2 glycerin tincture bottles

Glycerin Tincture vs Alcohol Tincture: Which is Best? 

May 09, 2017

You don’t have to research or shop for tinctures long before you hear about the great glycerin tincture vs alcohol tincture debate.

If you browse through articles on the subject, you’ll see that either side is equally passionate about their stance. They each have their reasons, but what does that mean for you? Should you go for alcohol or glycerin? Which is better – and why? What about all the other bases out there?

We know shopping for herbal tinctures can be a bit confusing sometimes. Of all the aspects you need to consider, the best place to start is choosing your base.

The Making of a Tincture

To decide which liquid base suits your unique lifestyle, it’s worthwhile to first understand how a tincture is made. Technically, a tincture is simply a liquid extract of an herb that’s been dissolved in some sort of liquid.

Unlike a tea, which is boiled to extract the medicinal constituents, the herbs are cold-soaked over a period of time, allowing their potent elements to transfer into the liquid.

a collection of glycerin tinctures vs alcohol tinctures

When you realize the crucial role liquid plays in the process, you start to understand why so many herbalists are passionate about their chosen base.

Whichever medium you choose, the properties of it (both good and bad) affect the overall quality and potency of your tincture.

In the herbal community, this liquid base is known as menstruum and can include alcohol, water, wine, vinegar and more. For the sake of relevancy, we’ll focus solely on alcohol and glycerin.

The 2 substances have sparked an epic glycerin vs alcohol debate - and for good reason. They represent the best of the bases, each with their own set of advantages.

Alcohol

The alcohol used in tinctures is the kind you drink – ethanol or ethyl alcohol. Keep in mind that rubbing alcohol, with which many people are familiar, is poisonous for internal use. For safety purposes, it’s important to distinguish between the two.

One of the most prevalent alcoholic bases for tinctures is vodka. It’s colorless, has no taste, no smell, and you can get your hands on it cheap. However, commercial tinctures are often made with plain, unadulterated ethanol.

To effectively preserve a tincture, you need an alcoholic medium that’s at least 20% ethanol. 

When it comes to herbal tinctures, this option certainly has its advantages. It’s a good solvent, meaning it extracts most of the medicinal constituents within an herb. It also works great as a preservative. Preservation is key when making tinctures, and alcohol tends to inactivate any enzyme that threatens to alter extracts over time. Likewise, it’s helpful in controlling chemical decomposition. 

Alcohol does have a few downfalls. For instance, it doesn’t extract resins and mucilage (sticky herbs like mullein) very well. It’s also highly flammable and not heat stable. Not to mention, alcohol has no nutritional value and doesn’t benefit the human body in any way.

Glycerin

Glycerin, or glycerol, is a thick, sweet-tasting liquid that’s clear in color. It's the natural result of breaking down oil or fat. Although sweet, it contains no sugar and has a low GI index unlike alcohol.

Note: Glycerin is also a byproduct of soap-making, so be sure the glycerin you use is safe for consumption.  

Beyond taste, glycerin is stable when heated and is better for extraction and constituent preservation than alcohol. It’s also great at extracting tannins, and it preserves the natural taste of the herb, which can be important for its therapeutic effect. Some research even suggests this substance can have an anti-oxidizing effect on the body.

dropper of a glycerin herbal tincture

Glycerin tinctures are the go-to option for children due to its taste and safety advantage. They also provide a smart solution for those wanting to avoid alcohol for health reasons.

Just like alcohol, glycerin has its own set of disadvantages. As a solvent, it has less range and is considered weaker than alcohol. It also doesn't last as long as alcohol-based varieties. 

Different Preservation Mechanisms

Alcohol and glycerin both preserve herbal constituents, but they do it differently. Alcohol denatures protein, which can negatively affect living cells and even kill them. This biological sterilization can virtually wipe out the usability of an herb’s components. On the flip side, glycerin is known to preserve them.

As for contaminants, alcohol can kill bacteria, which is both a positive and a negative. It’s good for shelf life but bad for the beneficial elements that are killed along with it. Glycerin also counteracts contaminants but does so through dehydration. It deprives the bacteria of water, which is necessary for its growth. This process has little to no effect on the usability of the herbs.

Glycerin Tincture vs Alcohol Tincture Safety

Glycerin is an unquestionably safe preservative for tinctures. Alcohol, however, has a few toxic side effects, but these are usually minor since tinctures are administered in such small doses. As for diabetics and others who struggle with blood sugar, glycerin is a safe alternative to alcohol. The fact that it's naturally sweet is an added bonus. When it comes to herbicides and pesticides, glycerin made from organic materials is readily available. Organic alcohol is also available, but it’s expensive and rarely used in tinctures.

Bottom Line

Glycerin has some distinct advantages when compared to alcohol in tinctures. One exception is the shelf life. If you need a tincture to survive the apocalypse, alcohol is your best bet. If you’re looking for something that goes down easy, is healthy and safe for children, consider a glycerin-based variety.

When researching glycerin vs alcohol, it’s important to keep your lifestyle and needs in mind. Weigh the pros and cons, and you’re sure to pick a winner.