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Glycerin vs Hyaluronic Acid: Battle of the Hydrators

These hydration heavyweights are headed for a showdown.

May 19, 2023

Hyaluronic acid and glycerin are two common skincare ingredients used to improve hydration, AKA make your skin look bouncy and glowing. In recent years, hyaluronic acid has been the beauty industry’s darling, popping up in all kinds of products, from serums to makeup primers. But its overlooked counterpart glycerin may finally be having her day in the sun–such is the trend cycle. What we want to know is, what’s the difference between the two? And in this battle of the hydrators, who comes out on top? 

What is hyaluronic acid?

Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring substance in the body that helps skin retain its moisture. The stuff in skincare products comes from lactic acid fermentation. It’s a humectant, which means it attracts water molecules and helps to keep them in the skin, making it appear plump and hydrated. Hyaluronic acid can hold up to 1000 times its weight in water, so it’s a moisturizing superstar. 

Fun fact: it’s also the substance used in dermal fillers like Restylane or Juvederm. 

What is glycerin?

Glycerin is a type of humectant derived from plant oils. But, just like HA, it’s a substance your skin produces naturally, too. It works by drawing water from the surrounding environment into the top layer of the skin–and by bringing water up from the dermis, or deeper skin layer. Glycerin also helps to improve the skin's barrier function. This has a positive impact on your skin health because it protects against moisture loss, and can help with inflammatory conditions like eczema.

Glycerin vs. hyaluronic acid: which one is right for me?

While both hyaluronic acid and glycerin are effective moisturizers, they work in slightly different ways. Hyaluronic acid is better at rescuing skin that’s already dehydrated to keep it from getting worse. Meanwhile, glycerin is better at drawing water into the skin and improving its barrier function. Because glycerin has a lighter molecular weight, it can penetrate more deeply. And, glycerin can pull water into the skin even when the air is very dry (Denver and Salt Lake City girls, take note).

Glycerin may also be optimal if you’re using products that can cause irritation. Hyaluronic acid is an acid, after all, and if you’re currently using an AHA or retinol product, applying HA on top of that may sting (especially with retinols–ouch). In these cases, glycerin-based products will feel more comfortable. While people can be allergic to almost anything, it’s extremely rare for people to experience irritation from glycerin, so if your skin is sensitive, rosacea-prone, or eczema-prone, glycerin should be your first port of call.

However, glycerin’s downside is that it can feel a bit heavy, so if your skin is oily or acne-prone, then hyaluronic acid could be a better choice. Just make sure to pair your hyaluronic acid product with an occlusive moisturizer. HA serum on its own isn’t enough to hydrate your skin–it needs other moisturizers alongside it to lock in all that water. In fact, using hyaluronic acid incorrectly could even make your skin more dehydrated. So whether your skin is oily or dry, make sure to use a moisturizer that’s suitable for your skin type: gel moisturizer for oily, and a richer cream texture for dry skin.

How should I use glycerin or hyaluronic acid? Where does each ingredient go in my routine? 

The great news is that you can–and maybe even should–combine these skincare ingredients for best results. (Yeah, we pulled a switcheroo on you with our ‘which one is the best’ talk. They’re both pretty great.) In the order of skincare operations, hyaluronic acid should be applied earlier in your routine, as it will help your skin absorb everything else moisturizing that follows. So, apply hyaluronic acid serum first, followed by a moisturizer or serum with glycerin. Just about every skincare brand has a hyaluronic acid serum of some kind at virtually every price point, so you’ve got plenty of options. 

Glycerin is different–you don’t have to think as much about where it goes in your routine. Apply after actives like retinol or Vitamin C in either a serum, mist, or moisturizer format. And since glycerin has been a beauty industry fave for over fifty years, it won’t be hard to find a product that contains it. Throw a dart in Sephora and you’ll find one (not literally, but you know what we mean). 

And, a PSA: if your skin is chronically dry, or you need to hide a hangover or a bad night’s sleep, a mask with either glycerin or hyaluronic acid is great for when you need to look good quickly.

So to sum up, we think both of these hydrators are fantastic and can have a place in your routine–as long as you like how they look and feel. Sensitive skin girlies, go for glycerin, and if your skin leans either very dry or very oily, give hyaluronic acid a try–but make sure to follow up with another product to seal in all that moisture. 

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