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What are ceramides? Where do they come from? How do they work? Everything you need to know via dermatologist Dr. Sandy Skotnicki, as well as in-the-know beauty-industry experts.
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Ceramides for too-dry skin is a buzzy topic again. A key natural component of the epidermis, ceramides are now recognized as crucial for a healthy, hydrated skin barrier, and recently inspired a whole brand built around putting them into everyday personal care. This year, ceramides are at the heart of a new dry-skin range of drugstore body lotions; they've even found their way into hair care and colour. But what exactly are ceramides? What do ceramides do? Where do ceramides in beauty products come from? And how can ceramides help hair?

From noted dermatologist Dr. Sandy Skotnicki as well as beauty-brand experts in the know, here's all the news your dry, itchy skin can use.


In August, Curel will be stocking drugstore shelves with a new line of lotions based on an "advanced ceramide formula" for dry, super-dry and sensitive skin. The brand already uses ceramides in its Itch Defence Lotion

Ceramides are the stars in the Elizabeth Arden Ceramide collection of skincare and makeup, and also show up in L'Oréal Paris Excellence-to-Go home colour.


Cathi Westrop, National Education and Communications Manager at Elizabeth Arden, says ceramides are part of "the mortar that holds the skin cells together." One of three types of naturally occurring lipids or fatty acids (cholesterol and free fatty acids are the other two) in the skin's surface or stratum corneum, they are the majority – up to 50 percent – of the lipid matrix that binds layers of skin cells in a strong, secure structure.


Ceramides are lipids, like oil and fat, which means they're water insoluble – or hydrophobic. They repel (or are repelled by) water, and attract other lipids. Sharon Struewing, Research Leader at Kao Brands Inc, characterizes ceramides as "necessary for the skin's water retention capacity" because within the stratum corneum's lipid matrix or "mortar," they form a network that fences water in, preventing it from easily escaping the the skin.


Unsurprisingly, ceramides weaken and degrade thanks to aging and environmental aggressors such as UV and harsh weather. Natural ceramide production and replenishment also take hit after hit over the years: Kao's research indicates that once we hit 25, every birthday after that seems to come with slightly drier skin and a few more fine lines and wrinkles.

Putting an ingredient we already have in our skin into skincare doesn't necessarily translate. For instance, using collagen as an ingredient in face care won't replace lost collagen to give us bouncy skin again. (Collagen applied topically just moisturizes.) Ceramides, however, seem to do what researchers hoped they would.

"In anti-aging or maintenance skin care, ceramides improve the skin's barrier function, which leads to increased moisturization," confirms Dr. Sandy Skotnicki, Toronto-based dermatologist and Curel skin expert. 

As well, by reinforcing the skin's natural moisture barrier against transepidermal water loss, ceramides also help to prevent the stratum corneum from absorbing things it shouldn't, she says.


To combat the loss of natural ceramides, "many [companies] make their own proprietary brand which are similar to the naturally occurring kind," says Dr. Skotnicki. "They're lipids, so they absorb quite well." 

Elizabeth Arden launched ceramides into the beauty spotlight in 1990 with the first synthetic single-dose capsules. The company prefers the term "bio-engineered" rather than synthetic: "They're human-identical," says Westrop. 

Kao also chooses the manufactured route, partly because natural ceramides are costly, but mostly, they say, because synthetics can be tweaked to improve performance and are more stable.


Of the nine (identified so far) ceramide types, handily numbered one through nine, Arden makes four for their Ceramide line of skincare and makeup which targets women who want to minimize fine lines and wrinkles.

"Ceramide 1 strengthens, supports and firms the skin's surface and enhances hydration; ceramide 3 acts as a moisture magnet that soothes and calms; and ceramide 6, a gentle ceramide hydroxy acid, naturally exfoliates dead surface cells, which encourages the formation of additional ceramide molecules," Westrop explains. Arden's Ceramide EyeWish eye cream also contains one they call ceramide 3A, which Westrop says helps lighten skin and minimize dark circles.

Kao Brands' Curel puts the focus on ceramide 2, which they say binds moisture to the skin most effectively. On the flip side of a strong barrier layer, ceramides are useful skincare additives because, in addition to keeping unwanted intruders out,  they help the stratum corneum retain the good-for-skin stuff. 

Ceramide-rich creams can also help people who suffer from severely dry skin conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis. "We've learned that people with genetic atopic eczema have fewer ceramides in their stratum corneum," says Dr. Skotnicki.


The L'Oréal Group calls their patented molecule Ceramide R and uses it in their Excellence-to-Go 10-minute home hair colour. According to Nicole Dupuis, technical manager for L'Oréal Canada, hair has natural ceramides, too, and loses them as a result of aging, heat styling and chemical processing. Ceramide R repairs damaged cuticles by moving into spaces vacated by natural ceramides. "It fortifies the hair as you colour, to keep it silky and shiny and protect it from further stress," Dupuis says.


As well as in Curel Itch Defence and Advanced Ceramide Therapy moisturizers, Elizabeth Arden Ceramides and L'Oréal Paris Excellence-to-Go, check out cleansers, creams, lotions and more by CeraVe, a dermatologist-developed line of face- and body-care that spins entirely on ceramides.

A version of this story first appeared in Cosmetics Magazine, a publication for drug- and department-store beauty advisors across Canada.

UPDATE Fall 2013: L'Oréal Paris Excellence-To-Go hair colour has been discontinued, but you can find ceramides in L'Oréal Paris Total Repair 5 haircare.