If you have an eye for effective beauty products, you’ve likely seen a common ingredient throughout many lotions, moisturizers and more — glycerin. It’s a funky name to be sure, but a name that bears repeating, and remembering.
What exactly is it, and is it really safe to use — specifically for hair? The short answer is yes. Glycerin, or glycerol, is a colorless, odorless sugar alcohol that exists naturally in plant oils and animal fats (and it can also be artificially synthesized). It is a humectant, which means it’s a substance that can be used to reduce the loss of moisture. Your hair should deeply care about that statement because glycerin can help pull in water from the air into the hair shaft, making for a happy, healthy and hydrated head of hair. Sounds a little like magic if you ask us.
Especially during the winter months, when itchiness takes hold of our dry scalps, this affordable ingredient can be a godsend — helping to also reduce frizz by smoothing down the hair cuticle, and prevent hair from becoming brittle and prone to breakage.
Finally the hair care industry is taking note of what the cosmetics world has known for quite some time — glycerin is your hair’s friend, especially when used properly. Let’s get into it.
With glycerin’s ability to retain moisture, it becomes a versatile powerhouse of an ingredient with numerous benefits when added to a hair care routine — improved elasticity, much-needed hydration and reduced frizz to name a few.
In one study that set out to determine its effectiveness in reducing dandruff, it was concluded that a leave-in treatment used over an 8-week period resulted in significant dandruff reduction. Miracle ingredient? Maybe not. Noteworthy results. Most definitely.
It is, however, important to choose products containing glycerin in moderation and to be aware of how environmental conditions — like humidity, which we will get into later — can affect it.
Similarly, if opting for a DIY product version, be forewarned that you never want to use undiluted glycerin. It is necessary to pair glycerin with water, oils or other serums to ensure it doesn’t become a weight, or sticky, grease machine (that’s the technical term), on your hair. Many recommend making your own spray that acts as a leave-in treatment. The breakdown for such a concoction might look like this: 2 tablespoons of glycerin, ½ cup water and a few drops of your favorite essential oil. Whether it’s a DIY product or one you purchase, the benefits remain.
Particularly optimal for those with dehydrated, coarse or thinning hair—or those prone to dry scalp or dandruff—glycerin is still effective for most, if not all hair types. And since so many of us have beautiful, healthy-looking hair goals, glycerin is an ingredient to take note of.
As a natural humectant that attracts and retains moisture, glycerin quite literally draws moisture into the scalp via the environment to provide much-needed hydration. If you apply it, moisture will come.
If you are prone to dry or frizzy hair, you know that prevention is key and moisture is your friend. Since glycerin retains moisture, it inherently helps dramatically reduce frizz and static. If you’re a curly girl, it can enhance your curl pattern, bringing it back to its most magnificent, natural state.
The overall benefits of glycerin on scalp and hair health naturally help contribute to new hair growth, nourishing the hair and reducing breakage. You take care of it, it takes care of you, sort of thing. It also particularly helps to stimulate hair growth by promoting blood circulation in the scalp. In short, hair growth is optimized when glycerin is used properly.
Glycerin can act as a protective barrier on the hair, preventing damage from heat-styling tools like flat irons, curling irons and blow dryers. But because it carries heat very well, let this also be a warning that if you do plan to use heating tools, make sure it’s not on a day when you’ve applied glycerin to your hair.
Glycerin has a prominent conditioning effect, which can help soften and smooth down the hair cuticle, giving the hair a shinier, more lustrous look. If you have curly hair, glycerin’s hydrating effect can also improve your curls’ appearance, taming frizz and unruly strands. The added protective layer it provides also helps thicken hair (if you have thinning hair, read that again!), giving it a soft and healthy bounce.
Glycerin’s versatility means it can be used in a variety of ways to improve your hair’s health and appearance. So if you’re looking for a natural, effective way to improve the lusciousness of your locks, glycerin may be the answer. Here are a few of our top tips for how to use it.
Look for shampoos, conditioners and leave-in treatments that contain glycerin as one of the main ingredients.
If your hair is particularly dry or damaged, consider a glycerin-based hair mask that you can apply one or two times a week as a leave-in treatment. 30 minutes is the sweet spot.
As we said before, when used on hair, glycerin must be diluted, or paired with other oils and serums to make sure it’s not weighing your hair down. If making your own hair care products is in your wheelhouse, there are numerous additives that can be combined with glycerin (that you source yourself) to create an effective product. Additives include essential oils, coconut oil, castor oil, aloe vera, honey, olive oil, even a beaten egg!
While glycerin, under the right circumstances, can be beneficial for hair, if you live in a humid climate, you may want to use glycerin-based products sparingly as too much glycerin can actually weigh the hair down (from excess moisture retention), causing it to become limp or greasy.
While generally safe to use on most, if not all, hair types, if you have any questions or concerns about adding glycerin to your hair care routine, consult with a professional stylist or dermatologist. Anything new can be exciting, but also at times, overwhelming.
While glycerin is generally safe for use on hair, it's important to use it in moderation and be aware of the potential side effects and precautions.
Because it’s a natural humectant (as we’ve seen… a positive and a negative), too much glycerin, or using it in humid environments, can cause hair to become greasy or weighed down. Just something to keep in mind.
While this magical elixir has the ability to attract and retain moisture, if it's not properly diluted or combined with other moisturizing ingredients, it can actually cause the very opposite — namely, dryness and damage to the hair.
As with any new ingredient or product that you introduce to your routine, certain people — for one reason or another — may experience adverse reactions like itching, redness and swelling. Though uncommon, it’s still important to do a patch test before applying to your full head of hair.
A word of caution with the use of glycerin on freshly colored hair. Cliff’s notes version — don’t do it. Glycerin may strip color, so it’s best to wait if chemically treating your hair in any way. Some experts say to wait for two washes to avoid stripping the color.
Not all glycerin-based hair care products are created equal. Certain products may contain harsh chemicals or fragrances that can irritate the scalp or damage the hair, so pay attention to what type is being used. Vegetable glycerin is the most common form, popular in cosmetics, while animal-derived glycerin (from animal fats) is more commonly used in beauty and personal care products.
Summarizing everything we’ve learned about this superpower of an ingredient, we now know the plethora of benefits glycerin can provide for our hair. But, and this is a big but, only when used appropriately. Never use glycerin without diluting it first, but once you do, you can feel good knowing that you’re doing your hair a major hydrating service by incorporating glycerin into your routine. Of course, there are a number of other ways — and products — that can help strengthen your hair, but glycerin is certainly on the shortlist. As always, you can utilize our salon locator to get in touch with one of our resident experts should you have more questions on adding glycerin to your hair care routine.
by Morgan Hanson, featured contributor