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Q: What Are Enzymes + What Do They Do?

By Mercedes Taylor

With a love for cosmetics from a young age, my curiosity knew that there was much more to the goop inside the jar than meets the eye. I graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Analytical Chemistry and moved to California to chase my dreams of becoming a cosmetic chemist, passionate about developing results-driven skincare. Now, I am the Product Innovation Manager for Youth to the People. My primary experience is in research and development, with a focus on both sustainability and the formulation of skincare, bringing natural ingredients to the forefront of the cosmetics market. I’m here to answer all your skincare questions. 

Question: What are enzymes and what do they do?

Answer: Enzymes act as catalysts to bring about complex biochemical reactions. But not all enzymes are the same—some go to work for our skin, others for our gut, for food, and so on. 

One of the most popular natural enzyme ingredients on the market today is a protein known as papain which is derived from the papaya fruit. Papain is the isolated protein responsible for breaking down larger proteins into peptides and amino acids that our body can more easily metabolize. Because of how effective it is at breaking down very large proteins, like fibrous plant materials, papain is used in several ways, including as a digestive supplement, and of course, in skincare. What it does in our skincare is very similar to what it does for our gut: our dead skin cells contain many different types of proteins, which are made of peptide chains, which are made up of amino acids. Enzymes like papain digest these larger proteins by breaking them down at specific sites along their amino acid chains. When this happens, these smaller peptide chains can be metabolized by our microbiome, or washed away with water.

Another enzyme popular in skincare is bromelain which is isolated from pineapple. Have you ever felt a weird tingling sensation on your tongue when you eat a very ripe slice of pineapple? That sensation is caused by the fermentation of pineapple bromelain as it breaks down the food proteins on your tongue. In skincare, similar to the mechanisms of papain, bromelain breaks down the keratinized glue that keeps dead skin cells attached to our stratum corneum, the outer layer of the skin. It digests the keratin protein into smaller amino acid chains, allowing for a smoother, more supple complexion. 

The mechanism that bromelain and papain use to break down keratin is different from the way that chemical exfoliators like glycolic and lactic acid break down this protein glue. Glycolic acid will dissolve the proteins, while bromelain and papain will break down and digest the proteins. Glycolic acid will penetrate the stratum corneum and continue dissolving proteins in our skin, while papain and bromelain only work topically and can be later rinsed away. Bromelain and papain will continue to digest proteins until they are rinsed away or diluted with water. Both chemical exfoliators and enzymes are very effective at leaving the skin feeling softer and smoother, but have different ways of getting the job done.

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