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Ask any skin expert about ceramides, and they’ll sing the praises of the ingredient and the products that contain it for maintaining healthy skin. They’ll probably also fill you in on the fact that ceramides exist in your body naturally and make up half of your skin barrier—which is where the confusion lies for many of us. If our bodies already have ceramides, why we would need to add them into our skincare routines as well? We found out the answer to that question as well as a number of other inquiries we all have about the highly praised but not fully understood beauty ingredient, straight from the skin experts themselves.
Below, Debra Jaliman, MD, board-certified dermatologist in NYC and Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD, dermatologist and founder of Entière Dermatology in NYC explain what exactly ceramides are, how they function, why you need them, and more. Once you have a better grasp of this skincare ingredient (we promise you will by the end), keep scrolling to find out both dermatologists’ top product recommendations for replenishing your ceramide levels.
Type of ingredient: Moisturizer
Main benefits: Rebuild and restore the protective barrier of the skin to retain moisture, improve visible signs of aging, and block environmental damage.
Who should use it: In general, anyone with dry skin or anyone interested in anti-aging skincare.
How often can you use it: It’s safe for frequent use and is recommended to be applied twice daily.
Works well with: Cholesterol and fatty acids. “There are three big classes of lipids: ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids,” Levin says. "There are certain ingredients that work better when they’re paired with ceramides, and that’s really that trifecta of your natural skin barrier. We always say 1:2:1 (one cholesterol, two ceramides, and one fatty acids), which is the ratio of these lipids for the natural skin barrier."
Don’t use with: Ceramides are safe to use in conjunction with most if not all ingredients.
What Are Ceramides?
“Ceramides are known to be part of this complex family of fats or lipids called a sphingolipid,” Levin says. One of the best ways to understand how ceramides function is to imagine your stratum corneum (the outermost layer of your epidermis) to be made up of bricks and mortar. “The skin cells are essentially the brick, and the lipids or the fats are in between, and that’s what we call the mortar,” Levin explains. Similar to how a stack of bricks wouldn’t be as effective at protecting without the mortar sealing everything in place, neither are your skin cells without ceramides.
“It’s incredibly important for the structure of your stratum corneum to remain intact because it serves as a barrier to protect the rest of your skin and keeps all that hydration in,” she says.
Ceramides are naturally derived from our skin but can also be made synthetically for use in skincare products to replenish what you’ve lost. “By the time you’re in your 30s, you’ve lost about 40% of your skin’s ceramides, and by the time you’re 40, you’ve lost about 60%,” Levin explains. In other words, adding ceramides into your skincare routine as you age is necessary for maintaining skin that looks and feels healthy. Levin says you’ll find them in liquid form and most often in moisturizers, but they’re also used in cleansers, toners, and serums with active ingredients like retinoids and glycolic acid, which allow for deeper penetration of the ceramides.
They’re most effective in vacuumed packaging, like containers with pump dispensers, which prevents air from entering and keeps the formula stable.
Ceramides can appear on a product label under many different names (for example, ceramide AP, ceramide EOP, or ceramide NP), which understandably causes confusion when shopping for products. According to Jaliman, there are nine different ceramides found in the skin and the difference is based on how long the carbon chains are. But although the structure of ceramides may differ, she says their function is pretty much the same and nothing to stress over.
Benefits of Ceramides for Skin
Ceramides play an incredibly crucial role in the barrier function of the skin.
- Restore the barrier: A loss of ceramides, whether due to aging, the overuse of exfoliants and harsh soaps that strip the skin, or something else, causes a compromised stratum corneum—or the protective barrier of the skin—and allows bacteria to enter through tiny cracks and cause irritation. Replenishing those ceramides will keep the barrier healthy and functioning properly.
- Lock-in moisture: A healthy skin barrier seals the moisture in and prevents water loss from occurring, which causes dry skin.
- Protect the skin: Ceramides work to protect the skin against environmental aggressors and pollution, according to Jaliman.
- Make skin more tolerable to active ingredients: Jaliman and Levin add that ceramides also work to protect from the chemicals that we put on our skin that have a tendency to cause irritation.
- Reduce visible signs of aging: As Levin explains it, the thinning and aging of the skin is not only due to the loss or break down of collagen and elastin (proteins in your dermis), but your skin barrier (your epidermis) is also incredibly important in protecting and maintaining the rest of the skin.
- Help with inflammatory skin conditions: When the skin’s stratum corneum is not working properly, then the skin can get dehydrated and lead to transient epidermal water loss (TEWL), according to Levin. This makes the skin dry, inflamed, and at risk for inflammatory skin conditions like eczema, rosacea, acne, and psoriasis.
- Soften and smooth the skin: Traits of a compromised skin barrier are dryness, flakiness, and fine lines from dehydration. Restoring lost lipids will increase hydration in the skin and improve the overall look and feel.
Side Effects of Ceramides
Ceramides have no known side effects. However, you can avoid allergic reactions and product sensitivities by testing a small amount on your skin first.
How to Use It
As a moisturizer, ceramides work best when applied immediately following a shower to lock-in extra moisture, and Jaliman suggests using the product before bed as well. Both dermatologists recommend applying your ceramides twice daily, but during which step in your routine depends on your product of choice. Use your cleansers first, followed by toners and serums, and save the moisturizer for the final step at night or right before your SPF if it’s during the day.
The Best Products With Ceramides
One of both Levin and Jaliman’s favorites, this oil- and fragrance-free face and body moisturizer soothes dryness and itchiness and restores hydration in even the driest skin. “This moisturizer is great because it has three types of ceramides, niacinamide, and hyaluronic acid,” Jaliman says. “All very good ingredients which will help with dark spots, fine lines, and wrinkles.”
This moisturizer is another favorite of both dermatologists (and many others, Levin adds) for its combination of cholesterol, hyaluronic acid, five different ceramides, and enzymes to help soften fine lines and wrinkles for an overall smoother, healthier complexion. It also comes packaged in an airtight bottle with a pump applicator to keep the formula protected from light, air, and outside contaminants.
Levin recommends this formula to her patients who are interested in anti-aging products. "I call it a smart moisturizer,” Levin says. “It has ceramides and a unique peptide, which are basically small little protein molecules that signal the skin to do very specific things.” The blend of peptides, ceramides, and antioxidants in this formula work to plump and protect the skin, even skin tone, and smooth texture from fine lines and wrinkles.
If you're someone who's tried retinol before and given it up because of the irritation it caused, you might want to a try a formula like this one, which contains ceramides to prevent the irritation. “In terms of a ceramide with something active, I really like this one,” Levin says. “It’s a retinol, glycolic, peptide, and antioxidant all-in-one repair serum that has ceramides, which allows for tolerability alongside these really active, effective ingredients.”
For those with very dry skin, Jaliman recommends this drugstore formula for the body that contains ceramides and oat flour to hydrate and soothe the skin. And with the added benefit of being fragrance-free, it's also a safe choice for those with sensitive skin.
Jaliman is also a fan of this formula, which is full of five ceramides, panthenol, and sodium hyaluronate to make the skin plump, smooth, and supple. This liquid can be used as a lightweight moisturizer or worn as a toner and followed with a thicker moisturizer.
The synthetic ceramides in this Byrdie editor-approved formula are bioidentical to the ceramides that naturally exist in your skin. The combination of these with the cholesterol and fatty acids greatly improves the condition of the skin barrier and the appearance of your skin.