You may have noticed that lately there's been an increase in the use of various ceramide complexes in skincare products. But what exactly are ceramides, and what value do they offer as a skincare ingredient?
Ceramides are a class of lipids that are a natural—and crucial—component of healthy skin. They function like a glue to hold together the tightly-knit skin cells that make up your skin's epidermis, or topmost layer.
To be precise, our epidermis is comprised of five layers, and the top layer (the surface of the skin) is called the stratum corneum. If you think of the skin's surface as a "wall" designed to keep out impurities, the stratum corneum is made up of cells (the "bricks" in the wall) and lipids (the "mortar" that holds the bricks together). A healthy stratum corneum will not only keep irritants out; it will also help hold hydration in, resulting in a softer, smoother, firmer look and feel and the appearance of fewer fine lines and wrinkles.
The lipids that exist in the stratum corneum are made up of approximately 40 percent ceramides, 25 percent cholesterol, 25 percent free fatty acids, and 10 percent cholesteryl sulfate. Ceramides are by far the largest category of lipids present, and there are nine types in all, including the seven that we include in our ceramide-enriched products: phytosphingosine, sphingosine, ceramide NP, ceramide NS, ceramide EOS, ceramide EOP, and ceramide AP. The second-largest class of lipids found in the stratum corneum is cholesterol (25%). For this reason, many ceramide complexes, including ours, also include cholesterol.
Ceramides as a group perform a few important roles in the functioning of healthy skin. They help retain moisture, and are also essential for the maintenance of a healthy skin barrier. When the skin has a healthy barrier, it is not overly sensitive, not readily sensitized, and not porous or dry. A healthy skin barrier is able to create its own protection mechanisms, which offer additional benefits. For example, because a strong skin barrier can effectively keep out many foreign microbes, skin with a healthy barrier is not as prone to random breakouts, acne, or fungal skin infections. And because it also helps to keep in moisture, a healthy barrier means skin will not be as prone to drying out in between applications of a moisturizing product.
Skin that is lacking in ceramides, or has what we would call a damaged skin barrier, is more susceptible to harm from outside elements. Skin with a compromised barrier is also often sensitive, persistently dry, and prone to acne and acne-type infections. It's not uncommon for people with a damaged skin barrier to experience a great deal of sensitivity and even pain when trying new topical products, especially products in the "active" category.
With all this in mind, it's easy to see the value of ceramides in a restorative skincare product. But not all ceramide ingredients are created equal. Because the human skin contains nine ceramide types, with each one performing a somewhat different role on the ceramide team, we think that a good way to use ceramides in skincare is often as a "complex." A ceramide complex contains several ingredients that work together to reinforce one another's functions. Some formulators may use ceramide ingredients that contain only one or two types of ceramides (which is fine if that is a strategy), and a ceramide complex may also contain other elements like lactic acid or stearic acid, as well as emulsifiers, preservatives, glycerin, or antioxidants.
At Earthwise Beauty, we sought out a progressive, plant-based ceramide–cholesterol complex that has been carefully designed to mimic the ceramide mix that occurs naturally in healthy skin and that has research backing behind it. Our ceramide complex contains seven out of the nine existing ceramides, along with other thoughtful additions, such as plant-derived cholesterol and behenic acid (for smoother skin that is less prone to losing water through evaporation).
Ceramide ingredients can be created in a number of ways. Some ceramides are derived from plants, such as from wheat germ or from rice; some are fermented in a lab; and some are synthetic. Our ceramides, which we use in our On a Swing Among Trees Serum in a Mist, are created in a lab utilizing fermentation as the foundation, which makes them easier to assimilate by the skin compared with synthetic ceramides. Cholesterol as an ingredient can be derived from plants or from sheep wool (ours is derived from plants).
If you are struggling with stubbornly dry skin, skin that loses moisture quickly, dry skin with acne, or sensitive skin, a damaged skin barrier may be to blame. If this is the case, consider adding a ceramide-rich product such as On a Swing Among Trees to your daily skincare regimen to help restore your lipid barrier.
However, don't assume that ceramides are a must for everyone or that ceramides alone will turn around all types of skin issues or imperfections. Ceramides are just one tool to help repair and replenish the natural ceramides in our stratum corneum. (For example, I don't think ceramides are going to show a radical difference in rubust skin that is on the oily side.)
While lab-created scientific-research-backed ceramides are handy and reliable, we will continue our experimentation with unrefined whole-plant extracts and oils that show promise due to their ceramide content, and it is worthwhile to keep in mind that skin tissue-regenerating herbs such as comfrey root and leaves, pracaxi oil, and everlasting (helichrysum) also regenerate stratum corneum quickly, gently, powerfully, and reliably - although we don't have yet high-tech images to show us exactly how the tissue is changing over time, and how it is changing as compared to the effects of ceramides.