The Effects of Glycerin on Skin

As the "clean beauty" industry grows, customers have started to scrutinize the list of ingredients of their favorite personal care products. Between 2013 and 2017, "natural" product sales grew 2.1 percent — to the tune of $230 million — and it's clear that manufacturers need to be ready to answer questions about what's going into these items.

Products that contain glycerin help keep your skin moist and supple. (Image: Twenty20/@meganmeza)

However, it's not always easy for the layperson to understand what the ingredients in their beauty products truly are. Take, for example, glycerin — this scientific-sounding ingredient might sound alarm bells when it shows up in moisturizers or cleansers, but it's actually an ingredient that does a lot of good for both skin and hair.

What Is Glycerin?

Glycerin, also known as glycerol, might sound like a manufactured ingredient, but it falls squarely into the "natural compound" category. The compound occurs naturally in both plant and animal fats as a component of lipids—which is simply a fancy term for "fats"—and, when it undergoes a process known as hydrolysis, the lipids separate into three fatty acids that form glycerin. However, there's a caveat to this: There is a synthetic form of glycerin out there, which is why reading labels is a great habit to form.

In beauty products, glycerin serves as a humectant, which is a substance the attracts moisture. It pulls the water from deeper skin layers up to the surface to combat dry skin, as well as draws in moisture from the air and slows its evaporation on your skin. Glycerin is the third most common ingredient in cosmetics, according to a 2014 Cosmetic Ingredient Review report.

Is Glycerin Safe?

In short, glycerin is safe. The EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, a nonprofit that tracks the safety of ingredients in food and cosmetics, gave glycerin a score of two out of 10, meaning it's low-hazard.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not have any restrictions on the use of glycerin as an ingredient in personal care products. However, Canada's Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist placed glycerin on the "restricted" list in September 2009, noting that manufacturers must provide the exact concentration of the ingredient on the product's label. According to EWG, it was added as a restrict because of possible contamination of glycerine with diethylene glycol (DEG), a potentially toxic ingredient.

Men, too, can benefit from using products containing glycerin. (Image: Twenty20/@annaelisabethsmith)

Is Glycerin Good for Your Skin?

Through its ability to pull moisture to the surface from both the inner layers of the skin and from the environment, glycerin can work wonders for your skin's outer layer. It's also non-comedogenic, so you don't have to worry about it clogging up your pores and causing breakouts. Glycerin boasts a few other benefits, too, including the ability to strengthen and heal your skin's outermost layer, which also helps keep the skin moist and supple.

Which Type of Glycerin Is Best for Your Skin?

Natural glycerin is derived from plant or animal fats, but there's another type of glycerin, too—one that's created through chemical synthesis from petrochemicals. This synthetic glycerin will have the same moisturizing benefits as naturally derived glycerin, but there's concern that the manmade version could have potential health hazards. Stick with glycerin that's been created as a byproduct of natural animal or vegetable fats.

What Are the Side Effects of Using Glycerin?

Glycerin is considered safe for use in skin products, so you don't have to worry too much about any negative side effects. However, like with nearly all natural ingredients, it's possible to be allergic to glycerin. If that's the case, you might experience redness, a rash or itchiness. When that occurs, stop using the product immediately and look for an alternative that doesn't have glycerin in it.

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