Glycerol and the skin: holistic approach to its origin and functions

Br J Dermatol. 2008 Jul;159(1):23-34. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2133.2008.08643.x. Epub 2008 Jul 1.


Glycerol is a trihydroxy alcohol that has been included for many years in topical dermatological preparations. In addition, endogenous glycerol plays a role in skin hydration, cutaneous elasticity and epidermal barrier repair. The aquaporin-3 transport channel and lipid metabolism in the pilosebaceous unit have been evidenced as potential pathways for endogenous delivery of glycerol and for its metabolism in the skin. Multiple effects of glycerol on the skin have been reported. The diverse actions of the polyol glycerol on the epidermis include improvement of stratum corneum hydration, skin barrier function and skin mechanical properties, inhibition of the stratum corneum lipid phase transition, protection against irritating stimuli, enhancement of desmosomal degradation, and acceleration of wound-healing processes. Even an antimicrobial effect has been demonstrated. Topical application of glycerol-containing products improves skin properties in diseases characterized by xerosis and impaired epidermal barrier function, such as atopic dermatitis. The increase of epidermal hydration by glycerol is critical in skin conditions aggravated by dry and cold environmental conditions, e.g. winter xerosis. This paper provides a review on effects of glycerol on the skin, the mechanisms of its action, and the potential applications of glycerol in dermatology.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / metabolism
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use
  • Aquaporin 3 / metabolism
  • Desmosomes / metabolism
  • Emollients / metabolism*
  • Emollients / therapeutic use
  • Glycerol / metabolism*
  • Glycerol / therapeutic use
  • Holistic Health
  • Humans
  • Irritants / therapeutic use
  • Skin / metabolism*
  • Skin Physiological Phenomena
  • Water / metabolism*
  • Wound Healing / drug effects


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Emollients
  • Irritants
  • Water
  • Aquaporin 3
  • Glycerol