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Glycerin: An Organic Compound With Remarkable Moisturizing Powers

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Story at-a-glance

  • Glycerin is a natural compound found in animal- and plant-derived fats
  • It helps retain moisture in the skin, which is why it’s commonly used in soaps, toothpastes, lotions, creams and other skincare products
  • Glycerin is believed to be helpful in alleviating various health problems, including skin irritation, constipation, eye and intracranial pressure, and dehydration
  • Discover how glycerin may help keep your skin healthy, along with its other valuable uses for your well-being

If you’ve ever read the labels of organic hair and skincare products, you’ve probably noticed glycerin as one of the ingredients. It is a natural compound used in a wide range of applications, from beauty and skincare items to foods and medicines. In fact, there are over 1,500 known end uses for this compound today.1

With the massive amount of personal care and pharmaceutical products that rely on glycerin, you’re probably wondering: What exactly does glycerin do for the body and why is it such an indispensable ingredient in the health and wellness industry? Read on to find out.

What Is Glycerin?

Glycerin is a trihydroxy sugar alcohol found in the natural fats of vegetables and animals.2 Physically, it’s a highly viscous transparent liquid with a sweet taste. It’s highly soluble in both water and alcohol, and is also a great solvent for other materials, making it useful for the preparation of tinctures and foods.3

The pure form of glycerin is also known as glycerol.4,5 When applied topically, pure glycerin can actually dehydrate the deeper layers of the skin by pulling up moisture from the dermis.6

This reaction is caused by the hygroscopic properties of glycerin, which allow it to absorb moisture from other sources. In order to utilize its moisturizing benefits without any drawbacks, glycerin is often combined with other ingredients instead of being used in pure form.7,8

Aside from its moisturizing properties, glycerin is also believed to be helpful in alleviating health problems, including skin irritation and constipation.9 It’s also a valuable ingredient in numerous pharmaceutical and food preparations, since it can be used as an emulsifier, sweetener and humectant.10

2 Natural Sources of Glycerin

Glycerin is usually derived from natural sources, such as:11

Animal fats — Glycerin can be obtained by mixing animals fats with lye. This process breaks down the triglycerides, which contain the fatty acid chains and glycerol. It’s a procedure commonly used when making soaps and candles, which is why glycerin is known as the byproduct of these materials.12

Vegetables — If you’re looking for an alternative to animal-based glycerin, you may opt to purchase one made of vegetable fats, such as those that come from palm oil or coconut oil.13 The process of extracting glycerol from vegetable fat is relatively similar to the process done in animal fats.

Keep in mind that there’s also a synthetic form of glycerin, which is a byproduct of petroleum.14 If you’re planning to buy glycerin, make sure you get it from a trusted brand that uses all-natural materials.

5 Valuable Uses of Glycerin for Your Health

There is no doubt that glycerin is one of the most useful naturally occurring compounds. Its ability to help lock moisture in the skin remains one of its most desirable benefits, which is why it’s commonly used in soaps, toothpastes, lotions, creams, and other skincare products.15 Used in the right climate, glycerin may help improve dry hair by drawing in moisture from the air into your hair.16 Aside from these, glycerin may be used for medicinal applications, including:

Minor skin irritations — Glycerin may help relieve minor skin problems, such as diaper rash, itching, and skin burns with its anti-irritant and anti-inflammatory properties.17

Excessive intracranial pressure — Some physicians administer glycerol intravenously to help reduce intracranial pressure, which may be caused by conditions like stroke, meningitis and encephalitis, among others.18

Constipation — Glycerin may help relieve occasional constipation, since it draws water into the colon and rectum when used as a suppository.19

Dehydration — Glycerin may help the body rehydrate during bouts of diarrhea and vomiting.20

Eye pressure — According to the British Journal of Ophthalmology, oral glycerin supplements may help reduce excessive eye pressure caused by disorders such as glaucoma.21

Some people also take an animal- or vegetable-derived glycerin supplement to aid in weight loss and improve athletic performance. However, further research is still needed to confirm whether glycerin can really deliver these benefits.22

Studies Support the Positive Effects of Glycerin to the Skin

Since glycerin is commonly used as an ingredient in various organic skincare products, it’s not surprising that most studies focus on its benefits to the skin.

For instance, a study published in the Journal of Acta Dermato-Venereologica evaluated glycerin’s ability to make the skin smoother. Results show that glycerin gradually improved skin texture and suppleness, and continued to do so even after it was no longer applied, indicating that it has lasting effects despite a slow onset of action.23

Other research conducted in July 2008 stated that glycerin may help improve the hydration of stratum corneum (the outermost layer of the epidermis), protect the skin against irritants and accelerate wound healing.24

A 2015 study published in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology also confirms the anti-irritant properties of glycerin and its ability to help soothe inflamed skin.25

6 Possible Side Effects of Glycerin That You Should Be Aware Of

While glycerin supplements are generally safe, they may cause side effects when taken incorrectly. Contact your doctor immediately if you experience any of these adverse reactions:26,27

  • Excessive thirst
  • Allergic reactions (such as rashes, itching, severe dizziness and breathing problems)

If you’re planning to take glycerin supplements or suppositories, make sure that you do so in moderation. Despite its numerous health benefits, glycerin is still a form of sugar alcohol, which your body cannot absorb completely. As a result, it may cause abdominal gas and diarrhea if consumed in excessive amounts.

There is not enough evidence to determine if glycerin is safe for pregnant or breastfeeding women. However, it’s always best to err on the side of caution, so avoid using this product if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.

Glycerin is not recommended for people suffering from dehydration, diabetes, gastrointestinal problems and heart or kidney disease. To avoid allergic reactions, make sure you’re not hypersensitive to any of the materials used in making glycerin.28 To guarantee your safety, consult your doctor before taking any form of glycerin.

A Few Important Things to Keep in Mind When Buying Glycerin

Glycerin is an ingredient often derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), such as soybeans, canola and cottonseed.29 Buying glycerin manufactured from these GMO crops not only contributes to environmental destruction, but also supports the large biotech companies that supply the population with unhealthy and hazardous food products.

With that in mind, make sure you buy glycerin from certified non-GMO sources. You may also opt to make your own glycerin to guarantee that it’s completely organic. You can use plant oils that contain healthy fats, such as coconut oil or palm oil.30,31

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Glycerin

Q: Where can you buy glycerin?

A: Animal and vegetable glycerin are widely available in groceries and drugstores.32 When buying it, remember to look for a USP-grade non-GMO product.33

Q: What is glycerin made of?

A: Organic glycerin is made from animal and/or vegetable fats.34 It’s usually mixed with other ingredients, like water and essential oils, to improve its moisturizing effects.35

Q: What does glycerin do?

A: Glycerin is used for a wide variety of applications in different industries. In the health and beauty sector, it’s often an ingredient in cosmetics and skincare products, as it helps attract and retain moisture in the skin.36 It also has therapeutic effects and may be used to help alleviate skin irritation, dehydration, constipation, and excessive pressure in the brain or eyes.37

Glycerin is a popular ingredient in pharmaceutical formulations as well, since it can be used as a solvent. Plus, it helps keep ointments and creams from drying out.38

Q: What are the uses of glycerin in food?

A: In the food industry, glycerin is used as a sweetener, humectant, solvent and preservative.39

Q: Is glycerin vegan?

A: Not all glycerin is vegan. As mentioned above, this compound may be derived from either animal or vegetable fats.40 If you’re looking for a vegan glycerin, look for products that are specifically labeled “vegetable glycerin.

Q: Is glycerin bad for you?

A: Animal- and vegetable-derived glycerin is generally safe and beneficial when used properly. Keep in mind, though, that it may still cause a few side effects. For instance, applying topical glycerin on your skin or hair in a dry climate may dehydrate deeper layers of your skin, as it pulls moisture from your dermis instead of attracting water from the air.41,42

Ingesting too much glycerin may also be bad for your gut, as it’s a form of sugar alcohol. This may lead to abdominal gas and diarrhea. Other adverse side effects related to this product include dizziness, nausea, headache, vomiting and allergic reactions.43,44

Q: How do you use glycerin suppositories?

A: Lie down on your side with knees bent, then gently insert the tip of the suppository into the rectum. Move it slightly from side to side as you push well up into the rectum. After you’ve successfully inserted the suppository, stay in position for 15 to 20 minutes or until you feel the urge to move your bowels.45,46

Q: How do you make glycerin?

A: To make glycerin from scratch, you’ll need animal- or plant-derived oil. Some great examples are lard, tallow, palm oil and coconut oil. You’ll also need lye, water and salt. Once you have all the needed ingredients, follow these steps from Leaf:47

1. Mix sea salt and 2 ounces of water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir well and set aside to cool.

2. In a glass container, add lye to 9 ounces of water and stir thoroughly. The mixture will heat rapidly because of a chemical reaction. Set it aside to cool to 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

3. Pour the oil into a large saucepan and warm it on a stovetop over medium-low heat until it reaches 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

4. Carefully pour the lye and water mixture into the oil, and stir thoroughly.

5. Continue stirring the mixture for around 15 minutes. Once the mixture thickens, add in the brine, stir briefly and allow it to cool. Place the mixture in the refrigerator overnight.

6. Skim off curdles of soap on top of the mixture. You can pour these curdles into a mold to make a bar of soap. After you've removed all traces of soap, pour the glycerin liquid into a glass container and then seal it tightly.

Sources and References

  • 1, 3, 5, 10, 34, 38, 39, 40, 41 "The Future of Glycerol: New Uses of a Versatile Raw Material" 2008
  • 2 Pubchem, Glycerol
  • 4 "Palm Oil," p. 595 April 12, 2012
  • 6, 8, 36 "The Beauty Aisle Insider," p.123, April 1, 2012
  • 7 "Lipids and Skin Health," p. 316, December 15, 2014
  • 9 "Mosby's Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing and Health Professions," p.752, July 2014
  • 11, 14 "Sustainable Inorganic Chemistry," p.122, September 20, 2016
  • 12 "Make Your Own Soap," p. 4, November 2012
  • 13 "Why There's Antifreeze in Your Toothpaste" October 2007
  • 15 The Soap and Detergent Association, "Glycerin: An Overview," 1990
  • 16 "Milady Standard Natural Hair Care & Braiding," p.183, July 9, 2013
  • 18, 20, 22, 26, 37, 43 WebMD, Glycerol
  • 19 WebMD, Adult Glycerin Suppository Rectal
  • 21 Br J Ophthalmol. 1965 Dec; 49(12): 660–666.
  • 23 Acta Dermato-Venereologica December 1993
  • 24 British Journal of Dermatology July 2008
  • 25 European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology December 2015
  • 28 Mayo Clinic, Glycerin (Oral Route)
  • 29 Organic Consumers, Non-GMO Shopping Guide
  • 30 Ghana Med J. 2016 Sep; 50(3): 189–196.
  • 31 "The Oil Palm," p.445, October 6, 2015
  • 32 "Natural Foot Care: Herbal Treatments, Massage, and Exercises for Healthy Feet," p.46, January 8, 1998
  • 33 "Biodiesel Science and Technology: From Soil to Oil," p.557, 2010
  • 34 "The Future of Glycerol: New Uses of a Versatile Raw Material" 2008
  • 35 Leaf, How to Add Glycerin to Water
  • 42 Vogue November 1, 2016
  • 44 WebMD, Glycerin Liquid
  • 45 WebMD, Adult Suppositories Suppository
  • 46 Medscape, Glycerin
  • 47 Leaf, Homemade Glycerin
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