All about Glycerin

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Glycerin is a neutral, sweet-tasting, colorless, thick liquid which freezes to a gummy paste and which has a high boiling point. Glycerin can be dissolved into water or alcohol, but not oils. On the other hand, many things will dissolve into glycerin easier than they do into water or alcohol. So it is a good solvent.

Glycerin is also highly “hygroscopic” which means that it absorbs water from the air. Example: if you left a bottle of pure glycerin exposed to air in your kitchen, it would take moisture from the air and eventually, it would become 80 per glycerin and 20 percent water. Because of this hygroscopic quality, pure, 100 percent glycerin placed on the tongue may raise a blister, since it is dehydrating. Diluted with water, however, it will soften your skin. (Note: While people say this softening is the result of the glycerin attracting moisture to your skin, there is heated debate as to whether or not the glycerin has some other properties all its own which are helpful to the skin. Summed up, the current thinking is “We know glycerin softens the skin. Some people think its because it attracts moisture, but there could be other reasons.”)

Where does glycerin come from?

Up until 1889, people didn’t know how to recover glycerine from the soapmaking process, so commercially produced glycerin mostly came from the candlemaking industry (remember, back then candles were made from animal fats). In 1889, a viable way to separate the glycerin out of the soap was finally implemented. Since the number one use of glycerin was to make nitroglycerin, which was used to make dynamite, making soap suddenly became a lot more profitable! I have an untested theory that you could trace the roots of most big soapmakers (and the “fall” of the small, local soapmaker) to about this time in history.

The process of removing the glycerin from the soap is fairly complicated (and of course, there are a lot of variations on the theme). In the most simplest terms: you make soap out of fats and lye. The fats already contain glycerin as part of their chemical makeup (both animal and vegetable fats contain from 7% – 13% glycerine). When the fats and lye interact, soap is formed, and the glycerin is left out as a “byproduct”. But, while it’s chemically separate, it’s still blended into the soap mix. These days, most glycerin is made from vegetable.

NB: Be careful with Glycerin during dry, cold months eg. Winter. Glycerin is a humectant and works by drawing moisture. It’s great for warmer, more humid months as it’ll draw moisture from the air into your hair. In drier times, it’ll do the reverse and draw moisture from your hair, resulting in dry feeling hair. So maybe have 2 daily spritzes. One for more humid/warmer months which would include glycerin. The other can have an extra oil added in place of the glycerin, maybe castor which is supposed to be good at battling frizz.


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