Skincare’s Best-Kept Secret For Hydrated, Plump + Glowing Skin Instantly? Glycerin

Miss that dewy glow you had in your 20s and 30s? Skincare experts say glycerin, a magical age-old skincare ingredient, can restore it in seconds. And while it may not be as trendy or buzz-worthy as super-hydrating hyaluronic acid, if you use it to its full potential, glycerin can reverse years on your skin just as well. Keep reading to learn more about glycerin for skin and why you should be looking for it as an ingredient in your skincare purchases.

What is glycerin?

Overhead shot of glycerin serum for skin
Vera Livchak/Getty

Glycerin is a trihydroxy sugar alcohol compound (derived from glycerol, which comes from the Greek word “glykys,” which means “sweet”) and can be natural or manmade. It’s produced due to the breakdown of animal and vegetable fats, and some say the use of it in soaps dates back to B.C. It has 1,500 reported uses, from food to even printer ink. And it's frequently the primary vehicle in skincare products, but it is also an essential carrier of other active ingredients. “Glycerin can be found in almost every skincare product because of its hydrating, skin-loving properties and because it plays so well with other ingredients found in cosmetic formulations,” says aesthetician and ‘skinfluencer’ Cassandra Bankson.

“Plus, glycerin can absorb water and create water fluctuation in the upper layer of skin, which may be a stimulus for barrier repair,” explains Jodi LoGerfo, DNP, APRN, FNP-C. One thing it can offer that other ingredients can’t is that its effects are almost instant.  And it’s a potent humectant and emollient that attracts and retains water molecules like a magnet. “Humectants make the skin moist, replacing the natural moisturizing factors (NMF) that have been washed away or depleted,” attests Dr. LoGerfo.

What are the specific benefits of glycerin for skin?

Naturally, collagen breaks down as skin ages, and ceramide production slows, making the skin drier and weaker — causing fine lines, wrinkles and dry skin. With regular use, glycerin can counteract this process in several ways.

1. Glycerin for skin: It hydrates

Because of its binding abilities, glycerin not only helps to pull moisture into the skin, but it also helps keep it there. “Because it is so water binding, it can also help soften the skin’s outer layers and penetrate the skin between specific skin cells to help hydrate and plump the skin from the inside out,” explains Bankson.

Glycerin works by essentially forming an oily layer on the skin’s surface that acts as a barrier to not only trap moisture in and keep it from escaping but also to keep toxins from entering the skin, all while the humectants spring into action, rehydrating parched skin cells.

2. It instantly plumps skin

“Facial wrinkles and lines often look 'dehydrated,' and glycerin can quickly improve aging skin by swiftly rehydrating and enhancing its appearance when applied topically,” says Dr. LoGerfo. That means it can virtually erase fine lines and surface wrinkles before your eyes.

And because of its small molecular weight, it can “get into the spaces between our skin cells and bring that extra water and moisture to the space, helping pump up the skin from the inside out,” says Bankson. This means that not only will wrinkles and fine lines will appear less visible, the skin will look more dewy and youthful overall.

3. Glycerin for skin: It helps other skincare ingredients work even better

It’s not only a powerful ingredient on its own, but when paired with others, it boosts their ability to penetrate the skin barrier. “Because of glycerin’s chemical structure, solubility in water and relative non-reactivity, it plays very well with many other ingredients, especially other water-soluble ones,” says Bankson. “These essential ingredients can enhance the strength and durability of the skin barrier, decrease fine lines and make skin look more smooth and soft,” attests Dr. LoGerfo.

4. It can heal it

Few products can hydrate skin and heal it, but studies have proven glycerin to be a valuable tool in speeding up wound healing, treating burns and repairing damaged skin. It also has antimicrobial properties, so it protects the skin from infection and can treat eczema and psoriasis.

Related: “I’m a Dermatologist and Here’s Why *This* Is the Best Makeup for Eczema-Prone Skin.”

6. It’s safe for sensitive skin

Unlike glycolic acid and other products that may irritate the skin and require a patch test at first use, glycerin is safe and gentle. Dr. LoGerfo says that it has a skin tolerability of 20%, which means it only had 20% more adverse reactions than water in those tested on.

“It is relatively non-reactive and is not known to have any side effects, so it’s great for those who struggle with skin sensitivity,” says Bankson.

How to use glycerin for skin

Mature woman pumping glycerin onto hands

Glycerin is not considered harsh on the skin, so it's typically safe to use more than once daily. Experts say you’ll reap its full hydration benefits if you purchase glycerin-containing moisturizers and serums that ‘sit on’ the skin instead of ones you rinse or wash off. The levels of glycerin found in products can range between 1-3% up to 20 or 25%, but even 5% or less is still effective.

The best products made with glycerin for skin

We asked our experts to share their favorite tried-and-true glycerin-based products.

Clinique Moisture Surge™ 100H Auto-Replenishing Hydrator

Clinique Moisture Surge™ 100H Auto-Replenishing Hydrator (Buy from Kohl's, $29)

This under $30 oil-free, gel-based moisturizer penetrates deep and lasts 100 hours, says the company. “I love this moisturizer!” says Dr. LoGerfo. “It’s extremely hydrating and soothing and makes my skin dewy.”

Kiehl's Ultra Pure High-Potency 9.8% Glycolic Acid Serum

Kiehl's Ultra Pure High-Potency 9.8% Glycolic Acid Serum (Buy from Sephora, $35)

The glycolic-glycerin combo makes skin smooth and soft and helps improve skin’s texture, says Dr. LoGerfo. It also sloughs off dead skin cells and helps visibly refine skin texture for a smooth, glowing appearance.

Dermalogica Stabilizing Repair Cream

Dermalogica Stabilizing Repair Cream (Buy from Dermstore, $64)

Bankson says the unique combination of glycerin, oils and ingredients in this cream helps nourish and rebuild the skin barrier. “It can help transform damaged skin in one week and has additional ingredients like ceramides to aid glycerin in its hydrating and healing work,” she adds.

Philosophy Dose of Wisdom Reactivating Serum

Philosophy Dose of Wisdom Reactivating Serum (Buy from Ulta, $68)

Bankson loves this serum, and so does everyone else it seems — it has almost 1,000 5-star reviews on Ulta’s website. “Its base is water and glycerin, which supremely hydrates the skin. It also has ingredients like copper peptides and banana leaf extract that can penetrate the skin along with glycerin for supreme elasticity and plumpness,” explains Bankson.

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