Glycerin vs. Vegetable Glycerin | Is There a Difference?


If you have seen “glycerin” and “vegetable glycerin” written before, you may have wondered if there were any differences between the two. After all, they both use the word glycerin, so it can get confusing.

The difference between glycerin and vegetable glycerin is that glycerin can be plant-based or animal-based, whereas vegetable glycerin is always plant-based. The two terms are often used interchangeably, and glycerin is usually plant-based in the modern era.

Since they are so closely related, it is understandable to wonder if they can be substituted with something else. Read on to discover what glycerin is mainly used for, what it can be substituted with, and more. 

Glycerin vs. Vegetable Glycerin

Taking a closer look at glycerin and vegetable glycerin will show their differences, though they are very closely related. 

  • Glycerin is derived from both animals and plants
  • Glycerin is considered sugar alcohol
  • Vegetable glycerin is always derived from plants 
  • Large companies may use petroleum to make their glycerin, but it is not considered vegetable glycerin

Many companies that are vegetarian and vegan-friendly will specifically list vegetable glycerin in their ingredients. Many companies, however, will just list glycerin, though usually, it is vegetable glycerin they are referring to. 

Despite it being considered “alcohol,” glycerin is sweet and syrupy. 

There are forms of glycerin that are also food safe, which means it can be eaten. 

What is Glycerin Mainly Used For?

Two Bottles of Glycerin

Glycerin has many uses, and the most common one is to keep the products it is used in moist. However, many products use a form of glycerin. These include:

  • Medications
  • Soaps
  • Beauty products
  • Toothpaste
  • Food sweeteners
  • Frozen Food (to prevent ice forming)

For example, vegetable glycerin is used in tubes of toothpaste to keep the toothpaste moist. The benefit of this is to keep the toothpaste from drying up on the inside of the tube, which would make it impossible to use. 

Some soaps predominantly use glycerin as the main ingredient. Glycerin is commonly used to keep people’s skin moist, preventing it from drying out. 

A soap that uses glycerin is good at maintaining the body’s natural oils. 

Making Soap with Glycerin

Since glycerin is great at moisturizing the skin, it is often used in homemade soaps. Likewise, there are many commercial soaps you can find in the store that are made with a form of glycerin. 

If you decide you want to make your own soap, you can use either glycerin or vegetable glycerin. Making glycerin soap is relatively easy:

  • Add lye to distilled water, but never the other way around
  • The lye mixture is then added to plant oils
  • This new mixture is then heated on the stove
  • As the mixture is heating, you add glycerin and pure alcohol
  • When fully dissolved, it is then taken off the heat

Once the heating process is completed, you would then pour the mixture into a mold to make a bar of soap. The cooling process can take several days, so you must be patient. 

There are many glycerin soap recipes online that will give you the exact amounts of everything you need, but they all follow the same basic outline.

Where Can I Buy Glycerin? 

When you need glycerin, you may wonder where you can find it. Luckily, glycerin is readily available in many places, so finding it should not be an issue. 

The most common place to find glycerin is in a pharmacy. It can also be found online and in some supermarkets. However, it is important to read the label to make sure there are no added ingredients. You want the purest form of glycerin you can. 

The most common place to find glycerin is in your local pharmacy. Make sure you read the label to make sure there are no added ingredients. 

You may also find glycerin in your local supermarket, though you will have more success at a pharmacy. 

Can Glycerin Be Substituted?

Regardless of what you are using the glycerin for, you may wonder whether it can be substituted with other liquids. There are a few reasons to look for an alternative to glycerin.

  • If using animal-based glycerin, you want one that is vegan
  • You cannot get glycerin near you
  • You are allergic to glycerin

So, if you are using glycerin to maintain the moisture of a recipe, or you are using it to keep oil ingredients and water mixed properly together, or you just need a sweetener, there are things you can use instead of glycerin. 

However, what if you are not using glycerin in a food-based recipe? What if you are making soap or some other beauty care product? 

There are substitutes you can use, though it depends on what you need them for. 

What is a Good Substitute for Vegetable Glycerin?

If you are using vegetable glycerin, there are suitable substitutes you can use. Regardless of the reason you need the alternative, there are easy-to-obtain alternatives you can get right now. Some excellent alternatives to vegetable glycerin you can use include:

  • Synthetic glycerin
  • Vegetable oil
  • Corn syrup

Synthetic glycerin is usually made from corn syrup, but it will act just like regular glycerin. 

Vegetable oil and corn syrup are both easy to find in your local supermarket. Both ingredients are used to make plant-based glycerin, so they are good alternatives. 

They will act almost in the same way as glycerin, and they can be used in the same amounts, too. 

Can You Use Glycerol Instead of Glycerin?

You may have seen the word “glycerol” written and wondered if it is the same thing as glycerin and, if not, whether it can be used instead of glycerin. 

Glycerol and glycerin cannot be substituted for each other. While basically the same thing, they are also different in a few key ways:

  • Glycerin uses glycerol to be made, but it is a solution
  • Glycerol is a pure substance, not a solution
  • Glycerin is used externally, such as with beauty products
  • Glycerol is used internally, such as with medications

So, while the two substances are essentially the same thing, they cannot be used instead of each other. 

Can You Use Baby Oil Instead of Glycerin?

Another consideration is whether baby oil can be used as a substitute for glycerin. 

If you are simply using glycerin to moisturize the skin, then baby oil is a good substitute. However, if you are using glycerin in a food recipe or soap, baby oil should not be considered. It will remain an oil and not liquify like true glycerin. 

Final Thoughts

Glycerin and vegetable glycerin are very similar, and sometimes they are the same thing. It depends on whether the glycerin is made from animal-based products. 

However, many manufacturers will label vegetable glycerin as merely glycerin. This is why it is important to read the label when you decide to buy glycerin, or products using glycerin, in the store. 

Glycerin is a versatile substance that is beneficial, especially if you are making soap, using it for your skin, or using it to sweeten your food.

Thanks for stoppin’ by!

For more, check out Can You Make Soap Without Lye? | Yes and No.

Anne James

Hi, I'm Anne but my grandchildren call me Jelly Grandma. I have over 50 years of experience as a Southern cook and am a retired librarian. I love sharing what I have learned. You can find me on YouTube as well! Just click the link at the bottom of your page. I hope your visit here has been a sweet one.

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