Have you ever wondered about the benefits of glycerin for skin? This unassuming ingredient is the parsley of the skincare world. What do I mean by it? Like parsley in your food, glycerin is pretty much in ALL your skincare products. Don’t take my word for it. Have a look in your stash. Chances are 90% of your beloved lotions and potions are loaded with Glycerin.
Why? What makes Glycerin omnipresent while other ingredients that are just as beneficial are so hard to find (yes, BHA, I’m looking at you). This is one of those little gems every dermatologist out there raves about, yet everyone else takes for granted. It’s just there, right?
But then… why do critics say that glycerin dries out skin? Is there any truth in that or is this just another case of another skincare ingredient being maligned for no reason? Well, time to get to know this skin best friends a little better and find out more about the benefits of glycerin. Let’s get started:
What Is Glycerin?
Glycerin goes by many names. Some call it Glycerine. Others Glycerol. I call it Glycerin. Either way, it’s the same thing: a thick, gelatinous liquid found in all natural fats (plant, animal, and human). The glycerin in your skincare products can be derived naturally by the fermentation of sugar or hydrolysis (decomposition of a chemical by reaction with water) or fats, but it can also be made in a lab. Either way, it’s both safe and effective.
“Glycerin works as a humectant, it attracts moisture from the air into the stratum corneum (top layer of skin), and due to its low molecular weight, will continue to draw moisture to the deeper layers of the dermis. It has a molecular weight of approximately 92 g/mol, which means it is able to penetrate deep into the skin,” shares Rachael Polowyj, MSc, cosmetic scientist of U.K. chemical company IMCD.
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Benefits Of Glycerin For Skin?
Glycerin is a humectant. That’s a fancy way to say it attracts water from the environment into the skin and binds it there, so that it can moisturise skin. Why this matters? Moisture is the foundation of healthy, younger-looking skin. When skin has all the moisture it needs, it looks and feels better. And Glycerin does provide it with a waterfall of moisture.
Here’s what happens when you use glycerin:
- It banishes dryness: It increases your skin’s hydration levels, making it feel super soft and supple and preventing flaking. If you’re dealing with dry, cracked, or dehydrated skin, glycerin can help your skin heal faster.
- It boosts your skincare routine: Well-hydrated skin is more permeable. That means those precious actives in your lotions and potions more easily penetrate skin, so they work better and faster.
- It helps treat psoriasis and dermatitis: Strengthening your skin’s barrier is key in healing these conditions, so they don’t get triggered by irritants again and again.
- It reduces the appearance of wrinkles: Moisture plumps up fine lines and wrinkles, so they look smaller to the naked eye (but the effect is only temporary).
- It strengthens the skin’s protective barrier: This barrier keeps moisture in and germs, pollutants, and other skin enemies out. By reinforcing it, glycerin helps protect your skin from irritations.
FYI, glycerin is a godsend for dry skin, but everyone can use it. Because it mimics your skin’s natural moisturising factor (NMF, a.k.a. your skin’s barrier), it hydrates all skin types without causing breakouts or irritations.
Related: The Best Skincare Routine For Dry Skin
Side Effects Of Glycerin
Glycerin is generally considered to be safe. Unlike powerful ingredients, like retinol and glycolic acid, it has no known side effects. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel evaluated safety data about glycerin, looking at concentrations of up to 79.2% glycerin in leave-on products and 99.4% in rinse-off products and concluded that glycerin is “safe as a cosmetic ingredient in the practices of use and concentration.”
But, like every other ingredient out there, it may cause allergic reactions in an handful of people. I mean, there are people who are even allergic to water! For 99% of people, glycerin is super safe.
Can Glycerin Dry Out Skin?
Remember when I mentioned that glycerin draws moisture from the environment into the skin? In humid weather, glycerin draws this moisture from the environment, i.e. the air, around you. But most of the time, glycerin “robs” moisture from the dermis (the deeper layers of your skin) and gives it to the surface layers. Isn’t that drying as hell?
Not really. Here’s why: your skin is made up of 60% water. Rather than leaving your skin without moisture, glycerin simply takes the moisture available and redistributes it around. Only if your skin has very little moisture to begin with, this can be a problem. This usually happens when you use glycerin alone or glycerin that’s not diluted enough. This is why I recommend you’re careful with DIY glycerin solutions, especially if you already have dry or dehydrated skin.
While oily skin benefits from humectants (like glycerin only), most skin types need to use it together with occlusive emollients, like natural oils, that seal this moisture in and keeps it into your skin. Most moisturisers out there contain a mix of both. Problem solved.
Related: Here’s What A Moisturiser For Dry Skin Should Contain
How To Use It
There’s a reason why Glycerin is in pretty much every skincare product: “It’s one of the most commonly used raw materials in the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries and in chemistry, glycerin is the basic backbone of most essential lipids, which are oils found within your skin, so it has a great affinity to the skin,” explains Polowyj. It’s a quick, cheap, and effective way to get super soft and moisturised skin.
As a rule, the higher Glycerin is on the ingredient list, the more of it is in the product. This can be either a good or a bad thing: “It can be quite a sticky material, so you don’t want to see it too high up on the ingredients list as it will affect the way the product feels. Generally speaking, it’s ideal to see it around the third or fourth ingredient down, with a typical usage level of 10 percent,” Polowyj explains. If your moisturiser or serum feels sticky, now you know why. If that bothers you, simply pick a product with a little less glycerin.
How Often Can You Use It?
Glycerin is so gentle, you can easily use it multiple times a day, without experiencing side effects. I personally recommend using it only in the morning and at night (you don’t want to do your skincare routine 10 times a day!). But if your skin is particularly dry or cracked, by all means, apply it as needed.
Who Should Use It?
The beauty of glycerin is that everyone can use it without side effects. “Glycerin is great because it appeals to a wide variety of skin types and works well with most skin regimens,” shares board-certified dermatologist Dr. Corey L. Hartman. “It provides light moisturization that soothes sensitive skin, relieves dryness, and doesn’t clog pores.”
If you have oily, acne-prone skin, glycerin will keep your face hydrated without adding more oil and causing breakouts. Sensitive skin? Glycerin’s so gentle, it’ll keep your skin drenched in moisture without causing an irritation or triggering a flare-up. If you have dry, dehydrated, or cracked skin, glycerin was made for you. It’ll help you get your skin back in top shape.
What Can You Use It With?
Glycerin works with pretty much every skincare ingredient you can think of. But it shines when paired with other moisturising ingredients, like hyaluronic acid or urea.
How To Use Glycerin For DIY Beauty
First off, a warning: if you use glycerin alone or glycerin that’s not diluted enough, you will dry out your skin instead of moisturising it. Bummer! Ratio matters. Here are a couple of ways to use glycerin for DIY beauty recipes the safe way:
- Glycerin toner: Mix 10 parts distilled water with 1 part glycerin. If this solution is still too sticky for you, use less glycerin. With only these two ingredients, the toner will last you for 5 days before it starts to go bad. If you want it to last for longer, you need to add a preservative to the mix (this is why I’m not a fan of DIY beauty – the more you dig into it, the more complex it becomes).
- Supercharge your moisturiser: Is your moisturiser not as hydrating as you’d like it to be, but you don’t want to throw it away? Mix a few drops of glycerin with a little dollop of moisturiser in your hand before applying it to your face and you’re good to go.
What Are The Best Skincare Products With Glycerin?
- CeraVe PM Facial Moisturising Lotion ($15.99): My fave moisturiser, it combines glycerin to add moisture to the skin and ceramides to lock it in to strengthen the skin’s barrier. Result? Softer, smoother, suppler skin. Available at Boots, Cult Beauty, Dermstore and Ulta
- Niod Multi Molecular Hyaluronic Complex ($25.00): My fave hyaluronic acid serum ever, it contains 25 forms of the molecule – plus glycerin. It doesn’t get more moisturising than this! Available at Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty, Niod, and SpaceNK.
- Paula’s Choice Resist Hyaluronic Acid Booster ($46.00): A hyaluronic acid serum with the added benefits of glycerin. Super hydrated, it plumps up skin and makes it softer. Available at Cult Beauty, Dermstore, Paula’s Choice and Selfridges, SpaceNK.
- Paula’s Choice Resist Intensive Repair Cream ($33.00): A rich cream with 2% retinol to fight wrinkles and a big dollop of glycerin to moisturise skin and avoid retinol dryness. Available at Cult Beauty, Dermstore, and Paula’s Choice, and Sephora.
- The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 ($8.90): A simple, no-frills hyaluronic acid with glycerin to deeply moisturise skin on a budget. Available at Beauty Bay, Boots, and Cult Beauty, Sephora, The Ordinary, and Ulta.
The Bottom Line
Glycerin is a hydrating must for all skin types. It delivers a waterfall of moisture to the skin that helps to keep it soft, supple, and hydrated for hours – without causing irritations or breakouts.