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What are ceramides? Where do they come from? How do they work? We tell you here.
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You're going to hear more about ceramides in the coming months, and if you have chronic dry, itchy skin and/or eczema, you'll want to pay attention.

all about ceramides

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 Defense Skin Balancing Lotion. Ceramides are also key in Elizabeth Arden's Ceramide collection of skincare and makeup, and are a component, believe it or not, in L'Oréal Paris Excellence-to-Go home colour (not about itchy skin, gripes the Staff -- whatevs). So, here's some geeky stuff to know:


Cathi Westrop, National Education and Communications Manager at Elizabeth Arden, calls ceramides "the mortar that holds the skin cells together." They help to keep skin hydrated, smooth and strong. One of three types of naturally occuring lipids (the others are cholesterol and free fatty acids) in the skin's surface or stratum corneum, they make up 40 to 50 percent of all lipids (fatty acids) in the body.

"Ceramides are necessary for the skin's water-retention capacity," says Sharon Struewing, Research Leader at Kao Brands Inc.

"In anti-aging or maintenance skin care, they improve the skin's barrier function, which leads to increased moisturization," says Curel spokesperson and dermatologist Sandy Skotnicki. And, she says, because ceramides shore up the moisture barrier, they help to prevent the stratum corneum from absorbing things it shouldn't.

Unsurprisingly, we lose ceramides to aging and environmental agressors such as UV and harsh weather. According to Kao's research, once we hit 25, every birthday after that seems to come with slightly drier skin and a few more fine lines and wrinkles.

the ceramide supply 

To combat the loss of natural ceramides, "many [companies] make their own proprietary brand which are similar to the naturally occuring kind," says Skotnicki-Grant. "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.

ceramide numbers 

Of the nine ceramide types, which are 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 flipside of a strong barrier layer, ceramides are useful skincare additives because they help the stratum corneum retain good-for-skin ingredients. 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 Skotnicki.

a geeky ceramide-aside 

So, ceramides and hair? 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.

where to find ceramides

As well as in Curel's Itch Defense and upcoming Advanced Ceramide Therapy moisturizers, Elizabeth Arden Ceramides and L'Oréal Paris Excellence-to-Go, you'll find ceramides in Biore SkinPreservation, a collection of skin care products (also from Kao) aimed at women aged 25 to 34. And they're in Genuine Health Dermalipid, a supplement designed to improve skin's moisture levels from within.

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 Hair Expertise Total Repair 5 haircare.