Background: Ceramides (Cer) in the stratum corneum are essential for epidermal permeability barrier function. Thus, topical Cer replacement therapy has been employed to improve barrier function in clinical situations associated with Cer deficiency, e.g., atopic dermatitis. Because of the disadvantages of both natural- and skin identical-Cer (central nervous system origins and cost, respectively), synthetic chemical mimics, or pseudoceramides (pseudo-Cer), have been utilized as Cer substitutes. Whereas increased levels of intracellular Cer trigger cell growth inhibition and apoptosis, Cer levels are maintained by metabolic/catabolic pathways protecting cells from Cer-induced apoptosis. However, since the metabolic fates of each pseudo-Cer remain unknown, their widespread deployment in topical agents has raised concern about potential toxicities.
Objective: We compared the effects of two chemically unrelated commercially available pseudo-Cer to exogenous cell-permeant (C2)- or natural (C18)-Cer on cell growth and apoptosis thresholds in cultured human keratinocytes (CHK).
Methods: Cell growth and cell toxicity of CHK exposed to either C2-Cer or pseudo-Cer were assessed by MTT and lactate dehydrogenase release assays. Mitochondrial membrane potential, an indicator of apoptosis, was measured using membrane permeabilized semi-intact keratinocytes exposed C2-Cer, natural-Cer or pseudo-Cer.
Results: While the cell-permeant-Cer inhibits keratinocyte growth and increases cell toxicity, neither of the pseudo-Cer showed these effects. Decreased mitochondrial membrane potential occurred in CHK incubated with cell-permeant- and natural-Cer, but not pseudo-Cer.
Conclusions: Taken together with preclinical safety studies of these pseudo-Cer and their widespread use over the counter without evidence of toxicity, these studies provide further assurance about the safety of these pseudo-Cer for topical use.