Glycerin is one of those ingredients that you’ll find in nearly everything, but it somehow remains something of a mystery. You probably know that glycerin can be used to make glycerin soap, and you may have some knowledge of its other uses, like in cosmetics or medications. But we’re betting you’re not super-familiar with the various benefits of glycerin for skin, or even where this powerhouse ingredient comes from. After all, even though it’s been used for decades, it’s not nearly as buzzy as other skincare ingredients, like Cannabis sativa seed oil or hyaluronic acid (more on how glycerin and hyaluronic acid differ below).
First things first: Glycerin is derived from lipids. In skincare products, it’s generally used as a moisturizer, and it’s particularly effective for dry or dehydrated skin. Ahead, we’ll break down everything you need to know about glycerin, including what it is and how it works. Read on to discover why glycerin is a must-have ingredient in your skincare routine.
What Is Glycerin?
Glycerin, also known as glycerol, is a colorless, odorless sugar alcohol. It is a primary component of triglycerides, naturally-occurring fats present in most lipid-rich substances. Glycerin was first identified in 1779 by a Swedish scientist who inadvertently isolated the compound while making soap from olive oil. Though glycerin was historically derived from plant and animal fats, it can also be chemically synthesized. It’s non-toxic and has a thick, viscous texture, making it a popular ingredient in a wide range of products, including food, medications, and skincare. Here, we’ll just be focusing on the latter use.
What Is Glycerin Used For?
In skincare, glycerin’s most popular use is as a humectant. Humectants are moisturizing ingredients that work by drawing water from the atmosphere to hydrate and soften the skin (other well-known humectants include hyaluronic acid and d-panthenol). Studies show that glycerin can penetrate the skin barrier and remain within the skin for continuous hydration for several days.I It’s also been shown to be the most effective humectant ingredient commonly used in skincare formulations. However, because of its thick texture, glycerin can leave a sticky or tacky residue on the skin if used excessively. As such, it’s often diluted with other moisturizing ingredients, like hyaluronic acid, which has a lightweight, almost watery texture (but can only penetrate the skin barrier effectively if the molecules are small enough).
Beyond consistency, glycerin and hyaluronic acid differ in their benefits, too: While both are hydrating, glycerin is also a particularly useful ingredient for those with sensitive or reactive skin. Learn more about the differences between both of these popular ingredients for dry skin in our article Glycerin vs. Hyaluronic Acid: Which Should You Use?.
Back to glycerin specifically, it’s the primary ingredient in our best-selling Hydro-Plumping Re-Texturizing Serum Concentrate. This lightweight formula contains 15% glycerin and epidermal hydration filler to plump the look of dull skin and minimize the appearance of fine lines. The intensely hydrating formula is suitable for all skin types and can be used morning and night to promote a smoother, healthier-looking appearance.
3 Benefits of Glycerin For Skin
Glycerin Benefit #1Products Formulated With Glycerin Help Strengthen The Skin Barrier
Water is an essential component of the skin. Without enough water, the skin barrier becomes dehydrated, leaving it unable to effectively perform all of its duties (like defending your body against external aggressors). Glycerin benefits the skin barrier by pulling water from the air to keep the skin hydrated and minimize water loss. Glycerin can remain in the skin for a while, which helps the skin retain moisture even when exposed to damaging environmental aggressors like pollution. Glycerin may also help the skin’s natural lipids retain their structure to further promote a healthy skin barrier.
Environmental stressors can cause free radicals to accumulate and damage the skin barrier. As such, cleansing is crucial; it helps remove traces of these potentially-aggravating aggressors. For extra barrier benefits, reach for a face cleanser formulated with glycerin, like Ultra Facial Cleanser. This cult-classic formula contains glycerin, olive-derived squalane, and avocado oil to remove dirt and oil without stripping the skin. It’s pH-balanced and gentle enough for daily use.
For best results, apply a hydrating toner after cleansing to balance the skin. We recommend Ultra Facial Toner, which is formulated with glycerin, squalane, and antioxidant vitamin E. The soothing, alcohol-free toner removes any dirt or residue left on the skin after cleansing for a refined appearance. Like Ultra Facial Cleanser, it’s pH-balanced and suitable for all skin types, including sensitive skin.
Glycerin Benefit #2:It Helps Soften and Smooth The Skin
In concentrations under 50%, research indicates that glycerin has emollient properties.III An emollient is a type of moisturizer characterized primarily by its ability to soften the skin. Studies show that skincare products containing glycerin can significantly soften and improve the appearance of rough, dry skin.II Products that contain glycerin in addition to other moisturizers may be particularly effective, as glycerin can help enhance the absorption of other topical ingredients, particularly lipids (like oil-rich plant extracts).
To reap the skin-softening benefits of glycerin, we recommend reaching for a lightweight moisturizer, like Ultra Facial Cream. In addition to glycerin, this top-rated formula (our #1 face cream) contains glacial glycoprotein and squalane to nourish the skin with non-greasy 24-hour hydration. The unique formula absorbs into the skin quickly and is clinically-demonstrated to soften and smooth skin after just one week of continuous use.*
Though Ultra Facial Cream is suitable for all skin types, those with oily or acne-prone skin may prefer Ultra Facial Oil-Free Gel Cream. This unique gel moisturizer contains glycerin and desert plant extract to condition skin with lightweight yet long-lasting hydration. It absorbs quickly and has a cooling effect on the skin for a refreshing feel. We recommend using it morning and night for hydrated, shine-free skin.
*Results based on a four-week clinical test.
Glycerin Benefit #3:Glycerin Plumps The Look of Skin For a Youthful Appearance
One of the most unique characteristics of glycerin is its ability to temporarily plump the look of skin and minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Studies show that glycerin penetrates the skin and increases the water volume between cells to give the skin a fuller, firmer appearance.II Glycerin also binds with and stabilizes collagen, the protein responsible for giving skin its elasticity. Together, these combined effects help contribute to a younger-looking appearance..
If you’re seeking to firm or plump the appearance of your skin, we recommend incorporating an anti-wrinkle cream, like Super-Multi Corrective Anti-Aging Face and Neck Cream, into your daily skincare routine. This anti-aging moisturizer stars glycerin, phytomimetic vitamin A, and hyaluronic acid to improve the look of a wide range of age-related concerns. The effective formula is clinically-demonstrated to visibly reduce wrinkles, even skin tone, and smooth skin texture within just four weeks of use.** Over time, it also helps firm the skin and boost elasticity for a more radiant, youthful appearance.***
**Results based on a 12-week clinical study of 53 panelists in the U.S. ***Based on agreement in a 12-week consumer use study with a panel of 53 women. Individual results may vary.
Next: 11 Dry Skin Treatments and Ingredients
I.Ventura, S.A., and G.B. Kasting. “Dynamics of Glycerine and Water Transport Across Human Skin From Binary Mixtures.” International Journal of Cosmetic Science vol. 39,2 (2016): 165-178. doi:10.1111/ics.12362
II.Fluhr, Joachim & Bornkessel, A. & Berardesca, Enzo. “Glycerol — just a moisturizer? biological and biophysical effects.” Dry Skin and Moisturizers: Chemistry and Function vol.2 (2005): 227-243.
III.“Glycerine: An overview.” The Soap & Detergent Association: Glycerine and Oleochemical Division (1990): 1-24.