Glycerin is often talked about as a health food, or part of the all-natural, health food & body care “scene.” It actually has thousands of uses in manufacturing. It’s used to make the capsules for drugs and supplements. If you snoop around a little in the drug store, you’ll find it’s in everything from cough syrups to suppositories. It’s in candies and baked goods but also in meats; toothpaste, deodorant, skin creams and makeup. The cigarette industry employs it to preserve and keep tobacco moist. It’s even in printing ink and used to soften or add flexibility to textiles. So what is this glycerin, and is it even edible?
What is Glycerin?
Also known as glycerol, this organic compound is a sugar alcohol. It’s chemical formula is C3H5(OH)3. Glycerin is a main component of the esters called triglycerides, sometimes also referred to simply as fats or oils. Triglycerides result from the chemical reaction called “esterification,” which is the combining of an alcohol and an acid. In this case, fatty acids esterify with the sugar alcohol, glycerin.
Is it All-Natural?
According to the FDA’s definition of the terms natural and artificial additives, a natural substance must have originated from a plant or animal source. Glycerin is found in both natural and synthetic forms. The natural form is derived from fats/oils, and is predominant in the market; synthetic comes from petroleum. The two are chemically identical (C3H5(OH)30), but if the packaging doesn’t specify all-natural, assume it’s synthetic.
How is Glycerin Made?
The glycerin we find in foods, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics is obtained by extracting the sugar alcohol back out from that fat/triglyceride compound. The process can sound terribly complicated. Simply put, it involves breaking the ester bond to separate glycerin from the fatty acids. This is called transesterification. The extract is then purified through distillation.
The transesterification of glycerin is the byproduct of another chemical process, saponification (soap making). Soap is formed from fat, lye and water. When salt is added, the soap separates and rises to the top. The soap maker scrapes the cream off the top and is left with a crude form of glycerin. He then purifies and extracts the glycerin by distillation, leaving us with a slippery, clear liquid, sweet to the taste. This is the primary derivative for the sugar alcohol we find in stores and food products.
There are three main grades for glycerin:
- Crude: 44-88% pure glycerin
- Technical: 98% pure glycerin
- USP: 99.5-99.7% pure glycerin; this is the pharmaceutical grade.
Other important designations are Kosher and food-grade. Kosher will also be vegetarian.
Recently, the crude glycerin market has become saturated as a result of biodiesel production. Biodiesel is an all-natural, non-petroleum based fuel made from vegetable or animal fat. The biofuel creates a crude form of glycerin as a byproduct. Crude glycerin is not safe for ingestion or topical use and is not commercial grade. It must be purified to meet FDA standards for legal sale and distribution. Purifying can get pricey, so the biofuel industry is currently seeking the best way to recycle its byproduct safely without having to refine it.
Yes, there are brands that distribute and make products containing organic glycerin, derived from organic vegetable sources.
Is the Glycerin in Food, Drugs and Cosmetics Vegetarian?
Glycerin can be either from animal or vegetable fats. If you need vegetarian, look for packaging that specifically states vegetable or kosher glycerin, which will usually be derived from palm, coconut or soybean oil. The glycerin you’ll find listed in the ingredients of processed foods and other products, including “all-natural” ones, is most often derived from animal fats unless otherwise specified. Synthetic glycerin is highly pure, at 99.7% without further processing, and vegetarian.
Food Science and Body Care
– Low Glycemic
Although glycerin is sweet, it doesn’t significantly affect blood sugar and insulin levels, and doesn’t cause tooth decay like sugar does. It’s praised in the food industry for low-carb and low-sugar diets, and is used a lot in protein bars and shakes.
– Sweetening, Softening, Moistening
Glycerin is also “hygroscopic,” meaning it absorbs water from the air. That makes it an excellent culinary humectant because it will draw moisture to itself from inside your muffins. It lends softer texture to candies. It also has a high boiling point. When purchasing glycerin for food preparation, look for the “food-grade” designation.
– Seals in Hydration
In body care, the sugar alcohol is used in lotions, shampoos, conditioners, and other hair care products. It’s praised for its moisture enhancing properties as it will take water from out of the air and carry it to your skin. After a shower, it’ll seal in moisture, but be careful. Without the presence of water, instead of sealing in moisture, it will draw it out from your skin or hair. Most recipes using glycerin will require at least a 2:1 dilution.
What Are the Benefits of Glycerin Soap?
1. Gentle for Sensitive Skin
Most bar soaps found in the market aren’t true soaps. They’re not made purely from fat, dye and water, but contain detergents. This is fine for many people, but for those with dry or sensitive skin, or allergies, glycerin soap may be an alternative. As we’ve learned, it is a humectant that will draw the water from your shower into your skin. It’s non-toxic, non-irritant; however, some people do discover an allergy. When you first try it, be cautious. Maybe start with at spot test.
Not all glycerin soaps are vegetarian or vegan. Look for products that are labeled as vegetable based, and which don’t add milk or other animal-based moisturizers. Soap Du Jour specializes in making 100% pure natural vegetable glycerin, fragranced with essential oils.
3. Improve Skin Conditions
There are several types of skin inflammations that cause itching, burning, redness or pus. If you have atopic dermatitis (a type of eczema) or psoriasis, for example, you might try switching to glycerin soap. In studies, some participants have shown significant improvement to their skin condition by making the switch.
The pure liquid form of glycerin has also been used to treat psoriasis or other skin lesions, reportedly with excellent results. If you’re interested in making your own glycerin skin cleansers and beauty treatments, or if you’d like to try baking with a sweetener that won’t spike your blood sugar levels, there are many books and websites with recipes to try. Be careful, follow instructions, and consult with your health care professional before using glycerin as a treatment.