New skin-care trends and ingredients pop up what feels like every day, but before buzzy oils and extracts you've never heard of started boasting major benefits for your face, there was an O.G. ingredient that didn't sound like anything special — but stood the test of time for its hydrating capabilities.
Scan the ingredients of your most treasured moisturizer or your favorite body butter, and there's a good chance you'll find glycerin high up on the list — and for good reason. Ahead, we spoke to the experts about why the unsuspecting clear, scentless liquid continues to be a go-to ingredient in the skin-care world.
What is glycerin?
According to Hadley King, MD, a NYC-based dermatologist, glycerin is a powerful humectant that attracts moisture to the skin. "It attracts and binds water, which makes it a key component to an effective moisturizer," she says. Think of a humectant like glycerin as a kind of sponge that infuses moisture into the skin, keeping it plump and hydrated.
Dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, says that glycerin can be obtained from plant, animal, and chemical sources, so it's important to pay attention to origin if you prefer to avoid animal byproducts. "Animal fats, petroleum, and the oils from soybean, coconut, or palm plants are the most commonly used sources," he says. Dr. King adds that vegetable glycerin, a variant derived from plant oils, is the kind most commonly used in cosmetics. "If you see glycerin in the ingredient list of a topical skin-care product, it is generally derived from plants," she says. "Be sure to check the label to see if it says 'vegan' to be sure."
What are the benefits of using glycerin?
You'll find glycerin in all manner of skin-care products, from cleanser and moisturizer to sunscreen and even hand sanitizer, Dr. Zeichner says. The humectant's moisture-absorbing properties make it a useful addition in just about any formula to draw hydration to the skin. When paired with emollients (like squalene and ceramides), and occlusives (like petrolatum and lanolin), glycerin helps attract moisture while the other ingredients work in tandem to help lock it in.
Mary Schook, a licensed esthetician and cosmetic formulator, recommends dabbling in the DIY approach by adding a few drops of glycerin if your products need a boost of hydrating power. "You can get some organic vegetable glycerin at Whole Foods or Amazon," Schook advised in a recent Instagram post. "Add a few drops to your face cream, and whip it well to boost your formula." Schook also recommends using glycerin, or a glycerin-based serum or gel, with beauty tools like face rollers or microcurrent devices to increase slip and hydration. "It stays wet and gives good slip, especially if you give it an occasional spritz with any spray," she writes.
What are some products with glycerin I can use?
While you can buy straight-up glycerin to add to your existing products, experts also say that you can find many with the ingredient already in the formula. For acne-prone skin, Dr. King recommends using a medicated cleanser with glycerin to treat and hydrate in the same formula. "AcneFree's Oil-Free Acne Cleanser is effective and still super gentle," she says. If your skin is on the thirsty side, you can opt for a moisturizer like the Dr. Zeichner-approved Innbeauty Project Slushy Serum Moisturizer Crush. "This is a cross between a serum and moisturizer, and it uses glycerin to hydrate the skin and bakuchiol to strengthen it," he says.
Glycerin isn't only beneficial on your face: In the age of a global pandemic, when using hand sanitizer frequently is a must, Dr. King says looking for formulas with the ingredient will help keep your skin from feeling dry and cracked. "I love EO Hand Sanitizer Lavender Gel, which has vegetable glycerin, jojoba seed oil, and dimethicone to combat the drying effects of alcohol," she says. "I also like Stay Clean Moisturizing Hand Gel Sanitizer, which has glycerin and aloe to soothe irritation and dryness."
You can also seek out glycerin-infused bath and body products to keep skin hydrated from head to toe, especially as the weather gets colder. Dr. Zeichner recommends Dove Sensitive Skin Body Wash as an excellent option for dry skin. "This cleanser contains glycerin and other nourishing ingredients to cleanse the skin without compromising its barrier," he says. Dr. Zeichner adds that glycerin is generally well-tolerated for most skin types, even and especially dry or sensitive. Call it old-fashioned, but glycerin remains the ultimate skin-care security blanket.
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