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Are phytoceramides and skin-identical ceramides really different?

Short answer: It depends! We use the term “skin-identical” to signal that ceramides with the same chemical structure are naturally present in your skin’s moisture barrier (the stratum corneum).  Phytoceramides and skin identical ceramides are NOT mutually exclusive. Some ceramides can be BOTH! We’ve put the longer answer in context with a quick skin barrier 101 and answers from one of our expert derms (keep scrolling), but for a quick snapshot, check out our cheat sheet.

28-day-challenge-with-ceramides-moisturizer
Ceramides and the skin barrier
Any discussion of ceramides in skincare starts with the skin’s barrier, which is where naturally occurring ceramides can be found. Although you may not have thought of it this way, the skin barrier is like the first line of defense between you and the environment. “A common metaphor is a brick wall,” says Dr. Zoe Draelosof Dermatology Consulting Services, PLLC, “the skin cells are the bricks, while the lipids, 50% of which are ceramides, are the mortar that fills the spaces between the bricks and holds them together. So, when ceramides are depleted, the “mortar” develops holes, making it easier for irritants to enter and allowing water to escape further weakening the protective barrier, which can contribute to dry skin that can feel itchy or tight.” Further, a burst of ceramide production is the first step in barrier repair when damage has occurred. That's how important ceramides are to skin health.

So, it’s clearly essential to keep your skin barrier in optimal shape² and, because ceramides comprise 50% of the lipids in the skin barrier¹, applying a product with ceramides to your skin can help restore and maintain barrier function and help prevent the dominos from tumbling down. But, not all ceramides are the same, so next we break down some of the different types of ceramides you may stumble across in skincare.

Let’s take a closer look at ceramides.

Skin-identical ceramides

“Ceramides,” says Dr. Draelos, “are actually a group of compounds that are waxy and fat-like. Ceramides have in common a structure that is made by combining two specific building blocks – a fatty acid + a sphingoid base.” There are hundreds of combinations of fatty acids with sphingoid bases that can come in a range of shapes and sizes. Some ceramide structures are found naturally in plants or humans, and other ceramides are designed in the lab through chemical reactions.


Even though ceramides compose 50% of the lipids in your skin’s moisture barrier, there are only a few specific ones found in the skin. Think of the ceramides in your skin like puzzle pieces, oriented perfectly to fill the gaps and solve the puzzle. We use the term “skin-identical ceramides” because the ceramides in CeraVe have the same structure and orientation as three of the ceramides found naturally in your skin to fill in the missing puzzle pieces. Other ceramides might be similar in structure to those in the skin, but do not share the exact same puzzle piece shapes. The skin is very picky and can only use ceramides with the proper structure.

Phytoceramides

Another way to classify ceramides is based on their origin. Phytoceramide describes ceramides derived from plants like wheat, corn, oats and rice through a fermentation process. Alternatively, synthetic ceramides are created in a lab without using plant origin building blocks.

 

“The origin of ceramides is important to know, since this determines if they are skin-identical in structure or not,” explains Dr. Draelos, “, unless they’re produced to be skin-identical in molecular structure, they may not match the puzzle piece spaces precisely, like the ceramides found naturally in your skin, and may not contribute to skin health.”

 

“It is important to consider the origin of ceramides in the skincare you use since they are not all the same,” sums up Dr. Draelos, ‘I am often asked if skincare should use phytoceramides or skin-identical ceramides, and my answer is both! I look for ceramides that are identical to those in the skin since they are the more suited to fill in any holes in the skin barrier. And, the method by which ceramides are constructed is crucial to deliver the skin-identical configuration.”

    1. Moore and Rawlings. The chemistry, function, and (patho)physiology of stratum corneum barrier ceramides. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 2017, 39, 366-372.

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