Ceramides get quite a lot of hype recently and good news: there is a reason for that. But before we go into the details, let's just quickly define what the heck ceramides are:
They are waxy lipids that can be found naturally in the outer layer of the skin (called stratum corneum - SC). And they are there in big amounts! The goopy stuff between our skin cells is called extracellular matrix that consists mainly of lipids. And ceramides are about 50% of those lipids (the other important ones are cholesterol with 25% and fatty acids with 15%).
Ok, so now we know what ceramides are, let's see what they do in our skin: research shows clearly that they play a super important role in keeping the skin barrier healthy and the skin hydrated. If ceramides in the skin are decreased, more water can evaporate from the skin and there is less water remaining in the skin. So ceramides form kind of a "water-proof" protecting layer and make sure that our skin remains nice and hydrated.
Now the question is only this: If we put ceramides all over our face do they work as well as ceramides already naturally in our skin? Well, the answer is probably a no, but they do work to some extent. The BeautyBrains blog made a fantastic article about ceramides and they have listed a couple of examples about studies showing that ceramides - especially when used in certain ratios with cholesterol and fatty acids - do hydrate the skin and can help to repair the skin barrier.
So far we were writing about ceramides in plural. It's because there are at least 9 types that can be found naturally in the skin. Chemically speaking, ceramides are a fatty acid and a sphingoid base and both parts can have different variations that result in different types of ceramides.
Our current one, Ceramide 1 was the first one that was identified in 1982 and it's a special snowflake. It contains the essential fatty acid, linoleic acid and has a unique structure. It's believed that ceramide 1 plays a "binding role" in the lipid layers of the extracellular matrix. Along with ceramides 4 and 7, they also play a vital role in epidermal integrity and serve as the main storage areas for linoleic acid (that's also very important for barrier repair).
Oh, and one more thing: alkaline pH inhibits enzymes that help ceramide synthesis in our skin. So if you use a soap and you notice your skin is becoming dry, now you know why.
- Leslie Baumann, MD, Cosmetic Dermatology, 2nd edition, Ceramides p85-86
- Choi, Myeong Jun, and Howard I. Maibach. "Role of ceramides in barrier function of healthy and diseased skin." American journal of clinical dermatology 6.4 (2005): 215-223.