What are ceramides? How to prevent dry skin this winter

16 Jun.,2022

With the cold months approaching, many of us fear dry skin. But is there anything that we can do to prevent it? Ceramides may be the answer!

 

Konjac Ceramide

Our skin is important to us. We feel our best when our skin looks our best. But with the winter months coming, our skin may start to look dull and become very dry. The skin is an extremely complicated organ (yes, it’s an organ!) It has many different roles and functions and is made up of a complex network of cells. Unfortunately, our skin can get pretty dry and dull, thanks to aging, pollution, and weather changes. The question is, is there anything we can do to help to keep our skin hydrated? Enter ceramides, a huge player in skin hydration. But what are ceramides? And how can we increase them in our skin? That is what I will be talking about today!

Skin 101

Our skin is made up of two layers: the dermis (the deeper skin) and the epidermis (the outer, upper layer of skin)

Now, there are other levels to the skin, but let’s just focus on these two.

The dermis is important for the delivery of nutrients, since it contains blood vessels. One role of blood is to deliver nutrients to various parts of the body, including the skin. It is also primarily made of collagen and elastin, which give our skin strength and flexibility (i.e., bounciness, plumpness).

There is a layer of fat below the dermis, called subcutaneous tissue. This also helps with keep skin’s youthful appearance.

The epidermis is a much thinner layer of skin above the dermis. It is primarily made of cells called keratinocytes. You can consider the epidermis as the protective layer of the skin.

Slightly above the epidermis, but usually considered a part of it, is the stratum corneum. This part is important for preventing invaders (e.g., bacteria, viruses, and foreign substances like pollution) from entering and damaging our skin. In fact, our hands contain a thicker layer of stratum corneum, since our hands are in regular contact with the world.

Within the stratum corneum are compounds called ceramides, which are extremely important for maintaining skin health and prevention of aging.

What are ceramides?

Ceramides are waxy lipid molecules. In other words, they are a type of fat in our skin. They are made up of a sphingosine (just a group of carbons) and a fatty acid. They make up approximately 50% of our outer skin, meaning their health is essential to our overall skin health.

Because they are part of the stratum corneum, you can bet that they are involved in protecting our skin. Basically, because ceramides are made of fats, they can create a protective barrier against invaders that bind to water. Remember, water and fat do not like each other! This means that ceramides keep these compounds out.

Besides keeping things from coming in, ceramides also prevent things from leaving the skin, such as moisture. Therefore, ceramides can help keep your skin hydrated and plump, which decreases the look of wrinkles.

Sounds great doesn’t it?

Well, unfortunately like many things, ceramides decrease as we age. Therefore, the theory is, if we can increase our exposure/intake of ceramides, we can prevent skin aging.

Two other important components of the stratum corneum include saturated fat and cholesterol. Surprised? Well, thanks to diet culture, we have attributed saturated fat and cholesterol as being 100% bad. But that’s far from the truth! We need saturated fats and cholesterol in our skin to help with suppleness too. As well, cholesterol combines with ceramides to create an even STRONGER barrier to protect water from leaving the skin. The saturated fat helps to provide pliability, which prevents the barrier from breaking.

Skin hydration: What are ceramides’ role?

Ceramides have been linked to hydrated skin. Besides preventing skin aging, there are other significant reasons why a high level of ceramides in the skin is important to health.

In some skin conditions, there is an increase in hyperkeratinization. All this means is that there is an increase in skin shedding. This leads to redness and itching of skin, along with dryness. This skin leads to a weakened lipid barrier (ceramides, cholesterol, saturated fat, etc.) and therefore causes increased water loss in the skin, furthering dryness.

Psoriasis, for example, is an autoimmune disorder and is related to a defective skin barrier as a result of this hyperkeratinization. Skin studies have shown a decrease in fats in the skin and low levels of ceramides.

Skin dryness associated with non-inflammatory causes, such as dry skin in the winter, may be related to a decrease in ceramides. In fact, a study showed that ceramides and other lipids in the skin significantly lowered during the winter time, leading to dry skin.

Lack of lipids (fat) in the skin has also been linked to acne and atopic dermatitis. Cer 1 and 4 (types of ceramides) are made from linoleic acid (omega-6) and appear to play an important role in these skin conditions. I also talked about omega-6 and acne in my nutrition and acne article!

Finally, as we age, it appears an enzyme called Ceramidase increases, which leads to fewer ceramides in the skin. As a result, we may experience dryer skin. When we have dryer skin, we appear more aged.

How can I increase ceramides in my skin?

Because research using food is extremely complicated and difficult to do, majority of studies focus on topical application or supplements.

Topical Application

The beauty industry has this one covered. You can find ceramides in SO many products, such as shampoos, conditioners, soaps, creams, serums, etc.

Interestingly, it appears that in order for your skin to notice any changes, you should incorporate all three fats: ceramides, saturated fatty acids, and cholesterol.

This helps prevent the fats from binding together and allow them to take action on your skin! When you look at ceramide lotions for sale, you’ll notice that they contain other ingredients besides ceramides, such as vegetable oils, shea butter, etc. which would have these other important fats in them.

There has been an array of research on topical application of ceramides, and since I’m not a dermatologist, I’m not going to go through the research on it. However, the consensus appears to be that using creams and serums with ceramides is an excellent way to provide your skin with hydration. I highly recommend that you speak with your doctor/dermatologist to find a product that works best for you!

Supplements

For supplements, there isn’t as much clear-cut research. While companies may promise beneficial results, there isn’t enough research to make this conclusion.

In one study of 50 women ages 20-63 years, taking a supplement of 350mg wheat extract oil for 3 months found significant improvements in skin hydration in their arms, legs, and overall. To measure this, the researchers used a process called corneometry, which simply looks at the skin’s hydration levels. However, the dermatologist of the study noticed no changes in skin hydration when they assessed participants’ skin (the authors suggested it may be due to the 5 point scale they used…instead of a 10 point scale which would allow for more judgement).

Participants on the supplement did report that they noticed a change in their skin’s roughness, complexion, overall hydration, suppleness of skin, itchiness, and an overall beneficial change in their skin. Those on the placebo did notice differences as well, but not to the same extent as participants on the wheat oil supplement.

Please note that this study was funded by the oil company, so there can be some bias in the results!

Another study found that patients with atopic dermatitis benefited from both the fats in whole milk AND whole milk with ceramides. This suggests that we can benefit from fats naturally found in foods, without having to solely rely on supplements.

Diet

In terms of diet, there are some things you can do that may benefit your skin. The main thing is to ensure you’re getting enough healthy fats in your diet. As mentioned, linoleic acid (omega-6) and linolenic acid (omega-3) appear to play a crucial role in skin health. They make up part of the cell membrane, allowing for a strong skin barrier.

The source of fats also appear to matter. In one randomized, cross-over study, researchers provided 20 participants with 2 tablespoons of hemp oil or olive oil. Hemp oil contains a large amount of omega-3, omega-6, gamma-linolenic acid (another omega-6), and vitamin E. Olive oil is rather low in omega-3’s and omega-6.

When patients took the hemp oil, they had improved skin dryness, skin itchiness, and reported using less medication related to their atopic dermatitis. They also noticed less water loss in their skin, but this wasn’t significant.

Considering omega-3 and omega-6 are important for skin health, the results are not surprising. In fact, they further support the fact that fat is important to our health and we should incorporate more plant-based options.

Now, while this study did not look at ceramides, we now know it’s important to have a combination of fats in our skin. Again, omega-6 appears to be very important for the ceramide creation in the skin. Therefore, ensuring we eat enough may be important in maintaining ceramide levels.

Ceramides also exist naturally in some foods in the form of phytoceramides. You can find these naturally occurring in the bran and germ of wheat, rice, konjac, and corn. This is just another reason why eating whole-grain foods is important! Also look for them in spinach and beets.

Certain vitamins also play a crucial role in ceramide synthesis, such as vitamin D, B3 (Niacin) and C.

Food sources of vitamin D include: eggs, milk, mushrooms, and fortified orange juice. You can also get vitamin D from the sun, but all you need is 10 minutes! Consider speaking to you doctor and dietitian about a vitamin D supplement to ensure you’re meeting your needs, especially if you live in northern climates.

Food sources of vitamin B3 include: Salmon, tuna, turkey,tofu, eggs, beans, nuts and seeds.

Food sources of vitamin C include: red peppers, oranges, broccoli, strawberries, and kiwi.

By eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, protein, and healthy fats, you’ll be able to provide yourself with tools your skin needs to build a healthy strong barrier. Prevent skin damage by decreasing your risk of inflammation and definitely continue to drink lots of water.

To ensure you’re getting enough omega-3s, be sure to eat foods such as salmon, hemp oil/seeds, walnuts, etc. You can speak with a healthcare professional about omega-3 supplements to see if they are right for you.

Sum it up

With the winter months coming, we need to stay on top of our skin game to keep it looking healthy and vibrant. If you are interested in using a ceramide cream/serum, definitely speak to your dermatologist or skin expert to help choose the right product for you.

When it comes to diet, eating a diet full of variety will ensure you’re getting enough antioxidants, healthy fats, and protein, which are all essential for strong, healthy skin.

Foods high in phytoceramides are primarily whole grains. So, look for packages that say “100% whole grain” to ensure you’re getting the healthy fats. Unfortunately, most bread products remove the healthy fats to increase their shelf life. Whole wheat will not likely have these important fats, so be sure to read your labels!

I hope that you found this article useful and reminded you that we NEED fat for good health. Therefore, embrace healthy fats in your diet such as oils, nuts, seeds, avocado, hemp seeds, flaxseed, etc. They will help your skin and body tremendously!

Until next time,

Katey Davidson, MScFN, RD

Xo

Thank you to Michelle Lo, a current nutrition undergraduate student, for her help collecting and summarizing the research!

Sources used:

Callaway J, Schwab U, Harvima I, Halonen P, Mykka O, Hyvo P, Rvinen T. Efficacy of dietary hempseed oil in patients with atopic dermatitis. Journal of Dermatological Treatment. 2005;16: 87–94. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16019622

Coderch L, Lopez O, de la Maza A, Parra JL. Ceramides and skin function. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2003;4(2):107-129. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12553851

Guillou S, Ghabri S, Jannot C, Gaillard E, Lamour I, Boisnic S. The moisturizing effect of a wheat extract food supplement on women’s skin: a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trial. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2011;33:138-143. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20646083

Keller S, Le HY, Rödiger C, Hipler UC, Kertscher R, Malarski A, Hunstock LM, Kiehntopf, Kaatz M, Norgauer J, Jahreis G. Supplementation of a dairy drink enriched with milk phospholipids in patients with atopic dermatitis. A double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized, cross-over study. Clin Nutr. 2014;33:1010-1016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24559855

Meckfessel MH, Brandt S. The structure, function, and importance of ceramides in skin and their use as therapeutic agents in skin-care products. JAAD. 2014;71(1):177-184. https://www.jaad.org/article/S0190-9622(14)01022-6/fulltext

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