Are you familiar with enzymes used in skincare? When it comes to new complexion launches lately, a lot seem to brag about how they contain enzymes—but what exactly are they? And should we all be incorporating an enzyme fix into our regimens? I called on three skin experts to talk us through what enzymes are, what they do for the skin and whether or not we need them. Keep scrolling for enzymes 101.
Okay, so what are enzymes?
"Enzymes are comprised of amino acids and are types of proteins that are made by living things," explains Andrea Pfeffer, founder of London-based skin clinic, Pfeffer Sal. "They act as a catalyst, speeding up or allowing reactions to happen in conditions that they usually wouldn’t." She goes on to say that there are many different types of enzymes. "As humans, we produce enzymes to speed up reactions in the body during processes such as digestion or metabolism," she says.
What do enzymes do for the skin?
Skin-fluencer and photographer Emma Hoareau tells me, "Enzymes break down the keratin protein in the upper layer of the skin, which bonds dead skin cells together. Without this the dead skin can gently slough off. This results in smoother, softer skin and also helps diminish scars and pigmentation."
"Most of the enzymes used in skincare products are sourced from fruits and vegetables, such as papaya, pineapple and pumpkin," Pfeffer continues. "These enzymes are called proteolytic enzymes and their role is to break down proteins."
"Ever wondered why your mouth can feel a little sensitive and funny after you eat pineapple? This is down to the enzymes breaking down the flesh in your mouth," explains Pfeffer.
Are enzymes better than acids?
"Enzymes aren’t universally better than acids, but can be more suitable for certain skin types and issues," says Eilidh Smith, founder and CEO of L.A.- and London-based skin clinic, Skinwork. "They are a much more gentle way to exfoliate and brighten the complexion, and especially beneficial for those with sensitive skin and women who are pregnant." In general, acids like AHAs and BHAs are more potent, so they will work more deeply and intensely; with that, there is a chance for potential irritation.
Pfeffer notes that "enzymes a great choice for those who find are unable to tolerate acids and need a gentler touch."
Hoareau agrees and explains that she reaches for enzyme-based products because they don't disrupt the pH of your skin. "Since I have sensitized skin from living in a polluted city, I find enzymes are a more gentle way to exfoliate my skin from top to toe," she says.
However, some skin types will require acids to get results. "Enzymes aren’t as good at dissolving oil and treating congestion, so if that’s your main focus, I’d recommend sticking with a salicylic acid-based product," suggests Pfeffer.
Sold! So, how often can you use enzymes—does it depend on skin type?
Even though enzymes are more gentle, Pfeffer still recommends proceeding with caution. "With all exfoliators, we recommend slowly introducing them once to twice per week, then building up towards a more frequent use," she says. "This method is ideal for all skin types, even if you don’t consider your skin as sensitive. A gradual increase in use is the safest way to introduce an exfoliating product into your routine. And, as a general rule of thumb, follow the instructions on the product!"
Smith notes that it does vary with sensitive skin but, generally speaking, you can use enzymes every two to three days.
Hoareau loved enzymes so much that she collaborated with Oskia on its new Renaissance Body Scrub, which contains Himalayan Salt to mechanically exfoliate and pumpkin enzymes to slough away dead skin. "With enzymes, it depends on what your skin goals are and if you're using any other exfoliants too," she says. "For the scrub, which is a body product, you're most likely not using any other exfoliants on your body, so it's great to use weekly for the softest skin you've ever had."
Anything else we should know about enzymes?
"Enzymes are sensitive souls and they need to be looked after and stored carefully," warns Pfeffer. "Changes in temperature and pH can render them inactive (known as denaturing) and it’s very tricky to determine whether or not they are still working.
"At home, keep your enzyme products in a cool dark place and make sure the packaging is properly sealed to prevent contamination," she adds.
Using enzymes on your body have another welcome benefit besides exfoliating and brightening the skin, "I've found they've helped so much with any ingrown hairs I've had too, making them an ideal add-on to your body care routine at this time of year," says Hoareau,
So, there you have it. Enzymes can be used from top to toe to gently and effectively exfoliate, brighten and smooth the skin. Keep scrolling to shop our favourite skincare buys containing enzymes.
"Enzymes are a key ingredient in the whole Renaissance range (which is why I've loved the Cleansing Gel and Mask for so long!) and one of the reasons it was so exciting to work on this scrub with Oskia is because I had never used anything else like it for body," says Hoareau. "Enzymes have been a favorite of mine for years to use on my face and I am so happy they are finally available in a body product!"
Want the benefits of acids and enzymes? This two-step peel contains lactic and glycolic acid, alongside bromelain (pineapple enzyme) to effectively exfoliate the skin. The second step delivers centella asiatica (also known as cica), green tea extract, and colloidal oatmeal to soothe the skin and leave it radiant.
This treatment is packed with enzymes, alongside restoring niacinamide and hydrating glycerin. Apply it as a sleep mask over your usual moisturizer to gently exfoliate and hydrate your skin while you sleep.
The OG enzyme mask, this contains papaya and pineapple enzymes in a creamy formula that you apply to the skin, leave for 10 to 15 minutes and rinse off to reveal a brighter-looking complexion.
With papaya and grapefruit extracts, this non-foaming cleanser gently and effectively cleans and exfoliates the skin without stripping the complexion.
For anyone with spot-prone skin, this oil-free cream with papaya enzymes and hyaluronic acid will brighten and hydrate the complexion. Layer it with a salicylic acid-based product and your blemishes won't stand a chance.
After cleansing, use this papaya enzyme-enriched water to gently exfoliate the skin (either apply using your fingertips or a cotton wool pad), it hydrates and brightens the complexion while clearing the way for any skincare products you apply afterwards to drive down deep and get to work.
This serum from Glow Recipe is made with pineapple juice to smooth and slough away dead skin, vitamin c to brighten, and chamomile to make sure even the most sensitive skin doesn’t react with irritation.