Enzymes are an ingredient that have been thrown around a lot lately. While you may have seen them on plenty of skincare labels, if you weren’t paying attention in science class (which may have been a long time ago), then you might be a little murky on exactly what enzymes are and what they do.“Enzymes are instrumental in chemical reactions,” explains Alicia Zalka, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and founder of Surface Deep. “They are a sort of spark plug that gets a metabolic process moving forward. They power a variety of physiological systems in the body, e.g. digestion.”
Meet the Expert
Type of Ingredient: Protein
Main Benefits: Helps exfoliate skin, boosts DNA repair products, works well with other ingredients.
Who Should Use It: Almost anyone who finds it in their skincare products.
How Often Can You Use It? Daily in a formulated product.
Works Well With: Most other ingredients.
Don't Use With: It plays well with other ingredients, but should be used in moderation with other active skincare ingredients, particularly exfoliators.
Read on to learn more about the benefits of enzymes for skin.
What Are Enzymes?
“Enzymes are proteins, which are chains of amino acids,” says celebrity dermatologist Harold Lancer, M.D., founder of Lancer Skincare. A key part of cell metabolism, enzymes regulate the rate of a chemical reaction in the cell without altering it in the process.
“When they're used in skincare as an ingredient, they may have an original, holistic, natural, so-called origin, but they've been recreated or reborn into active ingredients in a product so that their main function in life is to help signal communication in cell membranes,” Dr. Lancer explains. “So, if you're adding enzymes to a product, it's to make the activity of the product greater.”
Benefits of Enzymes for Skin
The talent list for enzymes starts with their exfoliating abilities. They help break down keratin protein in the uppermost layer of the skin to gently break up dead skin cells. This not only leads to smoother, healthier looking sin, but it also helps fight pigmentation and breakouts. “They offer a similar endpoint that alpha hydroxy acids do,” Dr. Zalka says. “Enzymes may offer some skin types a kinder, gentler way of exfoliation and renewal.”
Ahead, the perks of using enzyme-infused skincare:
- Exfoliation: “For the skin, enzymes help break up the keratinocytes which, as part of the life cycle of the skin surface, gradually renew themselves,” Dr. Zalka says. “Enter enzymes which assist in the skin's natural process to be refreshed.”
- Boost DNA repair products: “Usually enzymes are added into what's called DNA repair products, such as sun damage reversal or anti-aging products,” Dr. Lancer says. “Chances are if it's a very high-quality product it will have some sort of enzymes that facilitate a greater degree of cell membrane signaling that will perhaps induce DNA repair.”
- Safe for sensitive skin: “For those with rosacea or reactive, aka sensitive skin, enzymes are an excellent choice to enhance the skin appearance minus side effects of irritation,” Dr. Zalka says.
- Play nicely with other ingredients: “They work very well with just about everything,” Dr. Lancer says.
- Protect the acid mantle: “Enzymes typically maintain a neutral pH, which can keep the skin's acid mantle at its desired set point and help keep skin in its best form,” Dr. Zalka says.
Side Effects of Using Enzymes
“As with any form of exfoliation or system that speeds up the skin cell turnover, moderation is key,” Dr. Zalka says. “When starting an enzyme product regimen at home or with a professional, start slowly to see how your personal journey unfolds. If your skin tolerates let's say, a pumpkin enzyme facial done by your esthetician, perhaps consider using an enzyme cleaner at home two days a week. But, it is always important to test the waters first.” Like any other new product, it’s best to do a patch test first to make sure you don’t have any negative reaction.
It’s also best to use enzymes in moderation, especially if you use other active skincare ingredients. “Enzymes can be used instead of other exfoliators, but using them at the same time as retinol might lead to potential for peeling or inflammation,” Dr. Zalka says. “I suggest not using these in combination on the same application or same day, unless advised by a trusted skin care professional or if your skin is at baseline, oily, and highly tolerant.”
How to Use Them
If you want to make the most out of enzymes in skincare, make sure the product you’re using has enough of the ingredient for it to make a difference. “I think the important thing is to know that if a manufacturer or a brand is promoting the enzyme concept within their product, then the price should not be a common low price point,” Dr. Lancer says. “It depends on where that enzyme ingredient is on the ingredient list. If it's the last part of the list, chances are it's in a minuscule, barely detectable concentration.”
To get the most bang for your buck, taking care of enzyme skincare products properly is also key. “In skincare you see enzymes that are found in pumpkin or papaya facials and pineapple masks,” Dr. Zalka says. “Why? Enzymes are derived from some plants, fruits and vegetables. The enzymes are delicate and have a short shelf life.” That’s why they should be stored in a cool, dry atmosphere. Dr. Lancer recommends a skincare fridge for this reason.
Following the directions for each product is also important. “Most enzyme-containing products are designed to be applied for a period of time, not to be left on the skin all day,” Dr. Zalka says. “Think cleanser, mask, or treatment—not leave-on moisturizer. These plant-based enzymes are beneficial for skin polishing when used as cleansers, masks and facials. They may not be as beneficial for those suffering from acne, as the enzymes do not penetrate through oils as well as the alpha and beta hydroxy acid skincare counterparts.”
The Best Products with Enzymes
One of Dr. Zalka’s picks, this daily face wash tackles uneven skin texture, dullness and excess oil to brighten the complexion. It taps papaya and grapefruit extracts to refresh with its vegan and cruelty-free formula.
Though the ingredients scream fall, this peel is a winner year-round, making it a go-to for Dr. Zalka. Lactic acid powers this peel, delicately removing dead skin cells and impurities to boost tone, texture and hydration. Yam is packed with beta-carotene and vitamins to turn back the clock, while pumpkin pulp purée is loaded with enzymes, beta-carotene, amino acids and antioxidants.
Wash away dirt, oil, makeup, and impurities without stripping skin of its natural oils or harming the skin barrier. Papaya is naturally chock full of vitamins and skin-brightening enzymes, plus the gentle cleanser has the brand’s signature Kinbiome, their plant-based probiotic that strengthens the skin barrier.
Scrub your way to smooth skin with natural papaya and pineapple enzymes that exfoliate and brighten. Sugar builds on that exfoliation and probiotic extracts give a helping hand for that smoothness.
When your skin needs a deep clean, slap on this sheet mask with pure hemp seed oil that will remove dead skin cells courtesy of pineapple-derived enzymes for a gentle exfoliation. Safe for sensitive skin, it’ll leave a gorgeous glow and pH-balanced skin behind.
All you need is water to active the powder-to-foam formula. The gentle fruit enzymes work to smooth skin and remove dead cells, while the Glow Berries complex of emu apple, riberry, and pepperberry guard from free radicals and deliver vitamin C. Fine lines are smoothed with jojoba, aloe vera and macadamia oils.