Ceramides - What exactly do they do for skin?

“Skin barrier care” seems to be one of the top skincare trends in recent years, and ceramides are the ingredients that are often associated with this trend. But this has also created a lot of confusion around just what ceramides are and what do they really do for your skin topically. In this in-depth guide, we’ll discuss what they are, what ceramides do for skin topically, decipher the types of ceramides you might find in your products, which skin types can benefit from them, and how to shop for the best ceramide-containing product.

What are Ceramides?

One of the main reasons why ceramides are so buzzy is because these molecules are already naturally found in your skin. Ceramides are a group of lipid molecules naturally found in the outermost layer of your skin’s stratum corneum. Along with cholesterol and fatty acids, ceramides create what is called the “lipid matrix”. This fatty complex functions as the mortar between skin cells and serves as a protective shield that locks in moisture and protects our skin against environmental aggressors. 

Sadly, like many good things in skin, your ceramide level can deplete due to many different factors such as weather, eczema, aging, and even acne. In fact, many studies indicate that those with eczema have lower ceramide content and more disorganized skin lipids (read: weaker protection) than those with healthy skin. The depletion of ceramides in skin inevitably results in a compromised barrier triggering a vicious cycle of dryness - irritation - more dryness - rinse and repeat! To prevent this from happening, we turn to ceramides in our skincare. But do topical ceramides actually help? 

What do Ceramides (in Skincare) do for Skin?

In theory, ceramides in skincare products should help replenish and reinforce skin’s barrier. This restoration of lipid levels, should help to increase hydration and soothe irritation in the long run. This explains why most data behind topical ceramides is based on testing on compromised skin, severely dry skin, and skin conditions such as eczema. Although the jury is still out in terms of how ceramides in your product truly interact with your skin, there are many studies that have shown that ceramides are great for fortifying your skin barrier and improving hydration in the long run.

For example, there is a 28-day study testing a ceramide-containing moisturizer vs. placebo on 100 eczema patients. While the improvement in eczema area severity index wasn’t different between the two groups after four weeks, only the ceramide-treated group showed significantly decreased TEWL (transepidermal water loss) and increased skin hydration level. 

Ceramides also have great hydration data for those with more mature skin. As we age, our skin’s ceramide level decreases and skin becomes more susceptible to prolonged dryness. One study tested a ceramide-containing formula vs. placebo on 24 individuals (average age of 54) with dry but otherwise healthy skin. The formula with ceramides was able to not just improve hydration and TEWL, but also decrease the appearance of wrinkles when compared to the placebo moisturizer.

Ultimately, ceramides are a great addition to anyone’s routine to improve skin hydration and barrier function long term no matter what age. They can be especially beneficial for those with severely dry skin or those with skin conditions with compromised skin barriers. So, ready to shop ceramides? Here are some of our top chemists’ tips!...

Ceramide 1, 3, np, eop… What do They Mean?

When you first start looking at ceramide products, it’s natural to take a quick scan of the ingredient list. However, decoding ingredient lists for ceramide-containing products can get confusing pretty quickly! You’ll notice names that start sounding like code. “Ceramide 1, ceramide 6, ceramide NP, ceramide EOP, ceramide AP, sphingosines…?!?” 

In a nutshell, the code or number that follows the ceramide denotes the molecular structure. The ceramide + number notation has been replaced in recent years with the letter system that is more descriptive of their structures. For example, ceramide 3 is now ceramide NP for ceramide N-stearoyl phytosphigosine. In skincare, the most common ceramides you’ll find are ceramide NP (aka ceramide 3), ceramide EOP (aka ceramide 1), and ceramide AP (ceramide 6). These are all ceramides that are naturally found in your skin and great ingredients to find in the product IL (ingredient list). 

Quick Note on “Plant” Ceramides

Sometimes you might find yourself staring at a product that claims to have ceramides but the word “ceramide” is nowhere to be found on the actual ingredient list. This is because certain ingredients are claimed to be “plant ceramides” or “ceramide precursors”. This can range from things like phytosphingosine to just a simple yuzu extract. This category’s actual efficacy can vary far and wide in between. Most of the clinical evidence we have seen on ceramides’ skin benefits are conducted using actual skin-identical ceramides. For now, we’d still recommend prioritizing a product with actual ceramides listed on the ingredient list!

Best Ceramides for Your Skintype

Of course, just finding them on the ingredient list is step 1. As chemists, we can tell you that formulating with ceramides is no walk in the park. By nature, they’re hearty, waxy molecules… which makes them an absolute pain in the butt to incorporate into formulas without resorting to formulating a thick, goopy cream or balm. Because of this, generally speaking, you’ll find two types of ceramides in products.

  1. Pre-blends created for chemists!: Luckily, experts in the cosmetics industry have created easier-to-use pre-blends that deliver ceramides in a specific delivery system. These pre-blends often contain a blend of ceramides, fatty acids, and cholesterol packed in a milky base ready to be added to your products and deliver benefits to your skin. In our very own Mr. Reliable, we use 3% of SK-influx, a blend we picked out for their clinical data.
  2. Products featuring pure ceramides: These often come in thicker cream or balm form. The plus side is that these typically come with a much higher concentration of actual ceramides. The downside is that these are not always suitable for all skin types due to the limited formats (oily skin types might not love these textures).

Ceramide Product Landscape - Moisturizers

Best Ceramide Products for Normal - Oily Skin

So if you have normal to oily skin looking to bolster your skin barrier, products with “pre-blend” ceramides are a great place to start. The biggest perk to using a pre-blend like this is you’re able to create a much lighter texture that can suit a wider range of skin types. Examples of products in this category are Cerave Moisturizing Cream, Cocokind Ceramide Barrier Serum, and our very own Mr. Reliable Lightweight Moisturizer.

Best Ceramide Products for Dry or Compromised Skin

If you have very dry skin or a compromised skin barrier, these pre-blends might not be quite enough to cover your skin needs. We would recommend trying products that are PUMMELED with high levels of ceramides. Products in this category include: Skinceuticals Triple Lipid or our very own Chemist Confessions Balm Voyage.

Quick routine pro tip! Ceramides & Niacinamide

Niacinamide is an active ingredient that has also been clinically tested to improve skin barrier function in the long run. So it’s a no brainer for many products to pair the two together (e.g. our Mr. Reliable has 2% niacinamide). However, this is where you might be unwittingly overlayering too much niacinamide too. Double-check the ingredient lists of your ingredients - if you have a niacinamide in your serum, cleanser, AND moisturizer, it might just be a bit too much for your skin.

Ceramide Skincare Key Takeaways

  • Ceramides are a helpful ingredient to promote skin barrier health and hydration. They are especially helpful for very dry skin types, compromised skin barries, and even acne.
  • Ceramides can be divided into two categories: pre-blends and pure ceramides. Skincare using pre-blends can have lighter textures and finishes while skincare using pure ceramides usually are much thicker creams and balms.


Coderch, L., López, O., de la Maza, A., & Parra, J. L. (2003). Ceramides and skin function. American journal of clinical dermatology, 4, 107-129.

Meckfessel, M. H., & Brandt, S. (2014). The structure, function, and importance of ceramides in skin and their use as therapeutic agents in skin-care products. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 71(1), 177-184.

Descamps, F., Brouta, F., Monod, M., Gonzalez, A., Sierra, R., Cardenas, M. E., ... & Nishikawa, A. (2011). Lamellar lipid organization and ceramide composition in the stratum corneum of patients with atopic eczema. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol, 18, 13-26.

Rogers, J., Harding, C., Mayo, A., Banks, J., & Rawlings, A. (1996). Stratum corneum lipids: the effect of ageing and the seasons. Archives of dermatological research, 288, 765-770.

Pappas, A., Kendall, A. C., Brownbridge, L. C., Batchvarova, N., & Nicolaou, A. (2018). Seasonal changes in epidermal ceramides are linked to impaired barrier function in acne patients. Experimental dermatology, 27(8), 833-836.

Berkers, T., Visscher, D., Gooris, G. S., & Bouwstra, J. A. (2018). Topically applied ceramides interact with the stratum corneum lipid matrix in compromised ex vivo skin. Pharmaceutical research, 35, 1-13.

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