Glycerine is one of the ingredients you’ll find listed in almost all the product labels in almost any household. It’s found in food and beverages, but also in pharmaceutical and personal care products. It can be found in almost all water-based creams, lotions, and serums. After water, it’s portably the most frequently listed ingredient in skin care.
Moisturisers tend to have 3 kinds of ingredients. The first is occlusive. This type of ingredient kind of makes a film, a protective, physical barrier over your skin and seals in moisture.
The second is emollient. This type of ingredient smooths and softens your skin by filling in the gaps between the skin cells with oils and lipids. They stay on the skin’s surface and end up repelling water.
The last kind is humectant. This type of ingredient draws in water from the environment to itself. A humectant binds water to your skin leaving it plump and hydrated.
So, what is it?
Glycerine is a natural humectant found in plants, animals, and humans. It’s clear, slightly sticky, scentless, and non-toxic liquid. It’s a sugar alcohol and so has a sweet taste. It also goes by the name of glycerol.
In 1779, the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Schelle first discovered it in a mixture of olive oil and lead monoxide. Later it was named glycerine by the French chemist Michel-Eugene Chevreul, from glykys, the Gree word for sweet.
Historically, glycerine was a byproduct in making soap from animal and vegetable fats and oils. But now it can also be produced synthetically. When sourcing it for skin care products, it can be extracted from soybeans, coconut oil, cane, or corn syrup sugar. If it’s derived from fats or oils, it’s made by hydrolysing the fat (it’s when a substance reacts to water and a chemical bond breaks down as a result). If it comes from sugar, it’s obtained by fermentation. This is vegetable glycerine.
Glycerine can also be sourced from animal fats. It all comes down to your personal preference. If you’re vegan for example, you may lean towards vegetable glycerine.
What is it used for?
Since it’s non-toxic to humans, it’s used in foods, syrups, ointments, medicines, and cosmetics. For example, it’s added to ice cream to improve its texture while lowering the amount of sugar needed due to its inherent sweetness. Another example is soaking raisins in glycerine so that they stay soft in your breakfast cereals.
Probably most people know it as an ingredient of soaps, even though historically it was the way to make it in the first place. You can easily recognise soaps made from it because they’re translucent.
As a humectant, glycerine attracts water. Hence, it is commonly used in personal care products such as shampoos, conditioners, makeup removers, and of course moisturisers. In hair care products, it can help keep hair from overdrawing and splitting.
What can it do for your skin?
Glycerine is considered to be fundamental to most good moisturisers. Retaining moisture is key for healthy, youthful skin. Your skin feels and looks better when it has all the moisture it needs.
Hence when you use a glycerine-based product, it helps balance the moisture levels of your skin and prevention dryness. Some people prefer it over hyaluronic acid because it has a smaller molecule size and can more easily penetrate into your skin. On the other hand, hyaluronic acid has a larger molecule so that it sits on top of your skin.
And if you mix it with emollients and other ingredients that restore your skin barrier, it works even better. Glycerine is the moisture magnet: It’ll attract and bind water to your skin and combined with the emollients you get smooth and soft skin. Together they can improve the appearance of rough, dry, scaly skin (as I often tend to call my dry skin: lizard skin).
Skin care products containing glycerine may be even more effective since they can help enhance the penetration of other ingredients, especially fats and oils.
Besides attracting water, it can heal your skin by helping your skin cells mature properly. It also is naturally antimicrobial and antiviral so that it can be used to treat skin injuries such as burns and some inflammatory skin conditions.
It’s a highly effective cleanser so that it’s often used in cleansing formulas because it can go deeply into your skin, remove excess sebum, any dirt or debris, and even makeup without drying it out.
If you have oily skin, you’ll love glycerine. It’s not only that dry skin can have low little water levels. Oily skin too can be dehydrated. Glycerine is lightweight and non-occlusive. This means it adds moisture without a film so that your skin will not feel greasy and heavy.
Generally, glycerine is recognised as safe by the FDA. It has a long history of safe use and there are no known side effects of glycerine as an ingredient. It’s suitable for all skin types, even for acne-prone skin. It’s considered hypoallergenic which means that allergic reactions occur extremely rarely.
Is glycerine robbing moisture from your dermis a myth? Since it’s a moisture magnet, some people think that in dry environments and climates, it will draw moisture to the surface layers from the deeper layers of your skin. But usually, humectants are not supposed to be used alone, particularly if you have dry skin.
Glycerine and other humectants are best used in combination with other ingredients that restore your skin barrier (be it emollients or occlusives). And most moisturisers contain a combination of humectants, emollients, and occlusives. So, problem solved.
In what kind of skin care products do you find it?
Usually, glycerine is not applied in its pure form directly to the skin though it’s safe to do so. As a humectant, its main job is to promote and maintain hydration. So it’s found in moisturisers (duh!). But you can also find it in
- Cleansers suitable for all skin type to wash away dirt and grease without drying out your skin
- Toners and mists to hydrate your skin without making it feel sticky and heavy
- Serums and essence for overall moisturising and soothing effect
- SPF to make it more spreadable
- Face packs to enhance the moisturising effects
- Soaps and body washes to gently wash without being harsh and stripping
- Lip balm for the extra care
Glycerine is the unsung hero in the beauty world. It’s found in almost anything but nowhere on the packaging is it advertised (but it’s listed in the ingredient list).
Of course, you can also go the DYI route and make your superhero moisturiser against dry skin: You can add a few drops of glycerine to your favourite oil like macadamia or camellia oil.
You can mix it with pretty much anything, but you’d need to do a bit of experimenting to find the best combination for your skin’s needs.
If you’re going DYI and like to get some ideas for your next glycerine enhanced skin care, let me know in the comments below.