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What are lipids and how do they affect the skin?

Spoiler alert: They’re key to maintaining a healthy skin barrier.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Aug 25, 2023 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Erin Pate, NP-C
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Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Aug 25, 2023 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Erin Pate, NP-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

You may never have heard of lipids, but you probably have heard of fats, oils, and waxes. These all fall under a group of fatty compounds known as lipids. The word “lipid” comes from the Greek word “lipos,” meaning fat.¹

So what does this have to do with your skincare routine? Lipids are essential to maintaining a healthy skin barrier and can affect your skin’s moisture, acne, and irritation levels. Let’s take a look at the role they play in your body and how you can keep your lipid levels in balance.

What are lipids?

Natural lipids exist in our bodies and many plants, animals, and other organisms. Lipids, proteins, and carbohydrates are the three large classes of foods that are components of all living cells.² They help give us energy and essential fatty acids and help our bodies carry and absorb fat-soluble vitamins.³

Oils are room-temperature lipids, while fats and waxes are solid. Lipids are essential for healthy skin, and you may find them in your favorite skincare products.

Vegetable oils, like almond, avocado, and safflower oil,⁴ fall under this skincare ingredient umbrella, as do shea butter (a featured ingredient in The Rich Moisturizer that softens and smooths skin) and jojoba seed oil (which is used in Curology’s Lip Balm to deeply moisturize your lips). 

To help you understand the role they play in your skin, let’s take a look at two major types of lipids we all have in our bodies.

Epidermal lipids

Epidermal lipids are found in the outer layer of the skin—also known as the epidermis. Their job is to create the structure for our skin and prevent allergens and microbes from penetrating through to the inner layers.⁵ 

The outermost layer of the epidermis is the stratum corneum. Here, epidermal lipids called ceramides help retain moisture and keep your healthy skin barrier intact. The stratum corneum also contains cholesterol, cholesterol derivatives, and free fatty acids.⁶

Sebaceous gland lipids

If you’ve ever had acne, you may have heard of sebum. While sebum plugs can lead to blackheads and whiteheads, this oily substance is also essential for maintaining a healthy skin barrier.⁷ It’s produced in the sebaceous glands, which perform another crucial function for our skin: making and distributing lipids.

Sebum contains squalene, triacylglycerols, and wax esters. It distributes glycerol and vitamin E to the outer layer of the skin to provide hydration.⁸ We have the sebaceous glands to thank for 90% of our skin surface lipids.⁹

What do lipids do for the skin?

We know lipids are important for maintaining healthy skin—but what exactly do they do? Allow us to explain.

Lipids maintain a healthy skin barrier

As we’ve discussed, these compounds are crucial for keeping your skin barrier function and structure intact. This means that lipids can help reduce moisture loss and prevent allergens, microbes, and foreign substances from entering your body.¹⁰

Some lipids can help prevent eczema

Oils with high amounts of linoleic and α-linolenic acid, like omega-6 and omega-3, can help prevent eczema. They can penetrate your cells, restore your damaged skin barrier, and reduce water loss. You may also see mineral oils and waxes used in skincare products to help protect against irritated skin from atopic dermatitis.¹¹

Lipids can help treat psoriasis

Lipid nanoparticles in skincare products can help treat psoriasis and protect against UV and infrared radiation. In addition, unsaturated fatty acids have anti-aging properties, while jojoba seed oil can help reduce wrinkles.¹²

Lipids can hydrate your skin

Fatty acids are key for hydration, skin softness, and lowering transepidermal water loss (preventing dry skin). They help form a protective layer over human skin, locking in moisture and preventing it from escaping.¹³

Moisturizing lipids like squalene, glycerol, and vitamin E can boost your skin’s hydration.¹⁴ If you’re interested in trying glycerin (another name for glycerol), check out Curology’s The Moisturizer for a hydrating formula that locks water in the skin’s outer layer to maximize moisture levels. And if you’re looking for extra hydration, The Rich Moisturizer features glycerin and squalane to help restore your skin barrier without clogging pores.

Potential causes and symptoms of a weakened skin lipid barrier

A variety of factors can lead to a weakened skin lipid barrier, including, but not limited to, the following:¹⁵ ¹⁶ ¹⁷ ¹⁸

  • Improper skin care

  • Environmental exposures

  • Medications (such as topical steroids)

  • Low humidity and temperature

  • Nutritional factors

  • UVB exposure from the sun

  • Lack of sleep

  • Mental stress

Various intrinsic factors can influence the condition of your skin’s lipid composition, including your age, genetics, hormonal factors, and underlying skin conditions.

How can you tell you have a skin lipid imbalance?

When something doesn’t look right on your skin, it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause. If you notice any of these symptoms, you may have a skin lipid imbalance:¹⁹ ²⁰

  • Scaliness

  • Flakiness

  • Cracking skin

  • Dry skin

  • Skin thickening

  • Acne breakouts

  • Irritation

As with any skin concern, professional help is the most beneficial way to get to the root of the issue. 

How can you help restore your skin’s lipid balance?

Finding an effective treatment for your weakened skin barrier involves figuring out what caused it in the first place. As we’ve just mentioned, consulting a professional is the best way to get to the bottom of your specific skin concerns. But in the meantime, there are a few steps you can take to begin the process:

  • Take a warm bath. At temperatures between 96.8 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit, one study showed that human skin barrier recovery accelerated. On the flip side, consistent damage to the skin barrier under conditions of low environmental humidity may cause inflammation—so do what you can to protect your skin from becoming dry.²¹ 

  • Wear sun protection—like The Sunscreen from Curology, which is kind to acne-prone skin but tough on UV rays.

  • Apply emollients (like the shea butter in Curology’s The Rich Moisturizer) to improve your skin’s pH and hydration of the stratum corneum.²²

  • Avoid long, hot showers since prolonged exposure to hot water may damage your skin barrier.²³

  • Choose a mild cleanser that won’t irritate your skin. 

  • Get enough sleep.

  • Use self-care practices to manage your stress.

  • Eat a well-balanced diet. 

Have more questions about skincare? Curology has answers

Lipids can be beneficial for skin hydration, softness, and more—but there are so many types out there it can be difficult to tell exactly what will work for your skin. When you sign up for Curology*, you’ll get a personalized treatment plan with ingredients to target your specific skin concerns.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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If you’re curious about lipids, you may be interested in learning how to treat acne, fine lines, wrinkles, and uneven skin texture. Curology can help!

FAQs

Are lipids good for acne?

Currently, research is limited on the use of topical lipids for acne treatment. However, there are many other ingredients, such as topical tretinoin and clindamycin, that are well-studied and widely accepted for use in the treatment of acne. 

To determine which ingredients may be most effective for your acne, consult a licensed dermatology provider like those at Curology.

What are examples of lipids in cosmetics?

Examples of lipids in skincare products include, but aren’t limited to²⁴:

  • Lanolin: Doubles as a solubilizer and moisturizer

  • Jojoba seed oil: A mixture of wax esters that moisturizes the skin and reduces wrinkles and acne

  • Linoleic acid: An essential fatty acid and ceramide building block

  • Ceramides: Fatty acids that help keep the skin barrier intact  

Additional examples of lipids in skincare products include almond and avocado oil.

Are lipids good for the skin?

Here are a couple of the potential benefits of using products with lipids:

  • Some lipids can help prevent eczema: Oils with a lot of linoleic and α-linolenic acid, like omega-6 and omega-3, can help prevent eczema. They can penetrate your cells, restore your damaged skin barrier, and reduce water loss.

  • Lipids can hydrate your skin: Fatty acids are key for hydration, skin softness, and lowering transepidermal water loss. They help form a protective layer over the skin, locking in moisture and preventing it from escaping.

Lipids can help with a variety of skin conditions and concerns. Plus, they’re a crucial part of a healthy skin barrier.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework, so you don’t have to:

  1. Alvarez, A.M.R., et al. Lipids in pharmaceutical and cosmetic preparations. Grasas y Aceites. (2000, n.d.). 

  2. Alvarez, A.M.R., et al. Lipids in pharmaceutical and cosmetic preparations. Grasas y Aceites. Ibid. 

  3. Hamam, F. Specialty Lipids in Health and Disease. Food and Nutrition Sciences. (2013, July 21).

  4. Alvarez, A.M.R., et al. Lipids in pharmaceutical and cosmetic preparations. Grasas y Aceites. Ibid.

  5. Knox, S. and O’Boyle, N.M. Skin lipids in health and disease: A review. Chemistry and Physics of Lipids. (May 2021). 

  6. Knox, S. and O’Boyle, N.M. Skin lipids in health and disease: A review. Chemistry and Physics of Lipids. Ibid.

  7. Hoover, E., et al. Physiology, Sebaceous Glands. StatPearls. (2022, October 10).

  8. Knox, S. and O’Boyle, N.M. Skin lipids in health and disease: A review. Chemistry and Physics of Lipids. Ibid.

  9. Hoover, E., et al. Physiology, Sebaceous Glands. StatPearls. Ibid.

  10. Knox, S. and O’Boyle, N.M. Skin lipids in health and disease: A review. Chemistry and Physics of Lipids. Ibid.

  11. Ahmad, A. and Ahsan, H. Lipid-based formulations in cosmeceuticals and biopharmaceuticals. Biomedical Dermatology. (2020, May 6). 

  12. Ahmad, A. and Ahsan, H. Lipid-based formulations in cosmeceuticals and biopharmaceuticals. Biomedical Dermatology. Ibid.

  13. Ahmad, A. and Ahsan, H. Lipid-based formulations in cosmeceuticals and biopharmaceuticals. Biomedical Dermatology. Ibid.

  14. Knox, S. and O’Boyle, N.M. Skin lipids in health and disease: A review. Chemistry and Physics of Lipids. Ibid.

  15. Del Rosso, J., et al. Understanding the Epidermal Barrier in Healthy and Compromised Skin: Clinically Relevant Information for the Dermatology Practitioner. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. (2016, April 1).

  16. Jungersted, J., et al. Lipids and skin barrier function – a clinical perspective. Contact Dermatitis. (2008, April 14).

  17. Chameleon, J.V., et al. Physiological, Pathological, and Circadian Factors Impacting Skin Hydration. Cureus. (2022, August 4). 

  18. Passeron, T., et al. Adult skin acute stress responses to short‐term environmental and internal aggression from exposome factors. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. (October 2021). 

  19. Del Rosso, J., et al. Understanding the Epidermal Barrier in Healthy and Compromised Skin: Clinically Relevant Information for the Dermatology Practitioner. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. Ibid.

  20. Knox, S. and O’Boyle, N.M. Skin lipids in health and disease: A review. Chemistry and Physics of Lipids. Ibid.

  21. Denda, M., et al. Effects of Skin Surface Temperature on Epidermal Permeability Barrier Homeostasis. Journal of Investigative Dermatology. (March 2007). 

  22. Wang, Z., et al. Aging-associated alterations in epidermal function and their clinical significance. Aging. (2020, March 27).

  23. Herrero-Fernandez, M., et al. Impact of Water Exposure and Temperature Changes on Skin Barrier Function. Journal of Clinical Medicine. (2022, January 7). 

  24. Ahmad, A. and Ahsan, H. Lipid-based formulations in cosmeceuticals and biopharmaceuticals. Biomedical Dermatology. Ibid.

Erin Pate is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She earned her Masters of Science in Nursing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL.

*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Erin Pate Nurse Practitioner, NP-C

Erin Pate, NP-C

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