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Ceramides are a family of molecules that naturally exist within the skin (and other cells) that can be described as ‘waxy lipids’.  Their key role within our skin is to form a barrier against water, a role similar to that of cholesterol, in order to prevent evaporation and help keep moisture within the skin.  A less than optimal level of ceramides within the skin can lead to higher levels of skin dryness, and the issues that come along with it.

For that reason is why Ceramides can be primarily considered a key method of Hydration Preservation.  The best moisturizers can only be so effective if it simply evaporates away after mere minutes or within an hour or two; it needs to work with other actors to help keep water in!

Ingredient Safety

Because knowing what goes into your skin is important.

Ceramides, as a compound naturally produced in our own skin as a part of life, is considered pretty safe in general. This ingredient has been the focus of attention in recent years due to the increasing interest towards anti-aging measures and products.

EWG: 1 (Low Hazard)
As of July 31, 2019, EWG has noted over 325 products that contain Ceramides.  A special note about this particular ingredient is that there are multiple forms of Ceramides, each with their own entry.  They are all marked as Low Hazard (1), and are generally considered to provide similar benefits to one another.  The link below shows the main page for Ceramide, and the other versions can be searched by going through that link.
You can view EWG’s Ceramide entry here.

US FDA:  This ingredient has not been reviewed by the FDA as it is used in over-the-counter products, a class of products not required to undergo such approval.  With that said, the US National Library of Medicine within the NIH contained a number of articles regarding the efficacy of Ceramide, including one that is about Ceramide moisturizers that are “designed to improve and maintain the skin barrier function and to help prevent dry skin.”  Another article found within the NIH repository alludes to the safety of Ceramide 3, allegedly one of the more common forms used in moisturizers and cosmetic products.
Read more about the Efficacy of Ceramide at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Website
Read more about the Safety of Ceramide at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Website

Effect Types

Categorization of what the effects of Ceramides may be when used on the skin

Skin Barrier Reinforcement: Ceramide is a compound that is naturally produced within the skin, and serves to help keep moisture within the body itself by preventing evaporation.  As we age, however, the level of ceramide produced and used by the body decreases over time.  Studies have shown that usage of topical ceramides commonly found in over-the-counter moisturizers and other skincare products can help reinforce and bolster the skin’s ability to retain moisture.

Moisturization:  Ceramide by itself may not provide high levels of moisturization, but when effectively combined with other ingredients that do have a focus on hydrating skin, proves to be a powerful combination in order to combat dry skin and the signs of damage that come with it (such as fine lines, wrinkles, and dullness).  There isn’t one ‘ideal’ ingredient for this, since its dependent on each individual’s unique skin type, but some common ingredients may include retinol, niacinamide, peptides, and AHA/BHA.

Calming:  As this entire listing of Ceramide points to maintaining hydration, doing so effectively can have a calming and soothing effect on one’s skin.  Certain conditions such as dermatitis and psoriasis may be more potent due to low levels of ceramide present in the affected areas of the skin, causing higher levels of moisture to leave those spots, worsening irritation and other negative effects.  Using creams and moisturizers with ceramide may potentially help with these cases.  Be sure to contact a doctor or dermatologist first before trying to treat any conditions yourself to ensure that it is the right option for you.

References and Further Reading:
Skin hydration is significantly increased by a cream formulated to mimic the skin’s own natural moisturizing systems,
US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Ceramide – an overview, ScienceDirect.com
CERAMIDE || Skin Deep Cosmetics Database | EWG

Ceramides (Definition) – WebMD Dictionary
Ceramides and Skin Function, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Recommended products with Ceramides