You’ve heard of physical exfoliants and chemical exfoliants – now meet their less famous cousin, enzyme exfoliants! You’ll find them in a whole bunch of popular products, like Mario Badescu Enzyme Cleansing Gel, Jurlique Fruit Enzyme Exfoliator, MUAC Triple Enzyme Peel and DIY pumpkin, kiwi, papaya or pineapple masks.
What’s an exfoliant?
If you need a refresher, an exfoliant is a product which helps detach the outer layers of the skin. Physical exfoliants do this by buffing away at the surface like sandpaper, and chemical exfoliants do this by breaking apart the glue holding the cells together (read more about AHAs and BHA here). Enzyme exfoliants are a bit more like regular chemical exfoliants, but there are some key differences.
What’s in an enzyme exfoliant?
Enzymes are proteins which perform a specific job. The enzymes used for exfoliation in skincare are protease (or proteolytic) enzymes, which break down other proteins, including those keeping your older, outer layers of skin stuck on. In particular, they’ll usually be bromelain (from pineapple, often listed as Ananas Cosmosus (Pineapple) Fruit Extract), papain (from papaya, often listed as Carica Papaya Fruit Extract), pumpkin enzyme (listed as Cucurbita Pepo (Pumpkin)) or Bacillus bacteria.
(Interestingly, these enzymes’ proteolytic action is also why pineapple and papaya make great meat tenderisers! They break down some of the protein, which makes the meat less tough. Also, canned pineapple and papaya don’t work – the heating process denatures (screws up the shape of) the enzymes.)
What’s so great about enzymes?
Firstly, they work slightly differently from other exfoliants so it gives you another tool that you can use against rough, dull skin. More importantly though, enzyme exfoliants tend to be gentler. The enzyme extracts usually have some anti-inflammatory properties, which can make them particularly good for sensitive skin. Additionally, the enzymes are stable over a wide pH range, which means they don’t need to be as acidic as AHAs and BHAs to work.
What are the disadvantages?
There just hasn’t been that much research on enzyme exfoliants for skincare. Studies have been done showing the ability of bromelain for removing dead skin from burns, and taking bromelain supplements for its anti-inflammatory action, but apart from that it’s pretty scarce. There was a lonely study which found that a 15% enzyme product could improve the deeper dermal skin layers after 3 months, much like AHAs, but very few enzyme products have that high a concentration, and no one actually knows what concentration’s necessary for effective exfoliation. Additionally, these extracts can be irritating for sensitive skin (I know this kind of contradicts the earlier point, but the annoying thing about sensitive skin is that people tend to react in different ways!).
Ella Baché Revealing Fruit Enzyme Exfoliant is the first enzyme product I’ve used – it’s actually a combination enzyme/physical exfoliant, since microcrystalline cellulose, corn starch, wheat kernel meal, oat kernel meal and rice bran are all high up in the ingredients list. It also contains both pineapple extract and papain as the enzymes, and anti-inflammatory, brightening licorice root as well. It comes as a dry powder which you mix with water and spread on your skin like a mask, then rinse off after 2-8 minutes.
It leaves my skin nice and soft, and I love the powder format which gives it a much longer shelf life than most other “natural” products. But I think I might need more! I’ll be rubbing kiwi skin on my face in this space soon…
Fein, H., Maytin, E. V., Mutasim, D. F. and Bailin, P. L., Topical Protease Therapy as a Novel Method of Epidermal Ablation: Preliminary Report, Dermatologic Surgery 2005, 31, 139–148. doi: 10.1111/j.1524-4725.2005.31034
Smith, W.P., Bishop, M., Gillis, G. and Maibach, H., Topical proteolytic enzymes affect epidermal and dermal properties, International Journal of Cosmetic Science 2007, 29, 15–21. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-2494.2007.00354
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