What is Glycerin and How is it Used in Skin Care Products? - The Dermatology Review

What is Glycerin and How is it Used in Skin Care Products?

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09.28.18 AD DISCLOSURE

Glycerin is ubiquitous in the skin care industry. It can be found in nearly all water based moisturizers, such as creams, lotions, and serums. Glycerin soap is also very popular, particularly for dry skin conditions. So what does glycerin do for your skin? Some of the benefits of this simple ingredient include increasing hydration, replenishing the skin’s NMF, helping skin to heal faster, and providing anti-aging effects. Read on to learn more about these glycerin benefits and the best glycerin skin care products you can use.

What is glycerin?

Glycerin, also referred to as glycerol or glycerine, is a simple polyol. A polyol is an organic compound containing multiple hydroxyl (OH) groups. It is a colorless, odorless, viscous liquid that is sweet-tasting and non-toxic. Glycerin is naturally found in your skin. It is a component of the skin’s Natural Moisturizing Factor (NMF), which also contains free amino acids and various derivatives of these amino acids, for example, PCA, urocanic acid, and inorganic salts, sugars, as well as urea and lactic acid. Glycerin and the other components of the NMF work together to maintain adequate skin hydration. In addition, glycerin is involved in the transport and activity of aquaporins in your skin. Aquaporins are proteins that channel the flow of important hydrating substances to skin’s uppermost layers. They play a key role in maintaining skin’s moisture balance, helping it to feel smooth and comfortable even in drier climates. As you can see, glycerin plays an important role in the health of your skin.

Where does glycerin come from?

Glycerin can be obtained from both plant and animal sources where it occurs in triglycerides, esters of glycerin with long chain carboxylic acids. Common plant sources include soybeans or palm, and animal-derived tallow is another source. There are several processes that can be used to separate glycerin from the fatty acids, such as hydrolysis, saponification, or transesterification. For example, triglycerides can be saponified with sodium hydroxide, resulting in glycerin and fatty sodium salt or soap. Thus, glycerin is a natural by-product of the soap making process. Lastly, glycerin can be synthetically produced by various routes from propylene.

Is glycerin vegan?

In the previous section, we explained how glycerin can be obtained from a variety of sources, including both animal and plant sources. If you’re looking for vegan products, you should read the product’s ingredient label to see if vegetable glycerin is used. Vegetable glycerin is typically made from soybean, coconut, or palm oils, and is therefore considered to be vegan.

What is glycerin used for?

We’ve already alluded to the fact that glycerin is widely used in the skin care industry. But did you know that glycerin is also used in food and pharmaceutical applications? In food and beverages, glycerin functions as a humectant, solvent, and sweetener, and may help preserve foods. It is used as a sugar substitute and is 60% as sweet as sucrose (table sugar). In medical and personal care applications, glycerin can be found in cough syrups, toothpaste, mouthwashes, shaving cream, skin and hair care products, soaps, and water-based personal lubricants.

What does glycerin do for your skin?

Now that you know what glycerin is and its widespread applications, you’re probably wondering: what does glycerin do for your skin? It turns out that glycerin offers numerous skin care benefits, including the following:

Hydrates skin
As mentioned above, glycerin contains many OH groups, which make this compound very hydrophilic (water loving). The OH groups hydrogen bond with water, essentially “grabbing” it and holding it on the skin. This is why glycerin is classified as a humectant. Humectants slow water from evaporating and therefore keep the skin hydrated.

Replenishes NMF
Using products that contain glycerin also helps to replenish the NMF. The NMF can become depleted with age and also from routine exposure to sensitizing ingredients like drying cleansing agents and denatured alcohol. This leads to visibly dry, tight-feeling, flaky skin. Thus, by using ingredients that help to replenish NMF, such as glycerin, the skin will be better hydrated. Ultimately, the skin will look and feel healthy, smooth, and supple.

Heals
In research published in The Journal of Investigative Dermatology, Dr. Wendy Bollinger Bollag and co-author Dr. Xiangjian Zheng, demonstrate that glycerin helps skin to look and function better by helping skin cells mature properly. According to Science Daily, the researchers found that glycerin works as a signal to help direct skin cells through their four normal stages of maturity. In the endless cycle of skin-cell production, the youngest cells move up from the deepest layer and transition from replicating as their main function to eventually becoming mature surface cells. These findings suggest that glycerin may help people with diseases such as psoriasis and non-melanoma skin cancers, that result from abnormal proliferation and maturation of skin cells, and may augment wound-healing.

Anti-aging effects
The final benefit of using glycerin for skin is it’s anti-aging benefits. As you already know, glycerin draws in moisture from the environment and holds that moisture on the skin. This extra moisture is extra volume, which effectively plumps out the skin and makes lines and wrinkles less noticeable. However, this effect is transient – as soon as the moisture content in skin decreases, lines and wrinkles will return to normal size.

Is glycerin bad for your skin?

After reading all of the benefits of glycerin for skin, you probably want to know if there are any harmful effects of glycerin. Fortunately, glycerin has a long history of safe use, and is considered non-allergenic and suitable for breakout-prone skin. When glycerin is used in skin care products with other ingredients, it doesn’t pose any serious harm to the skin. However, using pure glycerin can be problematic in certain instances. For example, it is not advised to use pure glycerin during hot and dry weather, as it can cause the lower layers of skin to lose moisture. In addition, when pure glycerin is used in personal lubricant products it can cause yeast infections in women.

Glycerin in skin care

Glycerin can be found in many different types of skin care products, such as creams, lotions, and even soap. Below we have a brief description of how glycerin is used in each of these skin care products.

Glycerin cream
A glycerin cream will typically combine glycerin in a water base, along with both hydrophilic (water loving) and lipophilic (oil loving) ingredients. A glycerin cream will have a thicker consistency than a glycerin lotion, serum, or gel. Glycerin creams are excellent for those with dry and/or mature skin.

Glycerin lotion
Glycerin lotion is thinner than a glycerin cream, and is usually intended to be applied to the body. A glycerin lotion can help to alleviate dry, rough skin on the body, leaving your skin feeling smooth and hydrated.

Glycerin soap
Glycerin soap is made by melting and continuously heating soap that has been partially dissolved in a high percentage alcohol solution until the mixture reaches a clear, jelly-like consistency. Glycerin soaps are recognizably different from other soaps because they are translucent. Glycerin soap is best for people with sensitive, easily irritated skin because it prevents dryness with its moisturizing properties. It draws moisture up through skin layers and slows or prevents excessive drying and evaporation. Glycerin soaps are also milder and gentler, making them suitable for children.

The best glycerin skin care products

One of our favorite skin care products with glycerin is the Formulyst Intense Hydrating Serum, which is formulated to deliver long-lasting hydration and deeply moisturize while visibly plumping and smoothing your skin. In addition to glycerin, there are several more hydrating ingredients in this serum, such as hyaluronic acid and panthenol (provitamin B5). All of these ingredients draw moisture into the skin and hold it there to improve skin hydration. Lastly, this lightweight serum is enriched with antioxidants and a regenerating Microbiome Repair Complex to balance and calm skin.

If you’re looking for anti-aging skin care products, we’d suggest using Formulyst’s Age Defying Daily Moisturizer with the Anti-Aging Night Cream. Both of these products contain glycerin and a plethora of anti-aging ingredients to target multiple signs of aging. For example, the Age Defying Daily Moisturizer is rich in antioxidants and a blend of natural complexes, including rosemary, sunflower, and watermelon rind extract. This formula works to stimulate cell synthesis below the surface, boost microcirculation to reactivate luminosity, and increase your skin’s natural ability to retain moisture. The Anti-Aging Night Cream is formulated with glycerin and a nutrient-rich blend of complexes that are high in plant oils and essential fatty acids, such as Macadamia Integrifolia seed oil. This nourishing night cream with repair properties gently exfoliates and regenerates the upper layer of your skin, which may help to reduce signs of aging such as fine lines, wrinkles, and age spots.

References: Wikipedia “Glycerol”, Wikipedia “Polyol”, PaulasChoice.com “The Benefits of Glycerin in Skincare”, ScienceDaily.com “Glycerin May Help Skin Disease, Study Finds” Dec 2003, Wikipedia “Glycerin Soap”

  • MB Johnson 02.28.17 Reply

    I don’t see how glycerin used on the skin can be good for long term use when as a humectant it not only pulls moisture from the air when humidity is over 65%, but when humidity is low, the glycerin pulls moisture from the epidermis! You are basically dehydrating your skin from the inside out. This is very aging. How can that be good?

  • Angela 12.01.13 Reply

    I found many of the products I am using including both very expensive creams and drugstore products contain glycerin as the second third or fourth product from the top. I gather this is a moisturizing ingredient from what I have been reading but I find it very sup rising that you can spend $20 or $200 and the products all have very similar ingredients.

  • D Young 11.19.13 Reply

    I have sensitive skin and only use products that contain glycerin. I use a glycerin soap, cream and even my shampoo has glycerin. I find that products that do not contain glycerin do not moisturize the skin unless they are oil based. So I think glycerin is the only non oil based ingredient that works to moisturize the skin.

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