When talking about how to exfoliate the skin, two types of exfoliation come to mind; physical and chemical. But there’s actually a lesser-known exfoliation that keeps popping up every now and then only to be overshadowed by scrubs or hydroxy acids. We’re talking about enzyme exfoliators.
Even though they’ve been around for quite some time, the fact that they work gentler and slower makes them less appealing to some. However, when you have sensitive skin, rosacea, or skin that doesn’t agree with chemical peels, enzyme peels might be what you’re looking for to get smoother, brighter skin without irritation.
What Are Enzymes in Skincare?
Enzymes are proteins that break down other proteins on the skin. These types of “protein eating enzymes” belong to a category called proteolytic enzymes (1).
In skincare products, enzymes work as exfoliants to help remove dead skin cells from the surface of the skin.
Enzymes are usually derived from fruits like papaya, pumpkin, rice, and pineapple. For example, papaya enzymes are called papain, and pineapple enzymes are called bromelain.
How Do Enzymes Work in Skincare?
Enzymes break down specific proteins on the top layer of the skin called keratin, which is what keeps the layer of dead skin cells all intact. By breaking down keratin, enzymes loosen dead skin cells and help them shed off (2).
By prompting exfoliation, enzymes slough off dead skin cells, smooth out the skin surface, unclog pores, and increase the skin’s radiance.
As enzymes are derived from fruits, they have additional benefits for the skin. For example, papaya is highly anti-inflammatory. Similarly, pumpkin is super rich in antioxidants like vitamins C and E.
What’s The Difference Between Enzyme Exfoliation and Chemical Exfoliation?
The main difference between enzymes and exfoliating acids like alpha or beta hydroxy acids is that enzymes are gentler on the skin. Enzymes work on the surface of the skin, nibbling at keratin and nothing else. They’re pretty selective.
Unlike glycolic or salicylic acid, they don’t really penetrate the skin surface and take on the role of boosting collagen production. This makes enzymes a better option for people with sensitive skin and rosacea.
Another major difference is that enzymes can be used during pregnancy whereas certain acids like salicylic acid cannot.
Enzymatic exfoliation or enzyme peeling is ideal when your skin can’t tolerate chemical peels or mechanical peels like scrubs.
The Best Enzyme Exfoliators
Enzymes come in several forms like masks, cleansers, and exfoliating treatments. You can find products that are formulated with enzymes only as well as products that combine enzymes with hydroxy acids. There is no better option. It all depends on your skin type, skin concern, and personal preference. Keep reading for the best enzyme exfoliators.
This is a unique formula in that it’s a makeup removing balm that’s made with enzymes. What it means is that while dissolving makeup, you also get a little bit of gentle exfoliation, which is helpful if you regularly wear makeup. It breaks down dead skin cells with papaya enzymes and preps your skin for your second cleanser. It moisturizes the skin with its nourishing blend of oils and antioxidant-rich blueberry extract.
This is an exfoliating treatment for when you don’t want to exfoliate daily. It’s made with papaya and pineapple enzymes to smooth the skin and prevent dead skin cells from clogging your pores. The cream formula has niacinamide to brighten the skin and protect the skin barrier. And it has bladderwrack extract, which has soothing and moisturizing properties. It’s a gentle yet effective enzyme exfoliator to keep the skin soft, smooth, and plump.
If you prefer something that’s a little bit more potent but still not too harsh, then this multi-action treatment is for you. It’s made with pomegranate enzymes. But it’s enriched with gluconolactone, a polyhydroxy acid, as well as two alpha-hydroxy acids; lactic and glycolic. Gluconolactone has amazing antioxidant and hydration benefits for the skin. That way you get gentle exfoliation with maximum skincare benefits. The AHAs help soften the look of fine lines and give you smoother and brighter skin. The supercharged formula is anti-aging, anti-acne, and anti-pigmentation.
This is an enzyme exfoliator face mask that is gentle even for the most sensitive skin. Its light, jell-like base soothes the skin with aloe while papaya and pineapple extracts pick up dead skin cells. But more importantly, the enzyme mask contains willow bark extract, which is a natural source of salicylic acid. That’s why the mask is perfect for clearing up congested skin, refining pores, and reducing acne. It also packs gluconolactone for gentle exfoliation. The addition of blue tansy oil helps with inflammation and gives the mask its scent. If you’re not familiar with blue tansy oil, know that it’s a bit distinct but it’s not a bad smell. The natural formula is suitable for all skin types but especially helpful for people with oily and acne-prone skin. Use it to refine the skin texture and get a radiance boost.
Formulated with both papaya and pineapple enzymes, the treatment helps reveal smoother skin. It also contains niacinamide to support the skin barrier and vitamin E to reduce UV-induced free radical damage. The enzyme peel keeps the pores clean, prevents clogging and breakouts, and leaves the skin bright, smooth, and flake-free.
Exfoliating cleansers are nothing new. But people with sensitive skin tend to -and need to- steer clear as acids can be too much for daily use. If you insist on exfoliating daily, you can try this enzyme cleanser in powder form to resurface the skin with every wash. The Korean enzyme cleanser is made with enzymes derived from antioxidant-rich green tea extract. It cleans the skin thoroughly while helping you achieve your smoothest skin ever.
Lactic acid is one of the gentlest alpha-hydroxy acids. It’s usually the go-to acid for people with sensitive skin. Because of its hydrating abilities, it’s also great for people with dehydrated skin. Combining that with acne-fighting salicylic acid, pumpkin, and papaya enzymes, you’ve got yourself the best enzyme exfoliator for people with oily and acne-prone skin. Plus, the treatment gives physical exfoliation with silica, which also helps mattify the skin. Use this enzyme peel to keep pores clean, reduce acne, and hyperpigmentation.
So these are some of the best enzyme exfoliators you can try for gently resurfacing the skin. If your skin can’t handle alpha or beta hydroxy acids, enzyme exfoliators are a great alternative.
- Del Rosso J. Q. (2013). Application of protease technology in dermatology: rationale for incorporation into skin care with initial observations on formulations designed for skin cleansing, maintenance of hydration, and restoration of the epidermal permeability barrier. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 6(6), 14–22.
- Smith, W., Bishop, M., Gillis, G. and Maibach, H. (2007), Topical proteolytic enzymes affect epidermal and dermal properties. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 29: 15-21. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-2494.2007.00354.x
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