enzymes skincare

Enzymes in skincare: the gentler approach to exfoliation for sensitive, irritable skin

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Hailed as the gentler approach to exfoliating skin, enzymes have earned their stripes as a must for sensitive, reactive skin, or alongside acids in your skincare routine. Stylist investigates what they do, which to look for in the INCI list, and the products that use enzymes to their fullest potential.

You might have come across enzymes when investigating how to help digestion or boost your metabolism. With skincare, enzymes still function in a similar way – catalysts for speeding up the body’s natural processes – but resulting in fresh, renewed skin and dead cells being shed more easily. It sounds like something many of our favourite active ingredients do, like glycolic or lactic acids, but enzymes are often favoured as the more sensitive skin-friendly option for their gentler approach to exfoliation.

How do enzymes work on the skin?

“Enzymes help to break down the protein keratin in the upper layer of the skin, which holds skin cells together,” explains Dr Rabia Malik, GP and holistic aesthetic doctor. “By breaking down keratin, enzymes allow older skin cells on the surface of the skin to come away easily, making way for newer cells to come through.” The result? “A smoother skin surface, plus they can help to reduce the appearance of pigmentation and blemishes.”

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What are the different types of enzymes in skincare?

There are many different types, but all essentially work in the same way. “Proteolytic enzymes are found in living organisms, working to break down skin proteins and promote cell renewal,” says Dr Rabia. “The most common ones used in skincare are bromelain (derived from pineapple) and papain (derived from papaya), as well as cranberry enzymes.”

The second type is hailed for its restoring properties on both the face and the body. “Coenzyme Q10, which is naturally produced by the body, slows down in production as we age, so it’s often an add-on in skincare to promote rejuvenation, enhancing the efficiency of the body’s other enzymes, and also being absorbed easily,” says Dr Malik.

And the third? “Superoxide dismutase is another enzyme found in the body, also decreasing with age,” explains Dr Malik. “It’s a powerful antioxidant, especially when combined with another enzyme called catalase. These two are often paired in formulations to help prevent wrinkle formation and improve the appearance of fine lines and scars.”

Are enzymes safe for sensitive skin?

Anyone who’s suffered redness and flaking from an acid peel gone wrong, or just can’t handle even the gentlest exfoliants, may be worried to try an ingredient with resurfacing properties. But enzymes deserve a chance, according to Dr Malik. “Proteolytic enzymes such as bromelain and papain are great exfoliants for those with more sensitive skin, although everyone can benefit from their regular use. People who find alpha and beta hydroxy acids too irritating can switch to enzyme-based products instead.”

The best enzyme skincare products 

Images: Courtesy of brands

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