If ingredients in skin care were people, glycerin would be the fun, popular friend who’s good at everything. Its powerful hydration ability makes glycerin a key ingredient in moisturizers, and it’s found in tons of other skin-care products, from cleaners to pore minimizers to lip balms. So where does glycerin come from, and why is it so ubiquitous?
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According to cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski, most glycerin is naturally derived from plant fats during the soap-making process called saponification. In saponification, natural oils (usually from vegetables) are combined with lye, the chemical reaction produces both soap and glycerin.
How Exactly Does Glycerin Work?
Glycerin is a humectant, which means it attracts and holds onto water. When you slather a glycerin-based product on your skin, it sponges up water both from the air and from the deeper layers of the skin and adds it to the skin surface, making skin temporarily plumper and giving it a softer, more supple feel to the touch.
And it’s not just skin care that makes use of glycerine’s attributes. According to Romanowsksi, glycerin helps foundation and other liquid cosmetics stay flexible and crack-free, and it can help soften hair when added to shampoos and conditioners. Glycerin is non-comedogenic, which means it won’t clog pores or cause breakouts, and it’s very unlikely to trigger irritation, especially in the relatively low concentrations used in skin care.
If a cream or lotion had just glycerin in it, it would leave skin feeling tacky. That’s one reason why products meant to combat dryness augment humectants like glycerin with emollients (such as shea butter or petrolatum), which coat the skin to prevent moisture from escaping, and make for a silkier application. Below, some of our favorite glycerin-based products:
Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Resurfacing Night Serum ($134)
With an abundant amount of glycerin—along with glycolic, lactic, tartaric and salicylic acids—this product works for all skin types. After washing your face, apply this serum on at night to wake up with supple and radiant skin.
The Ordinary Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA ($8)
This oil-free hydrating moisturizer delivers a double benefit by protecting and caring for the skin at the same time.
Eau Thermale Avene Skin Recovery Cream ($35)
Designed for sensitive skin, this hydrating moisturizer heals and treats skin’s outer layer while preventing future irritation and fine lines.
SkinCeuticals Triple Liquid Restore 2:4:2 ($128)
To add brightness and life to the skin, this blend of glycerin, vitamin E and antioxidants does just the trick. Upon application, it dissolves quickly into the skin and with daily use, you’ll see a significant difference in your skin’s moisture and texture.
Aesop. Rejuvenate Intensive Body Balm ($97)
The non-greasy, light texture of this product contradicts the common misconception of body lotion being heavy and uncomfortable. Glycerin goes hand in hand with macadamia and sandalwood to create a luscious balm that quenches parched skin.
Paula’s Choice Enriched Calming Toner ($21)
Formulated to remove makeup, cleanse and hydrate, this glycerin-based toner improves skin’s defenses against environmental variables, stress hormones, collagen loss and of course moisture.