An Overview of Glycerin for the Skin

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Glycerin (glycerol) is a sugar alcohol compound/liquid used to make food, soap, various types of medicine, and skin moisturizing lotion. The versatile compound was discovered as far back as 1779 by a Swedish chemist.

Glycerin has humectant properties, which means it extracts water from the dermis (the underlying layer of the skin), pulling the water into the surface of the skin.

In commercial skin moisturizing products, glycerin is often combined with various other types of compounds to optimize its therapeutic moisturizing effects. Glycerol is considered by some experts to be the most effective humectant available.

glycerin for skin

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Common Uses

Glycerin is often added to many different types of skincare products because it attracts moisture and improves the appearance of dry skin. But there are many other uses for glycerin.

In addition to cosmetic industry products, glycerin is also used in a wide range of products by the food and pharmaceutical industries. Some common uses include:

  • Baby products
  • Glues
  • Throat lozenges
  • Embalming fluids (used by morticians)
  • Food products (such as sweeteners, processed foods, packaged foods, frozen foods)
  • Pharmaceutical products (such as suppositories, cough medicines, some types of anesthetics, and other medications)
  • Toothpaste (keeps it from drying up in the tube)
  • Soaps
  • Candles
  • Deodorants
  • Makeup

One of the most common uses for glycerin today is its role in face and body moisturizers and other skincare products.

Glycerin for Eczema and Psoriasis

Glycerin may be helpful for people with skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.

Other Uses

In addition to being a humectant, glycerin is commonly used as a:

  • Hyperosmotic laxative (drawing water to the bowels to treat constipation)
  • Vehicle for numerous pharmaceutical preparations
  • Agent to help oil and water-based ingredients mix efficiently
  • Sweetening agent
  • Thickening agent
  • Moistening agent
  • Preservative 

Benefits of Glycerin

There are many benefits of glycerin when used topically (on the skin). These include:

  • Promotes the skin barrier
  • Moisturizes the epidermis
  • Speeds up the wound healing process
  • Protects skin from irritants
  • Offers an antimicrobial effect
  • Improves skin in conditions such as atopic dermatitis

Potential Side Effects

Although glycerin is not known to have many serious side effects, it’s always possible to have an adverse reaction to any substance.

Skin Patch Test

Glycerin could cause signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction, so it’s always important to do a skin patch test before using a product with glycerin for the first time.

Contact dermatitis results from direct skin exposure to a specific chemical substance. Symptoms of contact dermatitis may include:

  • Skin irritation
  • Rash (which may take days or weeks to heal)
  • Inflammation
  • Angioedema (swelling in the deep layers of the skin)
  • Itching

If you have any type of skin rash, redness of the skin, or itching after applying a skin product with glycerin, discontinue its use right away. If the rash doesn’t go away, be sure to consult with your healthcare provider.

Other Side Effects

Other side effects of glycerin may include dehydration of the skin. As a humectant, glycerin draws water from the nearest source. Especially in low-humidity conditions, the nearest source of water is the lower levels of your skin. This can dehydrate the skin.

Severe dehydration of the skin could result in blistering. For this reason, it’s a good idea to dilute pure glycerin before using it on your face and skin.

Rosewater and Glycerin

Some natural-product experts encourage the use of rosewater to dilute glycerin because rosewater is known to naturally hydrate the skin.

A 2011 study showed that using rosewater had antioxidant effects and helped to improve glycerin’s skin barrier function up to 24 hours after application.

Study on Side Effects of Glycerin

In a randomized, double-blind study, participants with atopic dermatitis were treated with one of three different treatments for 30 days:

1.    A moisturizing cream with 20% glycerin

2.    A moisturizing cream without glycerin (placebo)

3.    Skin cream with 4% urea and 4% sodium chloride

Adverse skin reactions—such as a sharp local superficial sensation called smarting—were found to be significantly less among the study participants who used the moisturizing cream with glycerin, as compared with the placebo cream or the urea-saline cream.

Safety and Effectiveness


Glycerin is considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It’s also said to be:

  • Nontoxic
  • Easy to digest (when taken internally)
  • Pleasant tasting
  • Odor-free


According to a 2016 study, glycerin is the most effective humectant in comparison with numerous other types of humectants, including:

  • Alpha hydroxy acids, such as lactic acid and glycolic acid
  • Hyaluronic acid
  • Propylene glycol and butylene glycol
  • Sorbitol
  • Urea

A Word From Verywell

Although glycerin is considered safe and effective for most people, it’s important to keep in mind that everyone’s skin (and body) is different. What works well for one person is not always effective for someone else. Also, there is always a risk that any type of skincare product could cause side effects (such as an allergic reaction).

Always read and follow the label instructions carefully when using glycerin (or any other skincare products).

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Fluhr, J.W., Bornkessel, A., Berardesca, E. Scientific Spectator. Glycerol — just a moisturizer? Biological and biophysical effects.

  2. Fluhr JW, Darlenski R, Surber C. Glycerol and the skin: holistic approach to its origin and functions. Br J Dermatol. 2008;159(1):23-34.doi:10.1111/j.1365-2133.2008.08643.x 

  3. American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. Skin allergy overview

  4. Lodén M, Andersson A-C, Anderson C, et al. A double-blind study comparing the effect of glycerin and urea on dry, eczematous skin in atopic patients. Acta Dermato-Venereologica. 2002;82(1):45-47. doi:10.1080/000155502753600885 

  5. Fluhr, J.W., Bornkessel, A., Berardesca, E. Scientific Spectator. Glycerol — just a moisturizer? Biological and biophysical effects.

  6. Sethi A, Kaur T, Malhotra S, Gambhir M. Moisturizers: The slippery road. Indian J Dermatol. 2016;61(3):279. doi:10.4103/0019-5154.1824277

By Sherry Christiansen
Sherry Christiansen is a medical writer with a healthcare background. She has worked in the hospital setting and collaborated on Alzheimer's research.