You can probably rattle off hard-hitting skin care ingredients by the mile, but we can bet there’s one super effective, super important ingredient that you most likely don’t even know to look for on the label.
“Ceramides are certainly the underdog when thinking about skin care,” Greenwich, CT dermatologist Kim Nichols, MD, says. “While you may not recognize them as a well-known skin care ingredient, they certainly deserve to be—they create the skin’s natural protective layer, assist in holding the skin together and are vital in helping to retain moisture in the skin.” Denver dermatologist Joel Cohen, MD agrees: “Most patients don’t know about them or much about them. The few that do, know that they are helpful in moisturizing the skin. I absolutely recommended patients use ceramides.”
So how can something so important be so under-the-radar? For starters, Dr. Nichols says that the accessibility and formulations of ceramides have changed somewhat over the years, so it’s not so much that they’re “new,” as they are more accessible (brands like Elizabeth Arden, Dr. Jart+ and CeraVe even have entire ranges devoted to them and Drunk Elephant just reformulated its popular LaLa Retro Cream to include them). “Now you will find them in many over-the-counter skin-care products, which was not always the case. Also, many skin care lines are combining ceramides with other hydrating lipid ingredients, such as cholesterol and fatty acids to give extra intense moisture retention.”
That all sounds like a plus, but beyond the hydration factor, ceramides are imperative to healthy skin because they ARE the naturally occurring lipids (i.e. oils) present in the skin and are pretty much the most important factor that plays into a parched complexion. “Along with protecting, repairing and hydrating, ceramides, which make up more than 50 percent of our skin’s composition, are literally the glue that helps keep skin looking and feeling its best,” explains Saddle Brook, NJ dermatologist Dr. Fredric Haberman, who likes the ingredient category to “cement to a block wall,” serving an essential role in holding our skin together to create an effective barrier. “And serving as the foundational powerhouse of overall skin health is just one of the many benefits of ceramides in skin care.”
Then there’s the aging factor: “With early skin aging, we notice a decrease in the foundation of our skin, such as collagen proteins and ceramide production,” explains New York dermatologist Julie Russak, MD. “In the top layer of the skin, ceramides hold skin cells together, forming a protective layer that plumps the skin and retains moisture.”
As Dr. Russak also points out, ceramides aren’t just an ingredient intended for external skin slathering. “A great analogy would be to think of skin cells as bricks, and the ceramides as the mortar or spackle holding it together. Ceramides’ crucial role of re-enforcing the skin barrier ensures our skin, which is meant to protect us, does this job effectively.”
“That’s what I think is the most interesting benefit of them,” Dr. Cohen says. “Besides helping to seal in moisture and prevent transepidermal water loss, ceramides also serve as an barrier to irritants and micro-organisms and function in many important cell-signaling pathways—including cellular proliferation, cellular differentiation, and even programmed cell death—as well.”
While you can find ceramides in certain foods, such as brown rice, sweet potato spinach and eggs, Dr. Russak says it’s a good idea to not only incorporate them via diet, but through supplementation and a topical skin-care regimen as well. Her pick: NeoCell Ceramides Skin Hydrator ($18), which she says has a unique blend of ceramides, vitamin C, coconut water and hyaluronic acid to “make for a perfect skin hydrator at any age.”