Sensitive skin? Try swapping acids for enzymes

Written by Ava Welsing-Kitcher

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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.”

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 

  • Oskia Renaissance Cleansing Gel

    Best enzyme skincare products: Oskia Renaissance Cleansing Gel

    This rose pink gel houses pumpkin enzymes to loosen dead skin bonds, vitamin A palmitate to gradually resurface skin, and magnesium to boost suppleness. 

    Shop Oskia Renaissance Cleansing Gel for £16 at Cult Beauty

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  • Glow Recipe Pineapple-C Bright Serum

    Best enzyme skincare products: Glow Recipe Pineapple-C Bright Serum

    This is almost always sold out, and for good reason. Often people’s first introduction into the world of enzymes, this cult serum is 22% pineapple juice (the enzymes of which leave your mouth feeling funny after eating). It’s also rich in vitamin C for a brighter, more even skin tone.

    Join the waiting list for Glow Recipe Pineapple-C Bright Serum for £46 at Cult Beauty

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  • Dr Barbara Sturm Enzyme Cleanser

    Best enzyme skincare products: Dr Barbara Sturm Enzyme Cleanser

    This foam and exfoliator hybrid is great for mopping up excess sebum in oily and combination skin, while different types of enzymes work on de-clogging pores.

    Shop Dr Barbara Sturm Enzyme Cleanser for £50 at Space NK

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  • Frances Prescott Tri-Balm

    Best enzyme skincare products: Frances Prescott Tri-Balm

    Another cult favourite, this stick turns into a creamy solution when emulsified with water on the skin – plus its solid form makes it the perfect travel bag addition.

    Shop Frances Prescott Tri-Balm for £46 at Liberty

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  • Caudalie Vinoperfect Glycolic Peel Mask

    Best enzyme skincare products: Caudalie Vinoperfect Glycolic Peel Mask

    Papain from papaya with a touch of glycolic acid makes this 85.7% naturally-derived mask perfect for skin types that can handle AHAs.

    Shop Caudalie Vinoperfect Glycolic Peel Mask for £23 at Lookfantastic

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  • Cosmedix Pure Enzymes Exfoliating Mask

    Best enzyme skincare products: Cosmedix Pure Enzymes Exfoliating Mask

    “This is my favourite enzyme based product,” says Dr Malik. “I’ve been recommending it for many years, and I use it once a week for some quick at-home skin resurfacing.” 

    Buy Cosmedix Pure Enzymes Exfoliating Mask for £60 at Dr Rabia Malik

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  • Youth To The People Yerba Mate Resurfacing Energy Facial

    Best enzyme skincare products: Youth To The People Yerba Mate Resurfacing Energy Facial

    Vegan and cruelty-free, this eco-conscious exfoliator uses papaya and pineapple enzymes along with sustainable bamboo and earth micro-exfoliants (plus a hit of caffeinated yerba mate) to energise and renew skin in two minutes.

    Shop Youth To The People Yerba Mate Resurfacing Energy Facial for £47 at Cult Beauty

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  • Best enzyme skincare products: Elemis Papaya Enzyme Peel

    Pineapple and papaya join forces again to gently exfoliate in this sumptuous cream. Added milk protein and vitamins B3 and E seriously nurture dehydrated, stressed skin.

    Shop Elemis Papaya Enzyme Peel for £35 at Feelunique

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  • Malin & Goetz Brightening Enzyme Mask

    Best enzyme skincare products: Malin & Goetz Brightening Enzyme Mask

    Filled with fruit and veg extracts like pomegranate, ginger and pumpkin alongside enzymes, this gentle exfoliator also works as an antioxidant booster – a must for city-dwellers.

    Shop Malin & Goetz Brightening Enzyme Mask for £40 at Space NK

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Images: Courtesy of brands

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