guide to enzyme exfoliants

When I first got into skincare, I thought scrubs were the only way to exfoliate your skin (I know, duh!).

Oh, how I loved rubbing those scrubs all over my face – seeing all those dead skin cells come off was so satisfying!

But scrubs have a dark side. When I rubbed too enthusiastically, they’d leave my skin red and raw. Ouch!

Then, in my mid-20s, I discovered glycolic acid. Glycolic acid is a chemical exfoliant, just like lactic and salicylic acids. They are a bit underwhelming at first because you can’t see the shedding happening.

But, it’s happening indeed. And when glycolic acid is done with your skin, it leaves it much smoother and brighter than any scrub can ever do. Plus, it also hydrates skin and boosts the production of collagen. Show me a scrub that can do that. They don’t exist. Needless to say, I excitedly made the switch and never looked back.

But now there’s a new exfoliating kid on the block. It’s called enzyme exfoliant and uses enzymes derived from foods, such as pineapple and papaya, to get rid of your dead and dull skin cells.

So, what’s the deal with them? Are enzyme exfoliants better than chemical exfoliants or shouldn’t we bother with them?

What’s An Exfoliant?

An exfoliant is something that gets rid of dead skin cells.

Scrubs work like sandpaper, buffing away those cells manually at the surface.

Chemical exfoliants dissolve the “glue” that hold skin cells together, so they can slough off.

Enzyme exfoliants are similar to chemical exfoliants, but not quite. They do some things differently (and not always in a good way).

Related: How To Choose The Best Exfoliator For Your Skin Type

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What Are Enzymes?

Enzymes are chemicals that speed up the rate of chemical reactions by lowering their activation energy.

For example, enzymes allow reactions that would literally take millions of years to occur in just a few milliseconds!

Or reactions that would normally require dangerously high-temperatures occur at normal body temperatures when enzymes are around to do their job.

Aren’t they super cool? There’s no way we could be alive without them.

How Do Enzyme Exfoliants Work?

Ok, so enzymes can do some really cool stuff. But, what do they do in an exfoliant?

Exfoliants contain proteolytic enzymes. That’s a fancy way of saying they’re “able to breakdown proteins”.

And guess what keeps those dull and rough outer layers of your skin stuck on your face? Keratin protein.

nimue exfoliating enzyme

What Are The Most Common Enzymes Used In Enzyme Exfoliants?

There are three enzymes that you’ll likely see pop up again and again in this kind of exfoliant:

  • Bromelain: It’s extracted from pineapple. On the label, it often hides under the name Ananas Cosmosus (Pineapple) Fruit Extract.
  • Papain: You guessed it, haven’t you? Yep, it’s derived from papaya. You’ll find it as Carica Papaya Fruit Extract on the label.
  • Pumpkin enzyme: Ok, this is easy. It comes from pumpkin and disguises itself as Cucurbita Pepo (Pumpkin) Enzyme.

Related: The Complete Guide To Bromelain In Skincare

Why Should You Use An Enzyme Exfoliant?

Enzymes are much gentler than scrubs. Not that it takes much to be gentler than a scrub, mind you.

But most enzymes also have anti-inflammatory properties that soothe irritations, so they’re great for sensitive skin.


Do Enzyme Exfoliants Have Any Side Effects?

Sounds too good to be true? Well, there IS a catch.

Enzymes are divas. If the temperature and pH of a product ain’t just right, they won’t work. Any changes in their environment make them become unstable and useless.

It’s very tricky for cosmetic chemists to work with enzymes. Coming up with a formula that makes them happy can take a lot of time. I guess that’s why there aren’t that many enzyme exfoliants out there yet.

By the way, even if the chemists get everything right, there are still plenty of occasions for the enzymes to becomes unstable.

For example, if these exfoliants stay for weeks on shop shelves that are in front of direct sunlight or if you keep them in the hottest room in your house, chances are they’ll go bad.

Enzyme exfoliants need to be stored in a cool and dark place. Period.

Oh, one last thing. Enzyme exfoliants can irritate sensitive skin.

Wait, what? Didn’t you just say that enzymes have anti-inflammatory properties, Gio?

Yep. But it’s sensitive skin we’re talking about here. Some folks with sensitive skin can tolerate time-released retinol, for example. For others, even that is too much.

Enzyme exfoliants may be gentler than scrubs, but if you have sensitive skin, you never know if they’ll bother your skin until you try them.

They can be your best friends or your worst enemy. Pretty much like anything else you try to put on your skin. *sighs*

Related: 9 Soothing Tips To Care For Sensitive Skin

The Bottom Line

Enzymes exfoliants are cool, but too unstable yet. They go bad easily and there is no way of knowing when that will happen. That brand new bottle in the store may already be useless. Until science finds a better way to make enzyme exfoliants stable, I’ll stick to glycolic acid.