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What is Glycerol? A Concise Guide to its Properties and Uses

Glycerol, sometimes referred to as glycerin or glycerine, is a simple, colorless, and odorless liquid. It is a triol compound, meaning it has three hydroxyl (OH) groups, and is known for its sweet taste and non-toxic properties. Glycerol is derived from the hydrolysis of fats and oils and is commonly found in lipids known as glycerides, which act as a backbone for these molecules.

The viscous liquid is versatile and serves a number of purposes in various industries. Glycerol’s widespread applications include use as a solvent, a sweetening agent in food, and as a key ingredient in the production of antifreeze for automobile radiators. In addition, glycerol is utilized in the pharmaceutical and skincare industries due to its ability to attract water and retain moisture.

Key Takeaways

  • Glycerol is a colorless, odorless liquid with a sweet taste, found in lipids called glycerides
  • Its properties make it useful as a solvent, sweetening agent, and a component in antifreeze mixtures
  • Glycerol has applications in various industries, including food, pharmaceutical, and skincare

Glycerol Overview

Glycerol, also known as glycerin or glycerine, is a simple triol compound with the chemical formula C3H8O3. Its systematic name is 1,2,3-propanetriol or propane-1,2,3-triol. This colorless, odorless, and viscous liquid is sweet-tasting and non-toxic.

Glycerol was first discovered in 1779 and is now widely used in various industries. It can be obtained from both plant and animal sources through the hydrolysis of fats and oils. Glycerol is a by-product of biodiesel production and is present in lipids known as glycerides.

In its pure form, glycerol serves as a versatile compound that has numerous applications. It is used in food products as a sweetener, humectant, and preservative; in cosmetics and personal care products for its moisturizing and emollient properties; and in pharmaceuticals for its solubilizing and stabilizing effects, among others.

As glycerol is technically an alcohol, it possesses solubility properties similar to water, making it valuable in various formulations, including herbal medicine and liquid nutritional supplements. The hygroscopic nature of glycerol allows it to retain moisture, resulting in its prevalent use in skin care products.

Despite being a relatively simple substance, glycerol showcases a wide array of applications, proving its adaptability and importance in various industries.

Sources and Production

Vegetable Oils

Glycerol, also known as vegetable glycerin, is derived from a variety of plant sources. It is often found in triglycerides within vegetable oils, such as soybean and coconut oil. During the production process, triglycerides are hydrolyzed, saponified, or transesterified, resulting in glycerol and fatty acid derivatives.

  • Hydrolysis: Triglyceride + 3 H2O → 3 Fatty acids + Glycerol
  • Saponification: Triglyceride + 3 NaOH → 3 Soap + Glycerol
  • Transesterification: Triglyceride → Biodiesel + Glycerol

Another notable plant source is palm trees, where glycerol can be extracted from the oil produced by these trees.

Animal Fats

Glycerol can also be obtained from animal sources, such as tallow. Similar to the process with vegetable oils, glycerol within animal fats exists in the form of triglycerides. The process of hydrolysis, saponification, or transesterification ultimately produces glycerol and the corresponding fatty acid derivatives.

Aside from these natural sources, glycerol can also be produced synthetically from propylene, a petrochemical compound with three carbon atoms and double bonds.

It is essential to be aware of all these sources and processes, as glycerol is an important intermediate in carbohydrate and lipid metabolism. Moreover, glycerol represents an emerging renewable bio-derived feedstock for producing hydrogen through steam reforming reactions, demonstrating its versatility and potential for industrial applications.



Glycerol is a highly soluble substance. It is miscible in water, forming a clear, colorless solution when dissolved. Additionally, glycerol is soluble in alcohol and acetone but has limited solubility in hydrocarbons and oils.

Hygroscopic Nature

Glycerol exhibits hygroscopic properties, meaning it has the ability to absorb water from the air. This characteristic makes it effective as a humectant in various applications – it can help to prevent the drying out of substances and maintain their moisture content.

Boiling and Melting Points

The boiling and melting points of glycerol are fairly high compared to other alcohols. The melting point of glycerol is 18.17°C (64.71°F), while its boiling point is 290°C (554°F). These attributes contribute to its stability and viability for use in various industries and applications.

Uses and Applications

Cosmetics and Personal Care

Glycerol is a versatile ingredient widely used in the cosmetics and personal care industry. As a humectant, it helps retain moisture, making it an essential component in products such as creams, lotions, and soaps. It is commonly found in formulations for skincare, hair care, and even toothpaste. Glycerol is often used to replace more hazardous components such as propylene glycol in cosmetic formulations.

Food Industry

In the food industry, glycerol (also known as glycerin or E422) serves as a sugar alcohol and solvent. It is considered safe for consumption by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), allowing it to be used for various purposes, including:

  • As a sweetening agent in low-calorie foods and sugar-free products
  • As a softening agent in candies and cakes
  • In the formulation of food emulsifiers
  • As a humectant in the production of dried fruits


Due to its antimicrobial and antiviral properties, glycerol is utilized for medical purposes, including:

  • Wound and burn treatments
  • Relief from occasional constipation
  • Improving hydration and performance in athletes
  • Reducing inflammation in the wounded areas

However, it should be noted that glycerol cannot be used for the treatment of third-degree burns.


Glycerol is a byproduct of biodiesel production, making it an essential component for biofuels. It can be converted into various products, such as:

  • Soaps and detergents
  • Resins
  • Tobacco

By using glycerol in the production of biofuels, companies can create more sustainable and environmentally-friendly products.

Health Benefits and Considerations


Glycerol is known to help with hydration, particularly for athletes. It is taken orally to maintain hydration levels by preventing water loss during exercise and can help the body replace fluids lost due to diarrhea or vomiting. Its moisture-retaining capabilities create a balance in the body’s water levels, thus supporting optimal hydration status.

Skin Protection and Moisturization

Glycerol offers several benefits for the skin. It is often used in skincare products for its ability to enhance the skin’s moisture-retaining capabilities. By improving the structure of the skin’s outer layer, known as the stratum corneum, glycerol contributes to overall skin health. Additionally, its hydrating properties help protect the skin from external factors and reduce inflammation.

Laxative Effects

Glycerol can be used as a laxative to alleviate constipation. When in the gut, it attracts water to the intestines, softening stools, and easing bowel movements. This makes it an effective remedy for constipation, helping to promote regularity and improve overall gut health.

Potential Side Effects

While glycerol offers numerous health benefits, there are some potential side effects to consider. In low concentrations, glycerol is relatively non-toxic and safe. However, excessive consumption can lead to irritation in the digestive system or other adverse effects. As with any supplement or medication, it’s essential to follow dosage recommendations and consult a healthcare professional if you experience any concerns or adverse reactions.

Safety and Regulations

Glycerol, also known as glycerin or 1,2,3-Propanetriol, is a widely used chemical in various industries. As a colorless, odorless, and sweet-tasting viscous liquid, it demonstrates versatility in applications such as food additives, pharmaceuticals, and personal care products.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved glycerol for use as a food additive and generally recognized it as safe (GRAS) when used as intended1. This approval extends to its use as an additive to food packaging materials, such as when it migrates to food from paper and paperboard products[^5^][^6^].

In addition to the FDA’s safety assessment, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has established guidelines for the exposure limits of glycerin in a mist form2. These guidelines aim to ensure the protection of workers in industries where glycerin is utilized.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has also evaluated glycerol (E 422) as a food additive, authorizing its use in accordance with Annex II and Annex III of Regulation (EC) No 1333/2008 on food additives[^7^]. Specific purity criteria for glycerol have been defined in the Commission Regulation (EU) No 231/2012.

In summary, glycerol is generally considered safe and regulated by governing bodies such as the FDA, NIOSH, and EFSA. These organizations have established guidelines for its use in various applications and industries, ensuring its safety for both consumers and those working with the chemical.

Precautions and Interactions


Glycerol is generally safe for children when used under proper supervision and in appropriate doses. However, it is essential to consult with a healthcare professional before giving glycerol to children, as incorrect dosing can lead to dehydration and other side effects.


There is limited information regarding the use of glycerol during pregnancy. Pregnant women should consult with their healthcare provider before using glycerol to discuss potential risks and benefits. It is essential to use glycerol only when clearly needed and in the appropriate dosage.

Allergic Reactions

Although rare, some individuals may experience allergic reactions to glycerol. Common symptoms of an allergic reaction include redness, itching, headaches, dizziness, and nausea. If you suspect an allergic reaction to glycerol, discontinue its use and seek medical attention immediately.

When using glycerol as medicine or as a food additive, it is crucial to follow the recommended dosing guidelines to minimize potential side effects such as diarrhea and dehydration. Consult with a healthcare professional if you have concerns about glycerol use and potential interactions with other medications.

Glycerol in Sports and Athletics

Athletic Performance

Glycerol is a 3-carbon sugar alcohol that plays a crucial role in hydration, particularly for athletes who train and compete for long periods. It allows for more effective hydration by improving the body’s retention of water and reducing urinary output after consuming fluids3. This increased level of hydration helps working muscles retain water, enabling the body to push its training efforts harder even when fatigued2. As a component of dietary fats derived from plants or animals, glycerol is safe for human consumption and can be found in foods such as soybeans and tallow4.

Possible Risks

While glycerol offers benefits in terms of hydration and athletic performance, it is essential to consider any possible risks before using it as a supplement. As with any supplement or medication, it is advised to consult with a healthcare provider prior to use, especially if you are managing any underlying health conditions or have a history of reactions to supplements.

Although glycerol is generally safe for consumption and has been used by athletes for years, there have been some reported cases of severe adverse reactions such as stroke, meningitis, and death1. These instances, however, are rare and typically involve individuals with pre-existing health conditions or those who consume glycerol in excessive amounts. To minimize any potential risks, always follow recommended dosages and guidelines provided by healthcare professionals or manufacturers.

In conclusion, glycerol has the potential to improve athletic performance by maintaining high levels of hydration and allowing athletes to push their bodies harder during exercise. Before adding glycerol to their training regimen, athletes should be mindful of any possible risks and always consult with a healthcare provider.

Alternatives and Supplements

Glycerol, also known as glycerin or glycerine, is a naturally occurring liquid substance found in many plant-based oils. It is a clear, odorless liquid with a mild, sweet taste. Although glycerol is used for various purposes such as a sweetening agent, solvent, and a medicine, there are alternatives and supplements available for specific uses and health purposes.

While glycerol is sometimes used as a sugar substitute, there are other options such as acesulfame potassium (Sweet One, Sunett), advantame, aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), which are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be used in foods and drinks.

In the context of dietary supplements, calcium is an essential mineral for maintaining strong bones and teeth. It also plays a vital role in muscle function, nerve transmission, and hormonal secretion. Calcium supplements are available to address deficiencies or to support individuals with specific conditions, such as osteoporosis.

Chromium is another trace element that plays a crucial role in maintaining normal glucose metabolism. It is commonly used as a supplement to support healthy blood sugar levels and assist in weight management. Studies have also shown potential benefits for people with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and type 2 diabetes.

Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles. It is often used as a supplement to help address issues related to insomnia, jet lag, or shift work. Melatonin supplements can promote better sleep quality and help people establish a more consistent sleep pattern.

Probiotics are live microorganisms that may confer health benefits when consumed in sufficient amounts. Often referred to as “good” or “friendly” bacteria, probiotics can be found in various fermented foods or taken as supplements to support a healthy digestive system. They may also help improve immune function, reduce inflammation, and address specific conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

When it comes to glycerol supplements specifically, some popular options include Metabolic Nutrition CGP, which is a creatine glycerol phosphate supplement that helps with hydration, muscle growth, and performance. It is available in multiple flavors and is free from sugar, gluten, and soy.

In conclusion, while glycerol serves many purposes, there are several alternative supplements and options available to cater to specific health and dietary needs. It is essential to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new supplement regimen.

Environmental Impact and Issues

Biodiesel Production

Glycerol is a by-product of biodiesel production. In this process, limited oil reserves and high transportation costs push towards carbon-neutral, renewable, and sustainable fuels. Biodiesel is considered an alternative to fossil fuels, as it helps to reduce global dependence on them and the associated greenhouse effect4. However, the surplus of crude glycerol generated during biodiesel production has led to fluctuations in consumer prices and environmental concerns1. Treatment of this crude glycerol is necessary to avoid causing harm to the environment.


Acrolein is a toxic substance formed during the breakdown of glycerol. It can be found in various industrial processes, including the production of some chemicals. One of the environmental issues related to acrolein production is its potential to contaminate water supplies, leading to potential harm for both human and environmental health. Proper treatment and disposal methods must be employed to prevent this pollutant from causing negative impacts.


Glycerol is used as a humectant in tobacco products, including cigarettes. This helps to maintain the moisture content of the tobacco and contributes to the overall smoking experience. However, glycerol may undergo thermal decomposition during the burning of a cigarette, which can result in the formation of potentially harmful compounds such as acrolein[^5^]. As such, the use of glycerol in cigarettes may have negative consequences for both individual human health and the environment.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the primary uses of glycerol?

Glycerol, also known as glycerine or glycerin, is a colorless, odorless, and sweet-tasting substance that has a variety of applications. It is widely used in the food industry as a sweetener, humectant, and solvent. In the pharmaceutical industry, glycerol is used as a laxative in the form of glycerin suppositories, and as an ingredient in lotions, soaps, and cough syrups. Additionally, glycerol is often employed in personal care products and cosmetics as a natural humectant, helping to maintain skin’s hydration.

How does glycerol function in the human body?

In the human body, glycerol plays a central role in the metabolism of fats. It is a component of triglycerides, which are the main form of stored energy in fat cells. Glycerol can also be produced and utilized by the liver for energy when blood glucose levels are low. When used as a laxative in the form of glycerin suppositories, glycerol helps relieve constipation by drawing water into the rectum, softening the stool and promoting bowel movements.

Is glycerol considered a lipid?

Glycerol itself is not a lipid, but it is a backbone molecule in the formation of lipids such as triglycerides and phospholipids. Lipids are essential components of cells, and they function as energy storage and structural molecules in the body.

What are the benefits of glycerol supplements?

Glycerol supplements are commonly used by athletes and fitness enthusiasts to improve hydration, reduce fatigue, and enhance performance. It helps draw water into muscle cells, leading to better cell hydration and potentially improved performance during endurance activities. Glycerol may also aid in preventing muscle cramps and reducing the risk of dehydration during exercise.

How does glycerol affect human health?

When consumed in moderate amounts, glycerol is generally considered safe and has no significant adverse health effects. However, excessive consumption of glycerol may cause digestive issues, including diarrhea and nausea. Additionally, it is important to note that glycerol should not be ingested by individuals with diabetes without consulting a healthcare professional, as it can interfere with blood glucose regulation.

What is the chemical structure of glycerol?

Glycerol is a simple molecule with the chemical formula C3H8O3. It is a trihydric alcohol, meaning it has three hydroxyl (OH) groups. The structure consists of a three-carbon linear chain with hydroxyl groups attached to each of the carbons. This configuration enables glycerol to form strong hydrogen bonds, making it soluble in water and a natural humectant.


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