What Are Ceramides? Every Question Answered + Best Products
Some skin care products are the cherry on top—meaning they might not be essential to maintaining healthy skin, but they can certainly make your routine a little bit better should you want to invest—like toners or face masks, for example.
Other products, however, are essential. Moisturizer ranks high on the list. No matter how dry or oily your skin is, you need to keep it hydrated. But before committing to a product, you may want to understand what's in the formula first.
And found in plenty of modern-day moisturizers: ceramides. Here's the 101 on this essential ingredient and why you should keep an eye out.
What are ceramides?
"Ceramides on a basic level are intercellular lipids housed in the uppermost layer of skin cells and are crucial for skin barrier function," clean cosmetic chemist Krupa Koestline tells mbg. She describes ceramides as the "glue" that holds together the skin barrier.
The skin barrier, with the help of ceramides, "works as a guard to keep moisture inside the skin and environmental stressors like irritants, allergens, and microbes outside of the skin," Koestline explains.
What do they do for the skin?
Without ceramides, your skin barrier will become compromised. "Skin with inadequate skin barrier functions like eczema and atopic dermatitis have low levels of ceramides in the skin," Koestline says.
"When applied topically, ceramides mimic the skin's own moisturizing system," she continues. This is why ceramides are often referred to as "skin-identical," ingredients.
What's more, ceramides are, "Non-sensitizing to the skin and eyes," Koestline says. This is why they're top of the list for skin care formulas designed for hypersensitive skin types and skin conditions like eczema.
Synthetic vs. natural ceramides.
There are a few different forms of ceramides found in topical formulas—including synthetic and naturally derived ceramides (the latter often referred to as phytoceramides).
"Plant oils like jojoba oil, safflower oil, and grapeseed oil are rich in natural ceramides," Koestline says. Phytoceramides often come from oat and wheat as well. "Meanwhile, lab-derived synthetic ceramides are also available and are totally safe to use," she continues.
To sum up—like many skin care ingredients, synthetic ceramides are not something to look down upon. In some ceramide-rich formulas, you may even find both forms whipped up into an ultra-hydrating cocktail.
Benefits of ceramides in topical skin care.
Ceramides are a dream ingredient for those with dry skin—but they do more than simply hydrate. A few notable benefits of ceramides include:
Improve skin hydration + decrease TEWL.
"Studies show that creams with ceramides show improved hydration and decreased TEWL significantly over 24 hours1," Koestline says. Transepidermal water loss refers to the amount of water that evaporates from the skin into the surrounding atmosphere, and it can lead to dry, dehydrated skin. Luckily, ceramides help to replenish moisture that's been lost and regulate the process of evaporation.
Help repair the skin barrier.
"Think of ceramides like grout that sits between your skin cell tiles," board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D., tells mbg. "They help fill in cracks between cells in the outer skin layer," he continues.
This mechanism contributes to a stronger skin barrier that is more equipped to fend off external aggressors.
Increase water retention.
This clinical review2 analyzed 41 different studies on ceramides and found the use of topical synthetic ceramides effective at increasing water retention, restoring barrier function, and even improving the skin barrier in patients with atopic dermatitis.
Restore the lipid barrier.
According to Koestline, ceramides can, "Restore the lipid barrier's ability to attract, hold, and redistribute water." So including ceramides in a formula with other hydrators will only supercharge their ability to keep your skin plump and hydrated.
Improve wound healing.
Your skin has the natural ability to heal itself, but booster ingredients like ceramides have been shown to improve wound healing3—which is important at all times, not just when your skin is compromised.
Of course, hydrating is a superpower ceramides can flex, but so is easing irritation. This is just another reason this ingredient is deemed safe and often recommended for inflammatory conditions like eczema and rosacea— as it's been proven to alleviate the symptoms4 and decrease irritation5.
How do ceramides present on ingredient lists?
Like many ingredients, ceramides can be called different names on ingredient lists. "Ceramides are listed either as a number or a letter on an ingredients list," Zeichner says. Plus, they all have slightly different functions.
For example, according to Koestline, Ceramide III and IV "Act as building blocks of the lipid barrier," she says. In a slightly different way, Ceramide I holds together the lipid bilayer, Koestline notes.
So keep an eye out for the word ceramide, followed by a number or a letter. Ceramide AP, Koestline says, is a substructure of ceramides, as are Ceramide EOP, Ceramide NG, and Ceramide NS—so add those to the list of possible names.
Finally, "There are also precursors to ceramides that are used along with ceramides, like sphingosine, cholesterol, phytosphingosine that readers can see on INCI lists," Koestline says. These will often be present in ceramide serums and creams—more on that in a bit.
Ceramides vs. Hyaluronic acid: Which is better?
People often ask whether ceramides or hyaluronic acid are better for hydrating the skin. While this is a totally valid question given that both ingredients are occasionally hyped up as the end-all-be-all remedy for dry skin, it's less about using one over the other and more about using both.
See hyaluronic acid is a humectant, which means it pulls water into the skin. For example, if you applied an HA serum to damp skin, the hyaluronic acid will help your skin absorb the water present and water in your following serums and moisturizers.
This is why hyaluronic acid helps the skin look juicy and plump. But ceramides, as you now know, have quite a different job. They work as emollients, which means they help fill the cracks in the skin and encourage a smooth surface that holds on to moisture for longer.
Both ingredients are A+ for any skin type and will work wonders for dry skin as well. Remember to use your hyaluronic acid serum first on damp skin and follow up with your ceramide cream—our top picks to follow.
What can you pair ceramides with?
Ceramides are incredibly unproblematic in skin care formulas, meaning they play nicely with a plethora of other ingredients. Plus, they're generally well tolerated (and beneficial) for almost everyone. This means you can pair a ceramide cream over a number of other actives.
In fact, using ceramides in combination with potentially irritating ingredients can actually be extremely beneficial. Here's how a few of your favorites pair with ceramides:
- Retinol: Using a ceramide serum or cream under retinol can help buffer the effects and limit irritation. This is sometimes referred to as the "sandwich method" for using strong actives. In this method, you apply your ceramide cream, then the retinol layer, then top it with the ceramide product again. Here are our favorite retinol serums.
- Vitamin C: Using ceramides with a vitamin C serum can help to supercharge the healthy aging properties. Vitamin C supports collagen production in the skin, which is another key part of the skin barrier. Because of this, collagen and ceramides are a dream team for a healthy skin barrier and youthful-looking skin.
- AHAs/BHAS: When you exfoliate, whether it be with an AHA or a BHA, you must hydrate the skin afterward, as exfoliation can lead to dryness without it. Ceramide creams will help nurture the barrier post-exfoliation and prevent possible irritation.
- Humecants: When you pair ceramides with any sort of humectant—think HA, glycerin,aloe vera, etc.—it will double down on the hydrating effects.
- Antioxidants: Antioxidants contribute to a stronger skin barrier6 that is prepared to handle—and fight off—free radicals from pollution, UV rays, etc. When paired with ceramides, your barrier will be prepped and ready to defend itself. Here are our favorite antioxidant serums.
- Plant oils: Koestline recommends pairing ceramides with omega-rich plant oils like pumpkin seed oil, hemp seed oil, marula oil, etc. The ceramides will help fill the cracks in the skin and deeply hydrate, while the oils (or an oil blend like one of these) will serve as an occlusive layer on top—holding all of the moisture tight.
Do natural ceramides decline with age?
Even if you aren't deficient in ceramides to begin with, they will start to taper off production at some point. "We know that with age, production of natural ceramides declines," Zeichner says. "This contributes to the skin barrier disruption, dryness, and dullness we experience with age," he continues.
Can you have lower ceramide levels naturally?
As mentioned earlier, certain skin conditions like eczema—and even acne, Zeichner notes—can be associated with deficiencies in ceramides. With a lack of ceramides comes dry skin and a compromised barrier.
"So using ceramide-containing skin care products is useful as part of a therapeutic approach to these skin conditions," Zeichner says. There are plenty of ceramide creams out there, some formulated with heavy occlusives for eczema and ultra-dry skin, while others are acne-safe—a few top picks below.
In addition, research has found that African American skin has lower levels of ceramides naturally7, "which makes it prone to dryness," notes board-certified dermatologist Ruth Jobarteh, M.D.
How to increase ceramides in the skin.
Like anything that is produced within the body (take collagen, for example), you'll want to work from the inside, too. This means ingesting ceramides and applying them via skin care.
Keep an eye out for skin-identical ceramides that will directly contribute to the ceramide levels in your skin, whether it be from topical products or supplements and food.
To support your natural levels of ceramide production, be sure to commit to a healthy skin care routine, eat a balanced diet packed with skin-loving foods (a few A+ additions here), and protect your skin barrier with moisturizer, SPF, and try your best to avoid over-exfoliation, retinoid reactions, and sunburns.
You can also take beauty supplements that have phytocermaides in them.
What about getting ceramides through your diet?
As mentioned above, ceramides can come from plant sources as well—known as phytoceramides. While they're extracted for topical use, you can ingest them straight from the plant as well.
A few foods that are rich in ceramides include:
- Brown rice
- Sweet potatoes
You can also ingest ceramides via supplements if you want to make sure you're getting a proper daily dose. You can learn more about what to look for and how these supplements work here.
What are ceramide creams?
Ceramide creams are, quite simply, creams that contain ceramides. While many face moisturizers, in general, use ceramides as a key ingredient, not all of them are formally called "ceramide creams." You may also see barrier creams with high amounts of ceramides in them.
But, in the current skin care market, ceramide creams tend to include a more abundant concentration of ceramides as well as a more diverse blend—here's a list of the 10 best clean and effective ceramide creams if you want to get shopping ASAP.
If you want to keep your skin care routine to the bare minimum, you'll want to include a moisturizer. One that's rich in ceramides will help deeply hydrate your skin, decrease irritation, enhance wound healing, and contribute to a dewy complexion. To learn more about hydrating your skin, check out these 13 derm-approved tips.
Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, and more. She previously interned for Almost 30, a top-rated health and wellness podcast. In her current role, Hannah reports on the latest beauty trends, holistic skincare approaches, must-have makeup products, and inclusivity in the beauty industry. She currently lives in New York City.