Glycerin is an ingredient ubiquitous in the skincare industry. It can be found in nearly all water-based moisturizers, such as creams, lotions, and serums. Glycerin helps to increase hydration, replenishing the skin’s Natural Moisturizing Factor, helping skin to heal faster, and providing anti-aging effects.
Glycerin is often overlooked as a hydrating ingredient. Despite its simplicity, glycerin is an exceptional hydrator which is why it’s so widely used. While new hydrating ingredients such as hyaluronic acid have become popular, glycerin has remained the tried and true.
What Is Glycerin?
Glycerin, also referred to as glycerol or glycerine, is a simple polyol. A polyol is an organic compound containing multiple hydroxyl or OH groups. This structure allows glycerin to work as a humectant. A humectant attracts moisture from the air into the top layers of the skin, improving the water content and hydration. Due to its low molecular weight, glycerin is able to penetrate deeply into the skin and improve moisture levels at deeper levels than other humectants.
Glycerin is a naturally occurring compound in the body and is usually derived from plants.
Glycerin is a colorless, odorless, viscous liquid that is sweet-tasting and non-toxic. 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 the 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.
the good: Glycerin may help to improve the moisture content of the skin, support wound healing and protect the skin from moisture loss and damage.
the not so good: Make sure to use a moisturizer over the top of glycerin products in order to trap the moisture in. If you don’t provide the skin with an occulsive or protective barrier over glycerin, it won’t hold the water in the skin. If you are using a glycerin-containing product that has a moisturizer in it or is thick and protective, this is not necessary.
Who is it for? All skin types except those that have an identified allergy to it.
Synergetic ingredients: Works well with most ingredients.
Keep an eye on: If you are looking for glycerin in your products it is often used in products such as soaps, lotions and moisturizers.
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?
Glycerin may have a number of benefits to the skin such as hydration, healing, antiaging, and maintaining the skin’s natural barrier.
Glycerin contains many OH groups, which make this compound very hydrophilic or water-loving. This structure allows glycerin to pull moisture into the skin, helping to improve the skin’s hydration.
The OH groups that glycerin contains bond with water. Glycerin grabs the water molecules and draws them into the skin. This is why glycerin is classified as a humectant. Humectants slow water from evaporating and therefore keep the skin hydrated.
This water-loving ability may help to increase the moisture content in the skin, giving your skin that hydrated, plump, and dewy appearance. An increase in moisture content in the skin may also help to support the healthy functioning of the skin.
Prevents moisture loss
Glycerin is often formulated in products that are designed to support the skin’s natural barrier. The skin’s natural barrier consists of oils, amino acids, ceramides, and skin cells. This barrier helps to prevent transepidermal water loss or TEWL.
TEWL refers to the loss of moisture or water from the skin to the air. Think of it as the reverse of what glycerin does for the skin. TEWL can occur more as we age or when the skin’s natural barrier has been disrupted or damaged.
Glycerin is often formulated in products that are designed to sit on the surface of the skin and protect the skin’s natural barrier. Glycerin helps to draw moisture under this protective layer where it can be trapped and used by the skin.
Protects the skin
Glycerin can help to protect the skin from harsh products such as stripping soaps. Glycerin is often used to combat or minimize the harshness of ingredients and products and prevent them from stripping away your skin’s natural oils.
Your skin’s natural oils help to protect the skin from bacteria, allergens, and yeasts. They also help to reduce moisture loss and are a vital component of the skin’s natural barrier.
Using products that contain glycerin may also help to replenish the Natural Moisturizing Factor or NMF.
The NMF can become depleted with age and also from routine exposure to sensitizing ingredients like drying cleansing agents and denatured alcohol. This may lead to visibly dry, tight-feeling, flaky skin.
Thus, by using ingredients that help to replenish NMF, such as glycerin, the skin will look more hydrated. Ultimately, the skin will look and feel healthy, smooth, and supple.
In research published in The Journal of Investigative Dermatology, glycerin was demonstrated to help skin look and function better by helping skin cells mature properly.
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 to mature surface skin cells.
These findings suggest that glycerin may help people with diseases such as psoriasis and non-melanoma skin cancers, that result from abnormalities in how the skin cell mature.
The final benefit of using glycerin for skin is its anti-aging benefits. As you already know, glycerin draws in moisture from the environment and holds that moisture on the skin.
This extra moisture becomes extra volume in the skin, which effectively plumps out the skin and makes lines and wrinkles less noticeable.
However, this effect is temporary – as soon as the moisture content in the skin decreases, lines and wrinkles will return to normal size.
Where Does Glycerin Come From?
Glycerin can be obtained from both plant and animal sources. Common plant sources include soybeans or palm, and animal-derived tallow is another source.
Glycerin can also be produced synthetically from propylene. This can reduce the environmental burden of the ingredient.
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. If you are looking for a vegan product it is also a good idea to check if the brand is cruelty-free.
Is Glycerin Safe?
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel, a group responsible for evaluating the safety and efficacy of skincare ingredients has reviewed glycerin.
The Expert Panel reviewed the available data on glycerin and determined that it is safe for use in its current applications and concentrations.
Is Glycerin Bad For Your Skin?
After reading all of the benefits of glycerin for the 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 skincare 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 Skincare
Glycerin can be found in many different types of skincare products, such as creams, lotions, and even soap. Below we have a brief description of how glycerin is used in each of these skincare products.
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 is thinner than a glycerin cream and is usually intended to be applied to the body. A glycerin lotion may help to alleviate dry, rough skin on the body, leaving your skin feeling smooth and hydrated.
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.
What Is Glycerin Used For?
We’ve already alluded to the fact that glycerin is widely used in the skincare 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 or 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.
The Best Glycerin-containing Skincare Products
One of our favorite skincare 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 or 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 skincare 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.
Hara M, Verkman AS. Glycerol replacement corrects defective skin hydration, elasticity, and barrier function in aquaporin-3-deficient mice. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2003;100(12):7360-7365.
Milani M, Sparavigna A. The 24-hour skin hydration and barrier function effects of a hyaluronic 1%, glycerin 5%, and Centella asiatica stem cells extract moisturizing fluid: an intra-subject, randomized, assessor-blinded study. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2017;10:311-315. Published 2017 Aug 11.
Rosso JD, Zeichner J, Alexis A, Cohen D, Berson D. Understanding the Epidermal Barrier in Healthy and Compromised Skin: Clinically Relevant Information for the Dermatology Practitioner: Proceedings of an Expert Panel Roundtable Meeting. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2016;9(4 Suppl 1):S2-S8.
Draelos Z. Aquaporins: an introduction to a key factor in the mechanism of skin hydration. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2012;5(7):53-56.