Why Glycerin is the Underrated Skincare Ingredient Key to Preventing Dry Skin

No wonder glycerin is in so many skincare products.

Person using a glycerin moisturizer on their face
Photo: Lumi Nola/Getty Images

Dry skin is nobody's idea of a good time. Without enough moisture, skin can feel uncomfortably tight, rough to the touch, and look flaky, getting in the way of smooth makeup application.

Whether you only deal with occasional dryness or you experience year-round dehydration, products with heavy-hitting moisturizing ingredients are the only thing that will relieve dry, cracked skin.

If this isn't your first rodeo, then you've probably already heard of hyaluronic acid, squalane, and ceramides because they tend to get all of the praise and marquee placement on product labels. But there's another extremely hydrating ingredient that's underrated and doesn't always get the credit it deserves, and that's glycerin.

Glycerin may not be on the top of your mind when it comes to all-star moisturizing ingredients, but if you look at the labels on the products in your medicine cabinet, you'll find that it's in almost everything.

So what makes glycerin so great that brands put it in so many products? We turned to Dr. Melanie Palm, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Art of Skin MD, as well as Ginger King, cosmetic chemist and founder of Grace Kingdom Beauty for a complete breakdown of this ridiculously hydrating ingredient.

What Is Glycerin?

Glycerin is a colorless, thick, viscous liquid found in both plants and animals. In topical skincare, it's derived from plants or synthetic ingredients.

It's a humectant, meaning that it helps keep moisture in the skin and pulls water from deeper layers of the skin to the outer layer. It also draws in moisture from the air to provide further hydration.

"It's a poor man's hyaluronic acid when it comes to moisturization for the consumers," says King.

The Benefits of Glycerin for Your Skin

In case it's not clear yet, glycerin is exceptionally hydrating. But, what also makes it great for dry skin is that its effects last long after you've applied your moisturizer.

"Glycerin is one of a precious few moisturizing ingredients that has a lasting effect, well beyond its time of application and absorption," Dr. Palm explains. "It is now known that glycerin may help enhance aquaporin function in the skin, increasing hydration to the tissue."

Aquaporins are proteins that help maintain the flow of essential hydrating substances (such as water) to the skin's outer layers. A regular flow is vital for skin to maintain its hydration — especially in the winter or drier climates.

Why Is Glycerin in So Many Skincare Products?

"For formulation, the benefits [of glycerin] are that it keeps products from drying out over time and also helps with preservation," says King. "If a product is formulated without water and just glycerin, glycerin also gives a warming sensation."

The cosmetic chemist says that glycerin can also help with preservation to keep products from contamination and makes a great solvent in lieu of "less desirable propylene glycols."

Another reason why glycerin is seemingly in nearly everything? It works for all skin types. "Glycerin is an extremely well-tolerated, safe, and common ingredient in moisturizers, especially in more sensitive skin types such as eczema or rosacea," says Dr. Palm. "It is extremely unlikely for someone to develop any sort of sensitization to glycerin."

How Should You Incorporate Glycerin into Your Skincare Routine?

You guessed it: Look for a moisturizer with glycerin in it. The ingredient is also great in cleansers because it helps prevent the skin from getting stripped and dried out.

"Glycerin, as an ingredient with occlusive agents, and other ingredients that restore the skin barrier are a recipe for success for effective moisturizers in skincare products," explains Dr. Palm. "The best use is typically once to twice daily, although increased usage may be warranted during low humidity, after in-office procedures [like lasers], or in patients with dry skin conditions such as eczema or ichthyosis vulgaris."

She recommends asking your dermatologist about what occlusive ingredients (prevent water loss in the skin) to look for in your product formulas, but mineral oil, petrolatum, lanolin, beeswax, and some plant-based oils such as argan, olive, and safflower are some common examples.

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Ahead, we're sharing a few of our favorite hydrating products with glycerin.

Aquaphor Healing Ointment

Aquaphor Healing Ointment Glycerin Skincare Product

This multitasking balm can be used wherever your skin is dry and cracked, whether that's your lips, elbows, cuticles, or all of the above. It nourishes skin and locks in that moisture — what more could you ask for?

To buy: $17; amazon.com.

Paula's Choice Water-Infusing Electrolyte Face Moisturizer

Paula's Choice Water-Infusing Electrolyte Face Moisturizer with Glycerin

Along with glycerin and ceramides, Paula's Choice's electrolyte-powered moisturizer replenishes skin above and below the surface. The lightweight texture makes it ideal for oily skin types.

To buy: $37; amazon.com.

CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser

CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser with Glycerin

CeraVe's Hydrating Cleanser is not only wildly affordable but it's gained cult-status in the beauty world since it's formulated with moisturizing ingredients that simultaneously nourish the skin while cleansing. Glycerin, ceramides, and hyaluronic acid provide skin with 24-hour hydration without any greasy, filmy residue.

To buy: $17; walgreens.com.

Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer SPF 15

Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer SPF 15 with Glycerin

This Cetaphil moisturizer is designed to streamline your morning skincare routine. In addition to hydrating skin, it provides SPF 15 protection. The formula is non-comedogenic and lightweight, so you don't have to worry about it potentially contributing to breakouts or pilling under makeup.

To buy: $15; target.com.

Neutrogena Liquid Fragrance-Free Facial Cleanser

Neutrogena Liquid Fragrance-Free Facial Cleanser with Glycerin

Specifically formulated for sensitive skin, Neutrogena's fragrance-free cleanser is a mild, hydrating face wash containing glycerin.

To buy: $9; walgreens.com.

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