It is known that ceramides can influence the lateral organization in biological membranes. In particular ceramides have been shown to alter the composition of cholesterol and sphingolipid enriched nanoscopic domains, by displacing cholesterol, and forming gel phase domains with sphingomyelin. Here we have investigated how the bilayer content of ceramides and their chain length influence sterol partitioning into the membranes. The effect of ceramides with saturated chains ranging from 4 to 24 carbons in length was investigated. In addition, unsaturated 18:1- and 24:1-ceramides were also examined. The sterol partitioning into bilayer membranes was studied by measuring the distribution of cholestatrienol, a fluorescent cholesterol analogue, between methyl-beta-cyclodextrin and large unilamellar vesicle with defined lipid composition. Up to 15 mol% ceramide was added to bilayers composed of DOPC:PSM:cholesterol (3:1:1), and the effect on sterol partitioning was measured. Both at 23 and 37 degrees C addition of ceramide affected the sterol partitioning in a chain length dependent manner, so that the ceramides with intermediate chain lengths were the most effective in reducing sterol partitioning into the membranes. At 23 degrees C the 18:1-ceramide was not as effective at inhibiting sterol partitioning into the vesicles as its saturated equivalent, but at 37 degrees C the additional double bond had no effect. The longer 24:1-ceramide behaved as 24:0-ceramide at both temperatures. In conclusion, this work shows how the distribution of sterols within sphingomyelin-containing membranes is affected by the acyl chain composition in ceramides. The overall membrane partitioning measured in this study reflects the differential partitioning of sterol into ordered domains where ceramides compete with the sterol for association with sphingomyelin.