Retinol , niacinamide , hyaluronic acid ...we’ve all become closet skincare chemists, self-prescribing as to what we think our skin needs on any given day, but have you given ceramides a second thought? I certainly hadn’t until cult ceramide based US brand CeraVe came onto the UK scene (more on this later)- I knew they were present and correct in various lotions and potions that I used but wasn’t too sure precisely why and what for. It turns out I’m not alone - Mintel’s 2018 UK Facial Skincare Report cites that 44 per cent of us are aware of ceramides but only a lowly 7 per cent know what they are. CeraVe skincare expert Dr Christopher Hensby is here to rectify the ceramide ignorance situation:
“Ceramides are one of the mechanisms that hold the skin barrier together. They make up 50 per cent of the uppermost layer of the skin and are fatty acids that maintain the skin barrier and retain moisture, keeping the skin hydrated. They are critical for an effective skin barrier function.”
Their “critical” status means that ceramides, or a lack of them, play an important role in how your skin looks and feels and how it defends itself in the face of external aggressors such as pollution and UV rays. To put it further into perspective, skincare expert Paula Begoun reckons you could be missing a trick if you’ve not figured ceramides into your skincare routine equation:
“Think of ceramides as the mortar between bricks - if the bricks are your skin cells, ceramides help to hold skin together. In addition, ceramides, even more than retinol, niacinamide, and peptides , are one of the anti-ageing “powerhouses” responsible for supporting skin’s dynamic nature.”
That’s us told. Here’s all the useful stuff that ceramides can do for your skin and how to spot them in a skincare lineup - they’re often not touted to the extent that other more buzzy skincare ingredients are. Consider this an ode to the unsung ceramides.
They increase hydration
Both by strengthening the skin barrier to help your skin to conserve moisture and by encouraging your skin to naturally produce lipids by itself - Paula highlights that “two particular ceramide precursors phytosphingosine and sphingolipids—actually help skin make more ceramides.” Look out for them on skincare labels, but any ceramides are good news where upping moisture levels is concerned.
They’re especially important if you have sensitive skin
As our Sense and Sensitivity columnist Judy will attest, a weakened skin barrier makes skin more vulnerable to reactions, so any agent that strengthens the skin barrier can help to reduce sensitivity. The fact that ceramides are naturally present in your skin also means that, unlike some rejuvenating but occasionally sensitisitising skincare ingredients such as retinol, ceramides are suitable for all skin types and won’t spike irritation.
If you’re experiencing adverse effects from intensive skin treatments, facialist and founder of Quantum Botanika Nataliya Robinson highlights that following up with ceramide based skincare could help to soothe and strengthen skin:
“People who use skincare products containing retinol or exfoliating acids regularly, or who’ve recently had a skin peel , will need to include products in their regime that are that rich in ceramides to aid recovery.”
They can protect skin against infections and eczema flare-ups
In the same way that ceramides bolster sensitive skin, so they play a vital role in the prevention and limiting of skin conditions such as eczema and atopic dermatitis , as consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Hextall explains:
“When the skin is running low on ceramides reserves the skin becomes dry, inflamed and irritated and can lead to further skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis or further eczema.”
Application of ceramide rich creams can promote speedy healing according to Dr Hextall:
“Barrier function plays a significant role in the cause of eczema, so repairing the barrier is crucial to reduce skin flare ups. In addition, ceramides restore skin water permeability as well as barrier function. Recent studies have suggested that low skin ceramide levels are a major factor in skin diseases such as atopic dermatitis. The stratum corneum (outer layer of the skin) consists of a high ceramide composition and significant evidence suggests that epidermal lipid barrier repair with ceramides is vital as they not only calm the skin but they can accelerate barrier repair following various external, acute, or sustained skin barrier disruption”
This is glad tidings for sore and stressed out skin, and thankfully ceramides get to work at speed too, as dermatologist Dr Tiina Meder notes:
“Using skincare products enriched with natural or synthetic ceramides provides immediate comfort and accelerates skin repair.”
You don’t need to be in dire skin straits to benefit repair wise either...
They slow the signs of ageing
Ceramide levels naturally begin to decline from around the age of 30 onwards, so supplementing your skin barrier’s existing lipids with topical ceramides will help skin to stay smooth and plump for longer. The fact that ceramides also help to prevent inflammation can in turn reduce dehydration, fine lines and rough skin texture caused by environmental damage too, making skin more resilient over time. Paula also points out that their gentle action means that they’re especially suitable for hydrating and firming skin around the eyes.
They can boost the efficacy of other skincare ingredients
Just as limiting your 5 a day to just one vegetable does not a healthy diet make, so going to town on ceramides alone won’t miraculously transform your skin or conjure up a dermatological time machine. Strategically combining beneficial skincare ingredients that are tailored to your needs within a consistent routine will reap the greatest rewards (boring we know). Paula underlines that mixing ceramides with peptides and fatty acids is particularly beneficial for dry, dehydrated and sensitive skin, and similarly Dr Hextall states that “if ceramides are applied with other lipids such as cholesterol in a combination similar to that found in the skin barrier, this further enhances barrier repair.”
Otherwise, ceramides can be combined with retinol, niacinamide and acid exfoliants (Paula points out that the latter in particular could enhance the effect and absorption of ceramides). Dr Meder affirms that ceramides are good partners for pretty much all of your bathroom shelf:
“Ceramides are very stable and considered to be a skin-identical ingredient. So, in addition to working effectively on human skin, they also work well alongside fellow skin-identical ingredients. These include vitamin E, niacinamide, lecithin and some plant oils (macadamia, sweet almond and olive in particular). Ceramides also work well with amino acids, peptides, glycerine, carrageenan, and hyaluronic acid.”
Mixing multiple ceramides also has a ‘strength in numbers impact. Dermatologist favourite CeraVe combines ceramides 1, 3 and 6-11 in particular across the brand’s product range as these are the lipids specifically identified to be lacking in people with skin diseases. Wondering how to spot ceramides in your skincare? Aesthetic doctor Dr Maryam Zamani illustrates that it’s pretty simple, as “the word ceramide will be seen in the ingredients list, followed by a number, for example, ceramide-2.” Chances are that the ceramides within your skincare will be synthetic, as Dr Meder explains that “ceramides are extremely expensive because the quantity found in plant extracts is very low. As a result, the industry most often uses synthetic, yeast extracted phytoceramides, or pseudo ceramides (which have a similar structure to the fatty acids extracted from plants).”
As for when to apply ceramides in your routine, AM and PM is all good, but Dr Zamani clarifies that their place in the skincare layering process:
“For best results, use a ceramide as the last step in your skincare routine. Ensure you eye cream, day cream and night cream all contain a ceramide to ensure that the skin hydration is maintained and the skin barrier is protected.”
And with that, here are six ceramide-rich products we love.