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Glycerin: Does It Really Moisturize the Skin?

Reviewed by Marta April 28, 2013 39 Comments

The other day I spotted a brand called Yu-Be that claims to a number-one-best-seller in Japan with little more than glycerin as the active ingredient. Now, I regard glycerin as the cosmetic equivalent of wearing a T-shirt in winter: It's better than nothing, but not exactly a heavy gun in terms of protection. Still, there was something about Yu-Be that stopped me in my tracks. Then Mary Beth left left a comment on a review of a Tilvee cream saying she avoids glycerin at all costs. I checked Truth In Aging's posts and found that they could be summed up as contradictory. I was going to have to find out more about glycerin.

Now here's what's confusing about glycerin. The most commonly stated claim about glycerin is that it helps the skin attract and retain moisture. Then the next thing that you'll read is that glycerin draws moisture from your own dermis up to your epidemis. Your skin might feel moisturized, but you have just borrowed from Peter to pay Paul and ultimately it will get dryer. I also found plenty of references claiming that in order for glycerin to attract water from the atmosphere, humidity must be higher than 70%. Glycerin may work in Singapore (when I was there, humidity was 96%), but isn't going to be much use in a dry New York winter. My T-shirt analogy was beginning to hold up.

The Truth About Glycerin

But where was the hard evidence to back up all these claims? Well after several hours of digging around, clinical research seems to back up the idea that glycerin is friend not foe.

One of the most impressive studies was conducted by Appa et al on 394 patients with severely dry skin. 16 moisturizers were tested against two high-glycerin creams over a five-year period. The glycerin won hands down and resulted in an increased thickness of the corneocytes. This is backed up by other research. For example, in a placebo-controlled, double-blind study at the Friedrich Schiller University Department of Dermatology in 2008, researchers investigated the effects of glycerin on atopic dermatitis on human subjects who were treated twice daily for four weeks. The patients receiving the glycerin showed significant improvement in the hydration of the outer layer of skin, and the skin's normal protective barrier function was restored.

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A blend of glycerin and dimethicone got the thumbs up another study which found that epidermal thickness increased, barrier function improved and melanin intensity decreased. The researchers concluded that "even nonxerotic, photoaged skin may appear younger, benefiting structurally and functionally from routine use of moisturizers containing dimethicone and glycerine" (source).

If you need more convincing, consider that glycerin has been shown to provide a protective barrier, help the skin cells mature properly and aid bruised and swollen skin.

There's no two ways about it, though: glycerin does make skin feel much softer. So something must be going on. In turns out that recent studies have shown that glycerin helps degrade the corneodesmosomes that hold skin cells together. The end effect of this degradation is more consistent desquamation (shedding of the outer layer of skin) and ultimately smoother-looking skin. The thing is, I'm not sure I really want to degrade my corneo-whatsits.

Glycerin in Yu-Be's Soft Touch

Yu-Be's soft touch is enhanced by adding in glyceryl stearate, which is made by reacting glycerin with stearic acid, a fatty acid obtained from animal and vegetable fats and oils. This creates a film over the skin that will feel soft to the touch. It is possible that it does prevent moisture loss by forming a barrier.

Glycerin can come from palm or other plant oils, but also from petroleum. Unfortunately, we are rarely given the source by cosmetic makers.

Having said all of this, Yu-Be's moisturizer isn't bad for $16. In addition to aforementioned, it has vitamins E and B, as well as anti-inflammatory licorice.

Read more:

• Is Glycerin Good or Bad for Your Skin?

• Five Best Moisturizers of 2013

Ingredients in Yu-Be Moisturizing Skin Cream: Glycerin, Water, Isopropyl Myristate, Stearic Acid, Glyceryl Stearate SE, Triethanolamine, Tocopheryl Acetate (Vitamin E), Glycyrrhetinic Acid, Camphor, Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Hydrogenated coco-glycerides, Stearyl Alcohol, Polysorbate 80, EDTA, Methylparaben.

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  • October 6, 2016

    by Linda

    Hi I stumbled across this article and found it very interesting I live in the uk on the pennines where it can be particularly cold and windy my skin is suffering at the moment from pimples which I never had before but was advised feom my doctor that due to early menopause this can happen. I am really interested in trying out glycerin and wondering is this the glycerin that you would purchase from a local pharmacy.

  • February 16, 2016

    by Sue

    Personally, I love pure glycerin on my face, lips, chest and hands. I'm 55 with somewhat normal skin at this point. I've tried many facial moisturizers, some expensive and some really expensive and I find myself reaching for my $2.99 4oz bottle of glycerin. It gives my face a nice glow, I think I look healthy and younger, my makeup goes on great and looks great. I keep it in the bathroom cabinet and smooth it over my slightly damp face. It's winter here in NE, so I also use an ultrasonic humidifier next to my bed at night so that the vapor falls upon my face. BTW I don't look 55.

  • February 12, 2016

    by k

    I've been using glycerine for about a month already .....I have tried almost everything for my really bad dry flaky skin I also have acne so I always felt that that all this dryness was the cause of more breakouts..seriously after using glycerine after putting some sunscreen my skin is so soft and looks healthier n I am actually not breaking out anymore I'm so happy I tried this it's really helping out my acne and my dry skin !!!!!

  • February 5, 2016

    by TINKER

    I dissolve a tablespoon each of Dead Sea Salt & Epsom Salt in warm water in a 250ml spray bottle then add a bit of glycerin to it. It has helped the KP on my thighs & my skin is so smooth everywhere else! :-)

  • February 2, 2016

    by y.nunez

    Thanks Tim! And thanks for this article.

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