Glycerine Creams and Jellies

Although the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele [1742-1786] produced a sweet liquid containing glycerine in 1779, it was only in 1813 that the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul [1786-1889] isolated the compound and named it glycérine after the Greek word glukeros meaning sweet. Glycerine (also glycerin) was later found to be an alcohol so also became known by its scientific name, glycerol.

The primary use for glycerine in the second half of the nineteenth century was in the manufacture of nitro-glycerine explosives. However, glycerine also became interesting to the medical profession, initially for use in skin treatments.

A sweet syrupy substance, resulting from the decomposition of olive oil, or other fixed oils, in the process of saponification. It is most easily obtained by evaporating the water used in making lead plaster. It has been employed as a topical application, for burns, &c., and as an addition to poultices, to prevent their becoming dry.

(Redwood, 1848, p. 718)

Glycerine was thought by many medical professionals to have a number of advantages over traditional greasy ointments and was incorporated into treatments for a variety of skin conditions including pityriasis, eczema, psoriasis, impetigo, acne and even syphilis.

The advantages of glycerin over lard for such uses are, particularly, that it is not at all liable to rancidity; that it can be removed at any time without soap or unpleasant friction; that it does not soil and grease the garments and bed-clothing; and, perhaps, most important of all, that it dissolves or combines with the active principles more perfectly than any oil or fat, and, more readily than any such substances, may be absorbed by or distributed through the skin.

(Hartshorne, 1865, p. 30)

Given the medical interest in glycerine it was not long before beauty experts were also recommending using it to soften and protect the skin, and to treat chapped skin and lips. However, as the only supplies of good quality glycerine were made by the stearine candle industry it was relatively expensive and this limited its use.

A bottle of pure glycerine—but chemically pure, remember, without any of those salts of lime or of lead which are found in much of the glycerine sold, and which will discolor and irritate the skin—should form an indispensable adjunct in every lady’s toilet set. A tablespoonful of it in a pint of water will soften and protect the hands from the air. It should be rubbed in, but not wiped off.

(Brinton & Napheys, 1870, p. 153)

Unfortunately, some people applied undiluted glycerine to chapped skin which made the situation worse. A high concentration of glycerine had a disagreeable ‘sticky’ feel on the skin and could produce a burning sensation when applied. If pure glycerine was used, as for example on the hands, then it was recommended that the skin was first wetted before rubbing in a drop or two of glycerine. The skin would then be allowed to dry without using a towel. Given that a dilutant was needed, glycerine was often combined with an aromatic water – like rose-water or orange-flower water – to give the skin an agreeable smell at the same time.

Pure glycerin is a substance that has a powerful beautifying effect on the skin, by rendering it white, supple, soft, and glossy; no other remedy will clear a sun-burnt skin in so short a time as glycerin. An excellent wash may be made by the perfumer by mixing equal parts of thick, colorless glycerin and orange-flower water (or some other aromatic water with fine odor), possibly giving it a rose color by the addition of a very small amount of fuchsine. Concentrated glycerin must not be used as a wash, because it abstracts water from the skin and thereby produces a sensation of heat or burning.

(Askinson, 1923, p. 243)


Although it was relatively expensive, cosmetic chemists also began to produce glycerin-based cosmetics for the skin and hair.

Glycerine, an article of comparatively recent discovery is one of the most useful articles ever discovered for the purposes of the toilet, and its merits are now being fully recognized. And perfumers have not failed to avail themselves of its useful emollient properties, and to combine it with soaps and other cosmetics with the happiest results.

(Cristiani, 1877, p. 44)

The simplest glycerine cosmetic was the previously mentioned glycerine and aromatic water mixture. At first this was done with equal parts but it was soon realised that lower levels of glycerine were less likely to produce irritation. Recipes for hydrated glycerine were still being promulgated well into the twentieth century, primarily as a remedy for rough or chapped skin.

Natural glycerine, perfectly neutral, possesses hygienic properties. Perfumery thus gives us an hydrated glycerine, slightly aromatic, which is accepted as one of the best preservatives against the action of too keen or too cold air, or for skins subject to roughness, chaps and wrinkles. Prepare by taking:—

Pure glycerine, 30 per cent1 kilo.
Rose-water600 grams

Rose-water can be replaced by any other aromatic water, also by pure distilled aromatic water. But, in the latter case, filter before bottling.

(Durvelle, 1923, p. 261)

Glycerine jellies

Liquid mixtures of glycerine and aromatic water were also made into jellies by adding a thickening agent such as gelatine, agar-agar or tragacanth gum.

The glycerin gelées have the advantage over lanolin of being more economical; but, on the other hand, are attended with the drawback that they are less readily absorbed by the skin. These preparations are packed either in glasses or tubes, the latter being preferable, and more and more popular, on account of their greater handiness.
The following is a good recipe for such glycerin gelées:—

Finest white tragacanth powder50 grams
mixed with
Alcohol100 grams
Glycerin200 grams
shaken up with a suitable amount of perfume, and then quickly incorporated, by shaking, with
Water650 grams

This forms a transparent mucilage, which can be filled into bottles, etc., at once.

(Koller, 1920, p. 126)

Jelly Cream (Cerbelaud)

Agar-agar6 grams
Glycerin160 grams
Rose-water240 grams
Menthol1 gram
Alcohol, 90 per cent.4 grams

(Durvelle, 1923, p. 257)

Glycerine jellies are made with gelatine, but it is imperative that this should be water white and quite odourless. Two per cent of such a product dissolved in warm water should set to a jelly when cold, so that the consistency of any product can be based on the percentage used in comparison with this figure:—

30  Gelatine.
170  Glycerine
800  Orange flower water—triple.

Place the gelatine in 500 c.c. of water and stand overnight. Then warm until solution has been effected. Add the glycerine and the remainder of the water and run into pots.

(Poucher, 1932, p. 521)

Glycerated starch creams

Another way to thicken a glycerine and aromatic water mixture was to use starch; an idea also developed by the medical profession.

To the universal employment of glycerin in the place of lard in ointments, liniments, etc., the only objection appears to be its present greater comparative cost. This is not, however, at all so great as to prevent its being preferred in several important preparations; either by itself or in the form of glyceramyl, or “plasma.”

(Hartshorne, 1865, p. 45)

Formulae for these mixtures were referred to in the medical literature as glyceramyls, amylo-glycerins or plasmas. Cosmetic chemists generally called them starch creams or carbohydrate creams.

The glycerate of starch of pharmacy is prepared thus:—

Starch10 grams
Distilled water10 grams
Glycerine130 grams

Put the starch with the mixture of glycerine and water in a warm porcelain mortar, and heat, stirring continuously with a spatula until the contents jellify.

(Durvelle, 1923, p. 259)

Glycerated zinc oxide creams – also first made by the medical profession – could be made by adding zinc oxide to a starch cream. Zinc oxide, glycerine and rose-water were incorporated into liquid suspensions – wet whites or liquid pearls – used by women to whiten and even out the tone of the arms, neck and décolletage when in evening dress. However, as well as being thickened with starch, glycerated zinc oxide creams used higher concentrations of glycerine than those found in liquid powder suspensions.

See also: Liquid Face Powders

Like glycerine jellies, glycerated starch creams, with or without zinc oxide, were primary recommended for dehydrated skin

The glycerinated starches with zinc oxide are excellent products for dehydrated skins and for use in dry countries. The amphoteric nature of zinc oxide makes it very useful for the variations in the acidity or alkalinity of the skin.

Glycerinated Starch

Glycerine/Zinc Oxide Cream
Rose water10
Zinc oxide5
Perfume q.s. 

Moisten the starch with water, add the glycerine, and heat to 120°C. until a paste is formed. Add the zinc oxide and finally perfume.

(Gattefossé, 1959, p. 182)

Crème Simon, developed in 1860 by the pharmacist Joseph Simon in Lyons, France, generally acknowledged as the first commercial glycerine cream, may have been made in this fashion.

Glycerine cerates

Glycerine creams could also be made up with oils and waxes as a cerate. These salves were largely protective and were generally compounded to protect hands and lips from chapping.

See also: Cerates

Other uses

When methods for purifying glycerine from soap waste were developed in the late nineteenth century, glycerine became considerably cheaper and was then added to a wide range of existing cosmetics along with new products as they developed in the twentieth century. These included cleansers, skin creams, beauty milks, rouges, lipsticks, depilatories, after-shave lotions, astringents, hand creams, nail polishes, cuticle softeners and brilliantines, to name but a few. The amount of glycerine in many of these cosmetics was low so they cannot be considered to be ‘glycerines’ in the same sense as a glycerated starch cream or glycerine jelly. In many cases glycerine was included not for any notable effect on the skin but rather to help stop the cream or lotion from drying out in the tube or bottle.

Although the practice of making skin-care products with glycerine as the major component had largely died out by the end of the First World War – and explicit references to glycerine largely disappeared as well by then – glycerine and other humectants like glyceryl monostearate, sorbitol and propylene glycol went on to become an essential part of modern cosmetic formulations.

Updated: 2nd November 2015


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