Active substance glycerine – harmful or harmless?

Glycerin – a word that ranks high in the list of ingredients for many cosmetic products and should, therefore, be familiar to many – even if it is not really clear to most people what exactly is behind this ingredient and how it affects the body. But is glycerine harmful to the skin, the hair and the organism or is it safe to use products containing glycerine? And how exactly is it with glycerin in cosmetics? We would like to get to the bottom of these and other questions about the active ingredient glycerin in the following guide.


What exactly is glycerin and how is it produced?

Glycerin is a body’s own substance that belongs to our skin’s own moisturizing system. The question of whether glycerin is dangerous for the body can be answered with a “no”. In fact, the active ingredient Glycerin is indispensable for our skin, in particular: It binds moisture, stabilizes the skin barrier and sometimes ensures that no harmful substances penetrate the skin. Glycerine is released in the body during the hydrolysis of the skin’s own lipids and thus reaches the outer skin layer. Chemically speaking, glycerine belongs to the trivalent alcohols and is often referred to as sugar alcohol because of its sweet taste.

Apart from the body’s own glycerine, the active ingredient can also be obtained synthetically. A distinction is made here between conventional and vegetable glycerin, whereby quality and environmental impact during production are the main aspects of the distinction:

  • Conventional glycerin is usually a synthetic active ingredient obtained from crude oil processing and thus also pollutes the environment in its production.
  • Plant glycerin, on the other hand, is produced by splitting vegetable and animal fats and is, for example, a by-product of biodiesel production. For use in cosmetics or pharmaceuticals, however, the glycerol must subsequently be further processed, which is why the higher-quality, so-called pharmaceutical glycerol, is considerably more expensive than the conventionally produced starting product. It should be noted that vegetable glycerine is generally more environmentally friendly than synthetic glycerine, but vegetable glycerine is often obtained from palm oil. This means that extensive plantations are created for its production, which has to give way to large rainforest areas.

In addition, natural cosmetic products, in particular, advertise the use of so-called Bio Glycerin. This is vegetable glycerine from controlled biological origin, which is processed under the same qualitative conditions as the pharmaceutical glycerine mentioned above. Accordingly, the price is slightly higher than that of conventional glycerine or vegetable glycerine derived from palm oil.


How does glycerin work and why is it needed?

Glycerin HumidityGlycerin is above all a moisturizer. Like a mini magnet, the active ingredient attracts and retains moisture. This property is indispensable for our skin, as it needs at least 20 percent moisture to remain elastic and maintain a healthy, radiant appearance.

However, the moisture-binding properties of glycerin are also used in other areas: As a household helper, antifreeze, lubricant, humectant for foodstuffs or shisha tobacco as well as in liquids for the so-called e-cigarettes. In industry, it is also used in the manufacture of plastics, electronics, and dyes.


General health risks: To what extent is glycerin harmful?

Due to its long history of use in the food and cosmetics industry, the general effect of glycerol is based on solid research, which estimates the health risk of the active substance to be very low. Regardless of whether the active ingredient is absorbed through the skin or digestive tract or inhaled, as with the use of glycerol in liquors for e-cigarettes:

From a medical point of view, glycerol is hypoallergenic, non-carcinogenic, does not alter the genetic material and has no negative influence on embryos . Excess glycerine is metabolized relatively effortlessly by the body via so-called beta-oxidation.

Glycerin in cosmetics – the mixture makes it

Glycerin MoistureIn cosmetics, glycerin fulfills two important functions at once: On the one hand, the active ingredient ensures that the moisture in the actual product remains , i.e. that the cream, gel or paste does not dry out. On the other hand, reduces glycerine reduces the skin’s own water loss and thus dehydrates the skin. Several studies have also shown that glycerin has a positive effect on the elasticity of the skin and can counteract irritation caused by other active ingredients. Glycerin also contributes to the preservation of the skin, as it extracts a part of the water required by harmful microorganisms for reproduction. Thus glycerine actively supports other preservatives in their work.

Considering the above-mentioned aspects, it may be obvious why glycerin is used in creams, shampoos and other cosmetic products. Especially with dry skin, it seems to make sense to provide the skin with the necessary help to bind moisture from the outside. The idea of using glycerine in skin care products is basically not wrong, but there is a catch: depending on the humidity of the air, glycerine may lose its moisture-binding properties and, in the worst case, even reverse its positive effects into the negative.

If the air is too dry, the hygroscopic active ingredient draws moisture from the connective tissue and the glycerine dries out the skin instead of protecting it from moisture loss. This can be a problem, especially in winter when the heater is turned up and not properly ventilated.

The decisive factor for the positive or negative glycerin effect is the glycerin content of the product . If this is higher than 10 percent, there is a danger that the active ingredient has a negative effect on the skin and dries it out. This may be accompanied by skin irritations, irritations and the development of pimples. For this reason, glycerine is used in facial care products and is rarely dosed in concentrations above 3 percent. In body or hair care products the glycerine content is on average slightly higher, but mostly between 1 and 5 percent. This is also the case with glycerine in hand cream or glycerine shampoo, for example. Exceptions are also gel-like products, such as gel lotions or gel-like toothpaste. Here, the glycerine content is often around 10 to 20 percent. However, the active ingredient is also particularly hydrated in gels and incorporated into the product matrix.

It should also be borne in mind that glycerol is more of an excipient – the active ingredient alone is not sufficient for care. The effect and quality of a product therefore depends decisively on the recipe . In addition to glycerine, sufficient vegetable oils and an equally sufficient water content should be present to ensure effective care and to exploit the full potential of the glycerine contained.

Homemade Care Products

Homemade care products and the use of glycerin

Due to the easy availability of all required ingredients, creams, lotions, and even shampoo can now be easily made by yourself. The advantage here is that you can choose the ingredients yourself and the active ingredients can be perfectly tailored to your needs. Depending on the quality of the starting products, homemade cream is even cheaper than similar products from the trade. Because with high-quality ingredients the homemade recipes are quite comparable with luxury cosmetics, for which one must pay in the trade often not only because of the quality but also for the brand name.

The basis of cream is ultimately a mixture of water, oils and so-called emulsifiers, including glycerine. Since oil and water usually separate into two phases, emulsifiers ensure that both components can be mixed without problems. The use of glycerine as emulsifier has the advantage that the homemade lotion also benefits immediately from the moisture-binding and preservative properties of the active ingredient. As already mentioned above, both conventional and vegetable glycerine can be harmful to the skin if used in too high a concentration. Who tries himself for the first time at home-made care products, should inform therefore absolutely about suitable prescriptions and adhere exactly to the indicated quantities.

Of course, it is also possible to produce homemade natural cosmetics without glycerine. However, the absence of preservatives has the disadvantage that the products only have a limited shelf life, even if stored properly in the refrigerator. In comparison to glycerine cream, a homemade face cream without glycerine, for example, only has a shelf life of about two weeks.


Where to buy glycerine and what to consider when buying?

Buy Glycerin in PharmacyGlycerin can now be purchased in many places: In the drugstore, the pharmacy or a variety of online shops. The most important question here is what glycerine is to be used for and what quality demands are made on the active ingredient.

If, for example, you want to mix creams or other care products yourself, it is advisable to use high-quality pharmaceutical glycerine. Those who also attach importance to an environmentally friendly purchase, prefer Bio Glycerin, have to reckon with higher acquisition costs compared to conventional Glycerin. If you want to buy vegetable glycerine, you should pay attention to the instructions on the production process and the well-known organic seal of approval.

If you like to experiment, you can easily try it yourself and produce glycerine yourself. This is possible for example by heating animal fat and adding lye and salt. Exact step-by-step instructions can be found quickly via a simple web search. If you want to make glycerine yourself, you should keep in mind that the process is relatively complex. In addition, it can be accompanied by unpleasant odors and the risk of caustic burns through the caustic solution. In addition, the end product is retained without final distillation and always smaller impurities – for further use in the cosmetics and food industries, homemade glycerine is therefore generally unsuitable.


Active substance in everyday life – What can you do with glycerine?

Glycerin is more than just an important component of cosmetic products. The properties of glycerin are also practical in the household. Glycerin in its pure form, for example, is a tried and tested a household remedy for cleaning windows, spectacle lenses, and mirrors. As trivalent alcohol, glycerol is also ideal for removing stains. A few drops of glycerine in the window cleaning water prevent new dust from adhering too soon, and those who rub a thin layer of glycerine into their freezer compartments and freezers after defrosting ensure that they remain longer without annoying icing. The same applies to car windows on cold winter days. Even leather benefits from the treatment with glycerine, because here the active ingredient unfolds about the same effect as glycerine for the skin: due to its moisture-binding properties, the leather does not dry out and remains soft and supple.

This post is also available in: German

William C. Hilberg
As an author, Mr. Hilberg has published several papers on health issues that have gained international recognition. He is close to nature and loves the seclusion and activity as a freelance journalist. In his function as editor William C. Hilberg manages the entire content of PENP. Our team greatly appreciates his expertise and is proud to have him on board.