Human skin is truly amazing. It’s a water proof barrier. It has unique anti-bacterial properties that protect against germs and infection. Plus, it constantly renews itself.
To do all this, the skin needs three elements. It needs blood flow. It needs moisture. And more recently researchers have validated the significance of lipids (commonly called skin oils). A 2015 German study published in Skin Pharmacology and Physiology noted the lipids that make up the lipid barrier on the surface of the skin, scientifically called the stratum corneum, play the biggest role in the overall health of the skin.i
These lipids form a barrier that keeps germs out. They also prevent the water loss and the loss of other essential lipids that support nutrient flow to skin cells and those needed to maintain the structure of the skin. A healthy skin structure also means healthy microvessels and blood flow.
Lipids only make up 10-15% of the outer layer of skin. Yet this small percentage of lipids on the surface of the skin creates the essential seal needed to protect against water loss and the breakdown of the skin’s structure.
On the surface of your skin, the essential skin lipids consist primarily of free fatty acids, cholesterol and waxy lipid molecules called ceramides. Recent research shows ceramides have the biggest impact on the quality of the lipid barrier. While all lipids are important, the absence or an imbalance of ceramides leads to problems with the skin.
The most common ceramide in the lipid barrier according to Stony Brook researchers is acylceramide.ii Articles published in Nature Communications and the Journal of Investigative Dermatology report how a genetic mutation that disrupts the formation acylceramide from ceramides contributes to skin conditions like ichtyosis.iii,iv
The research shows that when ceramides get out of balance, the barrier effect breaks down. Then moisture escapes. According to the 2015 German study, conditions linked to ceramides imbalance includev:
- Atopic dermatitis
- Atopic eczema
- Aging and dry skin
Today, researchers group aging skin in with other skin conditions. Like atopic dermatitis, acne and the others, the dryness and thinning associated with aging skin occurs as a result of the loss of the lipid barrier. Lipid loss, specifically the loss of lipid barrier ceramides, begins at age 20 and continues to decrease by 10-15% per decade. This means that by the age of 60 you’ll produce about 50% less ceramides than you did at 20.vi
This condition whether due to disease, injury or age is called lipid depletion. And these internal factors aren’t the only ones that cause it. Lipid loss can also be due to external factors like:
- Soaps and shampoos
- Petroleums applied to the skin
- Regular contact with fabric like bed sheets
- Tight clothing
- UV radiation from sunlight and tanning
- And many others…
Regardless of the cause, lipid depletion can happen slowly or it can happen quickly.
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iSahle FF1, et al. Skin diseases associated with the depletion of stratum corneum lipids and stratum corneum lipid substitution therapy. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2015;28(1):42-55. doi: 10.1159/000360009. Epub 2014 Aug 29.
iiSenkal CE, et al. Ceramide Is Metabolized to Acylceramide and Stored in Lipid Droplets. Cell Metab. 2017 Mar 7;25(3):686-697. doi: 10.1016/j.cmet.2017.02.010. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28273483
iiiOhno Y, Kamiyama N, Nakamichi S, Kihara A. PNPLA1 is a transacylase essential for the generation of the skin barrier lipid ω-O-acylceramide. Nature Communications. 2017;8:14610. doi:10.1038/ncomms14610. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5337975/
ivGrond S, Eichmann TO, Dubrac S, et al. PNPLA1 Deficiency in Mice and Humans Leads to a Defect in the Synthesis of Omega-O-Acylceramides. The Journal of investigative dermatology. 2017;137(2):394-402. doi:10.1016/j.jid.2016.08.036. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5298181/
vSahle FF1, et al. Skin diseases associated with the depletion of stratum corneum lipids and stratum corneum lipid substitution therapy. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2015;28(1):42-55. doi: 10.1159/000360009. Epub 2014 Aug 29.
viRogers J1, et al. Stratum corneum lipids: the effect of ageing and the seasons. Arch Dermatol Res. 1996 Nov;288(12):765-70. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8950457