If you’ve ever read the labels of organic hair and skincare products, then you’ve probably encountered the ingredient “glycerin.” Glycerin is a natural compound that’s 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?
What Is Glycerin?
Glycerin is a trihydroxy sugar alcohol found in the natural fats of vegetables and animals.2 Physically, it’s a clear, transparent liquid with a high viscosity and a sweet taste. It’s highly soluble in both water and alcohol, and is also a great solvent for other materials, which makes it useful for the preparation of tinctures and foods.3
The pure form of glycerin is also known as glycerol.4,5,6 When applied topically, pure glycerin can actually dehydrate the deeper layers of the skin by pulling up moisture from your dermis.7
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.8,9
Aside from its moisturizing properties, glycerin is also believed to be helpful in alleviating additional health problems, including skin irritations and constipation.10 It’s also a valuable ingredient in numerous pharmaceutical and food preparations, since it can be used as an emulsifier, sweetener and levigating agent.11
Glycerin Can Be Obtained From Different Sources
Glycerin is usually derived from natural sources, such as:12
- Animal fats — Glycerin can be obtained by mixing animals fats with lye. This process breaks down the triglyceride molecule, which contains the fatty acid chains and glycerol. It’s a procedure that’s commonly used when making soaps and candles, which is why glycerin is known as the byproduct of these materials.13
- Vegetables — If you’re looking for an alternative to animal-based glycerin, you may opt to purchase one that’s made of vegetable fats, such as those that come from palm oil or coconut oil. The process of extracting glycerol from vegetable fat is relatively similar to the process done in animal fats.
Keep in mind, though, that there’s also a synthetic form of glycerin, which is a byproduct of petroleum. If you’re planning to buy glycerin, make sure that you get it from a trusted brand that uses all-natural materials.
Here Are the 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 in 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.14
When used in the right climate, glycerin may also help improve dry hair by drawing in moisture from the air into your hair.15 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.16
- 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.17
- Constipation — Glycerin may help relieve occasional constipation, since it draws water into the colon and rectum when used as a suppository.18
- Dehydration — Glycerin may help the body rehydrate during bouts of diarrhea and vomiting.19
- Eye pressure — According to the British Journal of Ophthalmology, oral glycerin supplements may help reduce excessive eye pressure caused by eye disorders such as glaucoma.20
In addition to the uses mentioned above, some people also take an animal or vegetable-derived glycerin supplement to aid weight loss and improve athletic performance. However, further research is still needed to confirm whether glycerin can really deliver these benefits.21
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 done on this compound focuses 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 and suppler. 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.22
Other research conducted in July 2008 states that glycerin may help improve the hydration of stratum corneum (the outermost layer of the epidermis), protect the skin against irritants and accelerate the wound-healing process.23
A more recent study published in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology in 2015 also confirms the anti-irritant properties of glycerin, and states that it may also help soothe inflamed skin.24
Possible Side Effects of Glycerin That You Should Be Aware Of
While glycerin is generally safe to use, it still may cause side effects when taken incorrectly. Contact your doctor immediately if you experience any of these adverse reactions:25,26
Allergic reactions (such as rashes, itching, severe dizziness and breathing problems)
If you’re planning to ingest glycerin, 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 and/or breastfeeding women. However, it’s always best to err on the side of caution, so avoid using this product if you fall in either of these categories.
Glycerin is also not recommended for people who are suffering from dehydration, diabetes, gastrointestinal problems, renal disorder, cardiovascular conditions and heart or kidney disease. Also, to avoid allergic reactions, make sure you’re not hypersensitive to any of the materials used in making glycerin.27,28 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 that’s often derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), such as soybeans, canola and cottonseed. Buying glycerin that’s 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 that 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 plants that contain healthy fats, such as coconut oil, palm oil or olive oil.29,30
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Glycerin
Q: Where can you buy glycerin?
A. Animal and vegetable glycerin are widely available in groceries and drugstores. When buying it, remember to look for a USP grade non-GMO product.31
Q: What is glycerin made of?
A. Organic glycerin is made from animal and/or vegetable fats. It’s usually mixed with other ingredients, like water and essential oils, to improve its moisturizing effects.32
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, since it helps attract and retain moisture in the skin.33 It also has therapeutic effects and may be used to help alleviate skin irritation, dehydration, constipation and excessive pressure in the brain or eyes.34
Glycerin is a popular ingredient in pharmaceutical formulations as well, since it can be used as a solvent and levigating agent. Plus, it helps prevent ointments and creams from drying out.35
Q: What are the uses of glycerin in food?
A. In the food industry, glycerin is used as a sweetener, moistening agent, solvent, thickening agent and emulsifier.36
Q: Is glycerin vegan?
A. Not all glycerin is vegan. As mentioned above, this compound may be derived from either animal or vegetable fats. If you’re looking for a vegan glycerin, look for products that are specifically labeled as “vegetable glycerin.”37
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.38
Ingesting too much glycerin may also wreak havoc on your gut, since 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.39,40
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.41,42
Q: How do you make glycerin?
A. To make glycerin from scratch, the most important thing that you need is a cup of animal- or plant-derived oil. Some great examples are lard, tallow, palm oil and coconut oil. You also need 2 tablespoons of lye, a cup of water and a half-cup of salt. Once you have all the needed ingredients, follow these steps:43
1. Pour the oil into a large sauce pan and heat it on a stovetop; set the temperature to high.
2. Carefully pour lye and water into the mixture and then stir thoroughly. Use a thermometer to check if the mixture has reached a temperature of 125 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it does, reduce the heat until the mixture’s temperature drops to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
3. Continue stirring the mixture for around 15 minutes. Once the mixture thickens, add the salt and allow it to cool.
4. Skim off curdles of soap on top of the mixture. If you’re planning to use the curdles, then you should pour them into a soap mold. After you’ve removed all traces of soap, pour the glycerin into a glass container and then seal it tightly. This homemade glycerin can last for three to four weeks if stored in a refrigerator.