, itchiness, inflammation, dryness, and irritation. A lack of ceramides also means skin loses its ability to retain water, which leads to increased wrinkle formation. Ceramide deficiency has also been linked to chronic skin conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis.
However, not all is lost: Topical skin care products containing ceramides work to fortify the skin’s barrier, which in turn helps restore the skin’s natural lipid levels and hydration. For those who suffer from dryness, peeling, scaling, or itching, ceramides could be the relief.
The Best Bets
Ceramides are pretty easy to spot in ingredient lists. Other than tongue-twisting phytosphingosine and sphingosine (both ceramides), they’re typically followed by a number or letters, such as “ceramide-3” or “ceramide EOP.” When researching products, look for those that combine ceramides with fatty acids and cholesterol (essential for more mature skin); this trifecta bolsters the skin barrier far more effectively than ceramides alone.
As for what types of skin care you should seek, serums, masks, moisturizers, and creams tend to be best at delivering ceramides, while facial cleansers that include ceramides are likely a waste of money since they don’t spend enough time on your skin to allow the lipids to absorb. If you suffer from seriously parched, sensitive, or inflamed skin, keep an eye out for ceramide-rich “barrier repair creams” that work to treat both the causes and symptoms of dry skin and optimize skin barrier function. Finally, the earlier you start slathering on ceramides, the more beefed up your skin barrier will be, and the healthier your skin will look, feel, and function.
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