Human stratum corneum lipid organization as observed by atomic force microscopy on Langmuir-Blodgett films

J Struct Biol. 2007 Jun;158(3):386-400. doi: 10.1016/j.jsb.2006.12.006. Epub 2006 Dec 28.


The barrier function of skin ultimately depends on the physical state and structural organisation of the stratum corneum extracellular lipid matrix. Ceramides, cholesterol and a broad distribution of saturated long-chain free fatty acids dominate the stratum corneum lipid composition. Additionally, smaller amounts of cholesterol sulfate and cholesteryl oleate may be present. A key feature determining skin barrier capacity is thought to be whether or not different lipid domains coexist laterally in the stratum corneum extracellular lipid matrix. In this study, the overall tendency for lipid domain formation in different mixtures of extracted human stratum corneum ceramides, cholesterol, free fatty acids, cholesterol sulfate and cholesteryl oleate were studied using atomic force microscopy (AFM) on Langmuir-Blodgett (LB) films on mica. It is shown that the saturated long-chain free fatty acid distribution of human stratum corneum prevents hydrocarbon chain segregation. Further, LB-films of human stratum corneum ceramides express a pattern of connected elongated domains with a granular domain interface. The dominating effect of both cholesterol and cholesterol sulfate is that of increased ceramide domain dispersion. This effect is counteracted by the presence of free fatty acids, which preferentially mix with ceramides and not with cholesterol. Cholesteryl oleate does not mix with other skin lipid components, supporting the hypothesis of an extra-endogenous origin. In the system composed of endogenous human ceramides and cholesterol plus 15 wt% stratum corneum distributed free fatty acids, i.e., the system mimicking most closely the lipid composition of the stratum corneum extracellular space, LB-films on mica express lateral domain formation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aluminum Silicates / chemistry
  • Ceramides / analysis
  • Cholesterol / analysis
  • Cholesterol Esters / analysis
  • Fatty Acids, Nonesterified / analysis
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Lipids / analysis*
  • Microscopy, Atomic Force
  • Skin / chemistry*
  • Skin / ultrastructure*


  • Aluminum Silicates
  • Ceramides
  • Cholesterol Esters
  • Fatty Acids, Nonesterified
  • Lipids
  • cholesteryl oleate
  • Cholesterol
  • cholesteryl sulfate
  • mica