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What is glycerin used for in skin care?

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If you’re a food label reading pro, then you’re probably used to scanning the backs of tins and packets, looking for the ingredients you want to consume, and more importantly, those that you don’t. 

The same goes for our skin care. Many of us devour the information listed on tubes, bottles and tubs, looking for the right, wrong, or very wrong (parabens, phthalates and mineral oil, we’re looking condescendingly at you) skin care ingredients.

If you’re a regular skin care label reader, then one skin care ingredient you’ve probably noticed, is glycerin. 

According to aCosmetic Ingredient Review conducted in 2014, glycerin is the third most common ingredient in skin care products. Perhaps unsurprisingly, water is first and fragrance is second. You may also see glycerin listed in ingredients lists as glycerine or glycerol. 

Glycerin is an effective hydrating ingredient for the skin, so it’s little wonder that it’s added to many different skin care products. We use glycerin here at Sönd in three of our products - ourClean Slate Cream Cleanser, ourSidekick Day Cream and ourStrength Training Serum

We only use plant based products that are proven to be beneficial to all skin types, especially skin types that are stressed out or refuse to conform, resulting in acne breakouts and inflammation. 

Here, we use glycerin because it’s so beneficial. So here’s everything you need to know about glycerin as a skin care ingredient. We’ll cover what it is, how it works and how it benefits the skin. 

What is glycerin?

Glycerin is an odourless, colourless liquid that is found in animal fats and plant derived oils. It can be derived from animals or plants and it can also be manufactured synthetically (that is, it can be man made as well as naturally derived). 

Most skin care brands these days opt for glycerin that’s plant derived rather than animal derived. Certainly in our case, all of our glycerin (and every single other ingredient) is plant derived. But it’s worth checking the labels of other skin care and beauty brands as this isn’t always the case. 

Glycerin is also quite syrupy in texture, and has a fairly sweet taste. For this reason, it’s used as both asweetening agent and a thickening agent in some types of foods, in particular, baked goods. 

But here we’re interested in the uses of glycerin in skin care products.

What are the benefits of glycerin for the skin?

Glycerin has the ability to help prevent dryness in the skin, as well as helpprevent scaling and irritation from the environment and whatever the weather throws at our skin. 

It’s used to hydrate the skin. This is due to its humectant properties. A humectant is a hydrating agent that helps to keep the skin from dehydrating by drawing water from the nearby atmosphere and holding it in the skin. You may also see glycerin described as a hygroscopic ingredient - hygroscopic has the same meaning as humectant - that it draws water from the nearest source. 

This means that humectants, including glycerin, attract water molecules from the air and donate them to the skin cells to keep them hydrated. This is different to other moisturising agents such as squalane, which is an emollient. An emollient works by trapping water molecules between the skin cells to keep the skin hydrated and smooth. 

In fact, we use glycerin and squalane in our products. This is because humectants such as glycerin can also choose to draw water fromdeeper within the skin, if the air is particularly dry. This will still hydrate the upper layers, but can leave the lower layers of skin dry and dehydrated. 

Using glycerin in low concentrations and along with other types of moisturising ingredients helps to combat this. 

Studies back up the ability of glycerin to moisturise the skin, too. One, back in 2008, found that glycerin canhydrate the stratum corneum, which is the scientific name for the outer layers of skin. 

It can also improve the natural barrier function of the skin helping to provide a barrier against irritants. What’s more, this study found that glycerin can also help to speed up wound healing. 

Another study, this time in 2016, concluded that “glycerin is the most effective humectant”. This was when it was tested against other moisturising humectants including alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and hyaluronic acid. 

Does glycerin in skin care products have any side effects? 

Glycerin has consistently tested negative for any kinds of skin irritation at the concentrations it's used in skin care products. 

Since it can draw moisture from the deeper layers of skin, it’s not recommended that you ever use glycerin in neat concentrations directly on the skin. This will cause dehydration within the lower layers of the skin. 

Those with particularly sensitive skin may experience some redress, itching or irritation after using skin care products that contain glycerin. If this is you, use these products sparingly to get your skin used to them. If your irritation continues after a few weeks, or your skin feels very hot or feels like it’s burning, stop using the product straight away. 

Glycerin works amazingly for most skin types. It moisturises, hydrates and leaves the skin feeling soft and smooth. It also protects the skin from damage and makes it appear more plump and youthful.

Sometimes, nature really does have all the answers, and it most definitely does in the form of skin loving glycerin! 


Hannah de Gruchy BSc(Hons)

About Author

Hannah de Gruchy is a freelancer writer who specialises in health and wellness. She has a keen interest in the biology of skin and loves using her words to help separate the real science of skincare from the pseudoscience of some skincare brands. Hannah has a degree in Human Biology and many years’ experience working in laboratories around London. Using this experience, Hannah enjoys turning complex science into interesting, engaging and easy to digest pieces to read. In her spare time, Hannah runs, practices yoga and loves cooking plant based foods.

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