Phytoceramides are the latest in a long list of skin care ingredients touted as the secret to smooth, fresh-looking skin.
While they can certainly help reduce dryness, soothe irritation, and possibly even reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, phytoceramides aren’t quite as miraculous as they’re rumored to be.
Let’s take a look.
Ceramides are a type of naturally occurring, long-chain fatty acid (i.e., fat or lipid) that makes up about 50 percent of the skin’s outer layer (the epidermis).
Since “phyto” means plant, phytoceramides are just ceramides from plants.
“Phytoceramides refer to plant-derived ceramides, as opposed to synthetic or animal-derived ceramides, used to replenish depleted natural skin ceramides,” says Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse, FAAD, a board certified dermatologist in private practice at SkinSafe Dermatology and Skin Care.
Synthetic and plant-based ceramides are similar in structure to ceramides found in the skin, explains Dr. Peterson Pierre, a dermatologist with the Pierre Skin Care Institute in Westlake Village, California.
While synthetic ceramides are probably more common, phytoceramides have been recently gaining popularity as a skin care ingredient due to their supposed anti-aging powers.
Bold claims that phytoceramides are “a facelift in a bottle” have created a lot of hype around this skin care ingredient.
While experts say phytoceramides can benefit the skin, no cream will have the same results as a facelift.
“Those are claims made by unethical manufacturers,” Pierre says.
Although the skin naturally makes ceramides, environmental factors like cold weather, air pollution, the sun’s UV rays, and low humidity along with stress and aging can reduce their concentration or effectiveness, making skin feel dry, Shainhouse says.
Low levels of ceramides allow moisture to escape the skin, letting in irritants, air pollution, and even infectious agents.
When things like irritants enter the skin, the “immune system can ‘see’ them and develop a contact irritation or skin allergy,” Shainhouse explains. That can lead to dry, rough, flaky, and inflamed skin, especially in people with active eczema.
Instead of adding moisture to your skin, all types of ceramides prevent moisture loss by reinforcing your skin’s barrier function.
“Ceramides act as the ‘grout’ between the ‘tile-like’ upper [skin] cells to create a tight seal… to hold in hydration,” Shainhouse says.
Although many of these studies are paid for by the cream manufacturers, experts say the evidence is nevertheless strong.
“Ceramides are great for addressing dry, flaky, ‘broken’ skin… [and] for managing eczema,” Shainhouse says. “In fact, patients with atopic dermatitis have a genetic defect in filaggrin, a molecule in the skin. As such, their skin is deficient in ceramides. Applying topical ceramides can help ‘fill in the cracks’ to create a smooth, more complete protective skin barrier.”
Since dry skin cells shrivel, moisturizing the skin also helps minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Keep in mind you’ll likely have to use a moisturizer for several weeks to notice an anti-aging effect.
Phytoceramides may be especially helpful for people with conditions like eczema and psoriasis, whose skin
may notnaturally make enough ceramides and have an impaired barrier function.
There’s only limited research on ceramide supplements.
The question remains whether it really does lead to a noticeable effect in most people.
“In short, there is no strong evidence that consuming plant-based ceramides will have a significant impact on skin barrier strengthening and moisture loss,” Shainhouse says. “If it does help replace skin ceramides or barrier function, scientists are not quite certain how they’re working.”
Phytoceramides come in topical creams or supplements, and they’re also found in certain foods.
Supplements deliver ceramides to the skin via skin blood vessels and are typically taken once a day.
Foods that contain phytoceramides include:
- sweet potatoes
Though, as mentioned above, it’s not clear whether consuming phytoceramides works to improve the skin’s appearance.
Skin care creams with phytoceramides help soothe the skin and protect the skin barrier, especially if you use other potentially irritating exfoliant ingredients like retinoids and acids, says Shainhouse.
They can also help seal in moisturizing ingredients like hyaluronic acid, urea, and glycerin.
“Ceramides work best when combined with other fats that are naturally present in the skin, like cholesterol and fatty acids,” Shainhouse says.
Apply a ceramide cream once a day, or more often as needed. It’s best to use after showering or bathing.
Pat skin dry with a towel and apply the cream to slightly damp skin to help lock in moisture, suggests Shainhouse.
To get the best of both worlds, Pierre says you could use a phytoceramide cream and take a phytoceramide supplement.
“The cream will provide an immediate benefit, whereas the oral supplement will provide a longer lasting result,” he says.
Creams containing phytoceramides are “nonirritating, nondrying, and noncomedogenic,” Shainhouse says, making them a great choice for any skin type.
That said, everyone’s skin is different.
“Anytime you use a new skin care product, there is always a chance you could be allergic to it,” Pierre says. Stay away from phytoceramides that are combined with ingredients that can irritate your skin, like fragrance.
Always talk to your healthcare provider before starting a phytoceramide supplement. Phytoceramides are a type of fat. They might cause issues when taken in pill form for certain people, like those who have a predisposition for high cholesterol, heart disease, or stroke.
“Animal studies have demonstrated that they can be found in the blood after ingestion, so consuming them as a daily supplement can potentially impact your cholesterol and triglyceride levels,” Shainhouse says.
Phytoceramides are a plant-based ceramide, which is a naturally occurring fat that makes up half of the skin’s outer layer.
Environmental factors, aging, and skin conditions like eczema can reduce the level of ceramides in your skin.
Using a skin care product with phytoceramides has been shown to help boost the skin’s barrier function, reduce irritation, and moisturize the skin, which may also reduce the appearance of fine lines.
Most people, including those with sensitive skin, can use phytoceramide creams without experiencing side effects. But talk to your healthcare provider before taking a phytoceramide supplement, as it may not be safe for everyone.
Colleen de Bellefonds is a Paris-based health and wellness journalist with over a decade of experience regularly writing and editing for publications including WhatToExpect.com, Women’s Health, WebMD, Healthgrades.com, and CleanPlates.com. Find her on Twitter.