What is a humectant? (with photos)

Sorbitol, a humectant commonly used in foods.

A humectant is a substance used primarily in food and cosmetics to help retain moisture. These substances are called hygroscopic, meaning they are able to absorb ambient water. Some of these additives are beneficial when consumed or used. Others, particularly some foods, are less helpful, can cause abdominal discomfort, and should probably be avoided.

Humectants are used in skin care products to help retain moisture.

A common humectant in food products is sorbitol. This is a sugar alcohol derived from sugar. It is used in diet or sugar-free foods and has fewer calories than sugar, so it is a popular choice among dieters. At doses greater than 1.76 oz (50 g), it has a laxative effect and can cause diarrhea. In the 1990s, consumer advocates successfully lobbied for product warnings to be placed on foods that contained sorbitol so that people could keep their consumption below harmful levels.

Humectants can be used in embalming fluids.

Polydextrose is another wetting food additive used to replace sugar. It is not only found in sweet foods, but often in other foods such as salad dressings. This particular substance not only replaces sugar in some foods, it can also be used as a fat or starch substitute. It also has a laxative effect, so reading food labels can help with your selection.

Mineral oil can build up under the skin and prevent it from absorbing essential vitamins and nutrients.

Glycerol can be found in foods, but it is also sometimes specifically prescribed by doctors for constipation, so again, cautious consumption is recommended. Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of glycerol is not as a humectant, but in the manufacture of biodiesel. With the current oil shortage and rising gasoline prices, many have turned to fuel alternatives such as biodiesel, and it is predicted that many more will.

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Polydextrose is a food wetting additive often found in salad dressings.

Glycerol or glycerin is a frequent addition to moisturizing lotions and skin creams. Some humectants used in skin care products are vegetable oil-based. Many work well to hydrate and smooth the skin. A substance like mineral oil, however, can actually build up under the skin and prevent it from absorbing essential vitamins and nutrients. Many skin care products contain mineral oil, even the most expensive ones. Awareness of the skin’s nutrient deprivation caused by mineral oil has spawned something of a revolution in skin care, in which vegetable oils replace the inadvisable mineral oil.

Certain wetting substances can be added to plants at the root level to help the plant collect more ambient moisture. Many gardeners prefer this as a way to save water. A humectant composed of various oils is also used in fluid embalming. They are said to restore moisture and produce a more lifelike appearance for those who will be seen in open coffins.

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