What Exactly Are Ceramides? (And Should You Be Taking Them?)

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    Ceramides provide a natural protective barrier to help skin stay hydrated and prevent aging. Supplements can help restore the ceramides lost over time.

    Ceramides have received a lot of buzz on social media. With TikTok and Instagram influencers singing their praises, you may wonder if the benefits are actually backed by science. Here’s what you need to know about this viral wellness trend.

    What are ceramides?

    Ceramides are a specific type of fatty acid derivative naturally found in skin cells. Ceramides comprise about half of the outer skin layer known as the epidermis, but are also important for other types of cells in the body, including those in the brain and nervous system. Ceramides help with cell signaling, normal cell cycle functions, and they’re the main molecule for sphingolipids.

    Sphingolipids are necessary for healthy membrane structure for cells. While they’re found throughout the body, sphingolipids are especially known for their importance in healthy skin cells, lung tissue, and vascular structures.

    Types of ceramides

    There are 13 different types of ceramides. More than 300 unique ceramide species have been identified by scientists—and there may be up to 1,000 distinct types. Research on ceramides is ongoing and many new discoveries are being made. But what we do know is that ceramides have specific functions and interact with each other, other molecules, and various types of cells in different physiological and chemical ways in the body.

    Some types of ceramides have become well known in the beauty industry. Alpha-hydroxy is a type of ceramide that is often added to skin care products. Ceramides are found in greater concentrations at certain parts of the body, with some being more prominent in the face or hands, hence their popularity in lotions and skin care creams.

    While there are many types of ceramides, researchers have found that they function similarly and that the specific type is not so important. Ceramides that are commonly used in products include types 1, 2, 3, or 6-II, while other products may list sphingosine as an ingredient, which is a ceramide-containing molecule.

    What do ceramides do?

    Ceramides support a healthy skin barrier. This means locking in moisture and optimizing the protective function, which can manage potential skin damage from environmental exposures. Ceramides are naturally found in the body and decline as a normal part of aging, so the gradual loss of ceramides can be associated with dry skin, wrinkles, fine lines, less elasticity, and even differences in the oil balance on the skin. Adequate ceramides in the skin also help with normal collagen and elastin. Every skin type is dependent on ceramides–not just dry skin, for example. But the natural impacts of aging may lead to more skin-related symptoms, which could make topical or supplemental ceramides more useful.

    When you consider the way that the layers of skin function to protect the body, the epidermal layer (the outermost part that we see) gets the brunt of harsh environmental exposures and also displays the visual changes of aging, as well as signs of sensitivity (like breakouts or rashes) or irritation. The epidermis is made up of ceramides, cholesterol, and free fatty acids.

    The dermis, which is beneath the epidermis, is mostly collagen, elastin, and fibroblasts. So the health of your epidermal layer directly affects the integrity and health of the dermis. Below the dermis is the hypodermis—this is the part that connects directly with bones and muscle and helps keep the body insulated, stores energy, and provides protection.

    If your body loses ceramides due to natural aging, more moisture can be lost and environmental exposures may be more impactful on the lower levels of the skin. This can lead to skin damage, but also to accelerated collagen losses. Protecting the moisture barrier of the skin isn’t about vanity—it’s about supporting the structural integrity of the body’s largest organ.

    Do I need ceramide supplementation if there are ceramides already in my skin?

    Ceramides are present in the skin but these lipid molecules can be lost. Aging is a primary factor in decreased ceramides, but other things can impact the supple, fatty acids naturally present in the epidermis. Factors that can reduce skin ceramides include:

    • Dry winter air
    • Frequent hot showers
    • Excessive exfoliation
    • Abrasive body care products
    • Regular UV sun exposure
    • Other environmental exposures

    In addition to aging, genetics, diet, hormones, and other health-related factors can also play a role in skin barrier integrity. Ceramides start more intensely decreasing in the skin around age 50, however any type of skin condition could make this decline happen sooner or could mean that ceramide concentrations were never at typical levels.

    Because so many things can affect ceramides and the fatty acid content of the outermost skin layer, ceramide supplementation can be beneficial in many cases.

    Benefits to ceramide supplementation

    Ceramides support the skin’s protective function, but they also support overall skin health. This includes elasticity, moisture, and a healthful appearance. Ceramides also have a soothing effect on the skin.

    Promotes skin hydration

    Ceramide supplementation and topical application are both useful for supporting healthy skin hydration.

    For oral supplements, a study of 17 people utilized a double-blind crossover study design where the participants received 1.8 mg per day of glucosylceramide (a type of ceramide) or a placebo for four weeks. After consuming the ceramide supplement for four weeks, participants had improved transepidermal water loss (TEWL) measurements along with skin moisture compared to those who were taking the placebo for the same length of time. Skin spots also decreased in those who took ceramides compared to placebo.

    Another study of 60 people evaluated the use of oral glucosylceramides versus the use of a placebo for 60 days. The ceramide supplement increased skin hydration, elasticity, and smoothness and reduced transepidermal water losses, roughness, and wrinkles compared to placebo.

    For oral ceramide supplements to support skin health, they need to be consumed consistently.

    When used topically, ceramide-containing cream supports skin hydration and improves protective barrier function, which is especially useful for addressing dry skin issues. Lotions and creams need to be used regularly for the best results.

    In addition to ceramide supplements or topical creams, adequate skin moisture also depends on whole-body hydration. While not everyone needs 8 full glasses of water per day, many of us don’t drink enough fluids. It’s easy to forget that body water concentration also influences skin cells, so as you seek to support healthy skin moisture, don’t forget to drink water throughout the day.

    The benefits of ceramides for aging skin

    Aging isn’t a negative thing, although many people don’t want to appear to be aging too rapidly. Environmental exposures, sun damage from UV rays, and other factors can lead to changes in the epidermis that could make skin appear to age more quickly than it actually is. Lack of moisture, fatty acids, and even the pH balance of the skin can all influence your skin’s appearance and texture.

    Research has found that ceramides can be helpful for supporting skin health during natural aging processes. As people get older, barrier breakdown can lead to more rapid moisture losses but health conditions can also disrupt typical pH balance, barrier function, or fatty acid distribution. Normal skin function depends on a range of factors: optimal digestion, cellular communication, and even balanced immune responses, since the skin contains a number of cells that can communicate directly with the immune system.

    While topical ceramides won’t address internal factors, they can support barrier function that may be affected by typical aging processes, like lack of skin moisture or overall dryness. Oral supplements can also help to keep healthy skin balanced with ceramides.

    Enhances skin elasticity and texture

    Skin health is not a single issue and some may struggle with it even if their skin is not dry. Breakouts, excessive oil, or other skin-related issues can affect texture, elasticity, and even comfort. Because ceramides are present in all skin types, they can support balance for overall skin health.

    Research has found that topical ceramides can support oily skin, or can serve as additional support for people who are addressing skin concerns by promoting skin hydration and firmness while reducing hyperpigmentation. Excessively oily skin is often related to skin barrier dysfunction, and by supporting healthy ceramide balance, a healthy skin texture and comfort level can be maintained.

    Collagen may also support healthy skin elasticity, and smaller studies have also found hyaluronic acid supplements to be helpful. If you’re concerned about maintaining skin health, or have skin conditions that you want to address, speak with a dermatologist for an individualized plan.

    Repairs the skin's barrier function

    As we’ve already mentioned, the skin is not only the largest organ but also provides a vital barrier of protection. When it breaks down, it can impact much more than just the skin’s appearance.

    Ceramides are a structural component of the outermost layer of the epidermis. Whether ceramides naturally decrease as part of aging or you’re dealing with skin issues due to environmental factors, supporting adequate ceramides can help your skin’s barrier functionality. Topical and oral ceramides are both beneficial. Creams and lotions may help improve the skin’s feel relatively quickly, although based on research supplements typically need to be taken for around 12 weeks before they start fully working.

    What to look for in a ceramide product

    There are many ceramide products available. You can get topical or oral supplements, and many times, people use both.

    Topical skin care products are available at most stores, from skin care brands, and can even be prescribed by dermatologists. They are often designed for specific functions or to support certain skin types. While ceramides in general are beneficial for all skin types, the other ingredients in a cream product or topical ceramide can determine whether they’re best for dry skin, oily skin, or combination skin. Some may also be designed to enhance natural aging, address itching, or having a smoothing effect. Ceramide skin care products can typically be used once or twice per day, and it’s best to apply right after showering or bathing to help lock in moisture.

    Oral ceramide supplements have been studied and often show multiple benefits for skin support, including moisture, barrier function, elasticity, texture, and comfort. They also have a good safety profile, with no harmful side effects. Care/of’s Ceramide supplement supports healthy skin hydration, skin firmness, and even skin tone. It also helps to reinforce the skin’s protective barrier and can address hyperpigmentation.* Plus, it’s vegan, non-GMO, and third-party tested for purity.

    Potential side effects and risk factors

    Ceramides, both topically and as oral supplements, have shown no risk for side effects. Before starting any dietary supplements, check with your medical provider.

    Some ceramide sources, like wheat and millet, are not gluten free, so be sure to carefully read labels if you need to avoid gluten or other potential allergens or additives. The Care/of ceramide supplement is sourced from rice, which is a gluten free food that also provides these skin-friendly nutrients.

    If you’re starting a new topical product, it’s a good idea to do a test on a small patch of skin to see how your body reacts to it. If you have sensitive skin or any concerns, talk to a dermatologist.

    Foods that naturally boost ceramide levels in the skin

    Ceramides are made in the body, but there are no foods that directly lead to ceramide increases in the skin. However, ceramides are made in the body from various fatty acids and molecules, and you can get some of these skin-supporting nutrients from foods.

    Omega-3 fats are especially important for healthy ceramide production. Other foods that contain different types of beneficial fatty acids, as well as dietary sources of phytoceramides, can all work together to support healthy skin.

    Foods rich in these nutrients include:

    The bottom line

    Skin health depends on many things, but ceramides are a major part of the equation since they comprise about 50% of the outer skin layer. Ultimately, healthy skin relies on adequate hydration, protection from environmental exposures, and a healthy, nutrient-dense diet. But topical and oral ceramide supplements can be a great way to enhance your daily skin care routine.

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    Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS
    Medical Content Manager
    Dr. Montrond-Correia is a licensed naturopathic physician and a certified nutrition specialist (CNS). She holds degrees from University of Bridgeport, Georgetown University, and University of Saint Joseph, and supplemented her education with internships in the health and wellness space. She's focused on research, herbal medicine, nutrigenomics, and integrative and functional medicine. She makes time for exercise, artistic activities, and enjoying delicious food.
    Mia McNew, MS
    Freelance Contributor
    Mia McNew is a nutrition science researcher with bachelor's and master's degrees in nutrition science and biochemistry. She holds additional certifications in clinical nutrition and formerly managed a private nutrition practice focusing on fertility and the management of chronic health and autoimmune disorders. She is currently pursuing a PhD in human nutrition with a research focus on disability, underserved populations, and inequities in popular nutrition therapy approaches. She has extensive experience as a fact-checker, researcher, and critical research analyst and is passionate about science and health communications that provide practical support.