Lipid functions in skin: Differential effects of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on cutaneous ceramides, in a human skin organ culture model

Biochim Biophys Acta Biomembr. 2017 Sep;1859(9 Pt B):1679-1689. doi: 10.1016/j.bbamem.2017.03.016. Epub 2017 Mar 21.


Ceramides are important for skin health, with a multitude of species found in both dermis and epidermis. The epidermis contains linoleic acid-Ester-linked Omega-hydroxylated ceramides of 6-Hydroxy-sphingosine, Sphingosine and Phytosphingosine bases (CER[EOH], CER[EOS] and CER[EOP], respectively), that are crucial for the formation of the epidermal barrier, conferring protection from environmental factors and preventing trans-epidermal water loss. Furthermore, a large number of ceramides, derivatives of the same sphingoid bases and various fatty acids, are produced by dermal and epidermal cells and perform signalling roles in cell functions ranging from differentiation to apoptosis. Supplementation with the n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) have shown promise as therapeutic agents in a number of inflammatory skin conditions, altering the lipid profile of the skin and production of bioactive lipids such as the eicosanoids, docosanoids and endocannabinoids. In this study we wished to investigate whether EPA and DHA could also affect the ceramide profile in epidermis and dermis, and, in this way, contribute to formation of a robust lipid barrier and ceramide-mediated regulation of skin functions. Ex vivo skin explants were cultured for 6days, and supplemented with EPA or DHA (50μM). Liquid chromatography coupled to tandem mass spectrometry with electrospray ionisation was used to assess the prevalence of 321 individual ceramide species, and a number of sphingoid bases, phosphorylated sphingoid bases, and phosphorylated ceramides, within the dermis and epidermis. EPA augmented dermal production of members of the ceramide families containing Non-hydroxy fatty acids and Sphingosine or Dihydrosphingosine bases (CER[NS] and CER[NDS], respectively), while epidermal CER[EOH], CER[EOS] and CER[EOP] ceramides were not affected. DHA did not significantly affect ceramide production. Ceramide-1-phosphate levels in the epidermis, but not the dermis, increased in response to EPA, but not DHA. This ex vivo study shows that dietary supplementation with EPA has the potential to alter the ceramide profile of the skin, and this may contribute to its anti-inflammatory profile. This has implications for formation of the epidermal lipid barrier, and signalling pathways within the skin mediated by ceramides and other sphingolipid species. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled: Membrane Lipid Therapy: Drugs Targeting Biomembranes edited by Pablo V. Escribá.

Keywords: Ceramides; Lipidomics; Mass spectrometry; Omega-3 fatty acids; Skin.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Ceramides / analysis
  • Ceramides / physiology*
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids / pharmacology
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid / pharmacology
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3 / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Organ Culture Techniques
  • Skin / chemistry
  • Skin / drug effects*
  • Spectrometry, Mass, Electrospray Ionization


  • Ceramides
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid