Anti-Aging & Wellness Corner

The Evolving Role of Enzymes in Well-Aging Products

Bromelain, papain, alpha hydroxy acids are key skin care ingredients.


By: Navin Geria

The Evolving Role of Enzymes in Well-Aging Products

Enzymes are critical skin care ingredients. In addition, they are found in detergents, foods and drugs. The global enzymes market is expected to grow 14% a year to $15.25 billion by 2025, according to The Business Research Company.

Enzymes are a necessity for life and for every cell process in the body. In biochemistry, there are six categories of enzymes: oxidoreductase, transferase, hydrase, lyase, isomerase and ligase. They are considered catalysts; i.e., they cause chemical reactions to happen. When there are waste products from the building of collagen, an enzyme called collagenase is responsible for breaking down these by-products. Enzymes are complex proteins that act as biocatalysts which increase the rate of reaction while not undergoing the reactions themselves. Without the presence of enzymes in the cells, most of the reactions would not be possible due to the temperature and pH levels in the cells. Enzymes act as a catalyst for a particular type of reactions and specific substrates or molecules. Due to this property, there are no side effects, nor any residual bi-products. For these and other reasons, enzymes are finding greater use in skin care products.

Enzymes can smooth skin, prevent acne and reduce pigmentation. Enzymes exfoliate skin, prevent free radical formation, maintain firm skin and have antibacterial properties. Enzymes remove keratin buildup on skin such as dry calloused hands, feet, knees or elbows. Enzymes remove acne pustules and macules, and are a useful alternate with other skin treatments. This column briefly reviews the role and benefits of enzymes in anti-aging skin care products.

Other skin-friendly enzymes have additional components called cofactors. These enzymes are known as co-enzymes. These are mostly derived from minerals like magnesium, zinc, copper and iron, and from vitamins particularly belonging to B group of vitamins, which are mostly water-soluble. Some of these vitamins are niacin, calcium pantothenate and pyridoxine hydrochloride. Several enzymes are used in skin care formulations due to being natural, skin- friendly and having no side effects.

Key Enzymes

Co-enzyme Q10, produced naturally in the body, is one of the most important enzymes. But as we age, production slows down, leading to skin aging, sun damage and wrinkles. Incorporating co-enzyme Q10 in skin creams leads to skin rejuvenation. Its benefits including stimulating skin elasticity and collagen production, reducing skin damage due to sun exposure and free radicals, and balancing skin tone.

Co-enzymes work by enhancing the efficiency of the body’s enzymes. Co-enzymes have low molecular weights; hence, they are easily absorbed into the skin when applied topically. Another advantage is that they are very stable and can easily be formulated in skin care products.

Superoxide Dismutase (SOD) also occurs naturally in the body but its production slows down with age. SOD eliminates free radicals; thus, promoting cellular health. To boost SOD, incorporate green veggies like broccoli, cabbage, and brussels sprouts into your diet.

When SOD is combined with catalase, another naturally-occurring enzyme, oxidation is prevented. This action is accomplished through the dismutation process which breaks down the harmful oxygen molecules or free radicals into a less reactive form.

In cosmetics, SOD is usually derived from yeasts and is formulated with catalase in skin care formulations to prevent age-related skin aging markers like wrinkles, liver spots and fine lines. It also helps reduce scar tissue and keloid and improves wound-healing properties.

Proteolytic enzymes occur naturally. They are found in living organisms including animals, algae, bacteria and viruses. These are also known as proteinase, protease, peptidase and pepsin. Bromelain and papain are the most common proteolytic enzymes from vegetarian source. Bromelain and papain, derived from pineapple and papaya, respectively, are used in skin care products. They break skin-friendly proteins into peptides and then into amino acids which are easily absorbed by skin promoting cell growth and renewal.

Diacylglycerol acyltransferase (DGAT-1), Lysyl and Prolyl hydroxylases promote skin firming through the formation of collagen and fat. DGAT-1 increases the action of retinoic acid which increases the skin cell and hair renewal process.1 Enzymes like Lysyl and prolyl hydroxylases, when combined with vitamin C, increase skin.

Peroxidase preserves skin creams and other formulations by preventing bacterial growth. These enzymes consume the oxygen present in the formulation without which bacteria cannot survive.

Skin Treatments

In enzymatic depilatory use, there is no problem of any kind of foul odor or skin irritation due to keratinase. This basic component dissolves the protein of keratin that makes up the hair. The enzyme is produced by certain bacteria. In facial care, enzymes are considered proteolytic. They digest proteins. During a facial treatment, the enzyme powder is mixed with a “wetting” solution into the consistency of pancake batter and gently brushed onto the skin.  It must remain moist. The action of the enzyme dissolves different forms of cellular debris and buildup, leaving skin soft, clear and more receptive to any subsequent correction product.

Enzymes such as bromelain, papain or pumpkin, or professional alpha hydroxy products, are used in salons and dermatology practices to freshen dull-looking aging skin. Pumpkin contains proteolytic enzymes to break keratin bonds between dead cells. This allows the sloughing of the outer layer of dead cells without damaging the inner living cells. A smooth, more even toned and clean skin is the result of proteolytic enzyme activity in a treatment mask. Pumpkin contains natural lactic, glycolic and salicylic acids. These acids allow pumpkin products to enhance cell turnover of the epidermis both on the surface of the skin and in the follicles. The combination of AHAs and BHAs make pumpkin a good resource for anti-acne, anti-aging and hyperpigmentation treatments. These enzymes help remove dead cell buildup from blocking follicle openings on the skin surface.

Consumers whose skin is both dehydrated and clogged, may particularly benefit from an enzyme treatment prior to extraction. Enzymes are normally applied during the steam treatment for 8-12 minutes. Peeling the surface of the skin helps remove dead cells and dilate follicle openings, but it does not significantly affect the hardened sebum in the follicles. Desincrustation products are designed to work on the fatty plugs. In contrast, enzymes and AHAs work on dead cell buildup.

After exfoliation, it may still be necessary to use a desincrustant to soften the sebaceous impaction. Enzyme treatments are generally gentle enough to repeat on two-week schedule. Consumers notice immediate softening of the skin after the very first application of the enzyme because enzyme treatments slightly dilate the pore openings, which helps with extraction. Consumers notice that it is more comfortable and that gentler pressure could be used to facilitate extraction of the clogged pores, comedones and other impactions.

How Enzymes Work

The three common proteases digest or break peptide bonds of the proteins. Broken bonds allow the stratum corneum cells to separate into free cells and flake off. Enzymes need water and a favorable pH. They also work better with a little heat.2 Apply enzymes to skin as directed and use steam to produce the desired effect.

It is important to remember not to apply an enzyme when there is a possibility for an allergic reaction or when someone has known allergy to any of the ingredients in the actual product. Safe use of enzymes is not possible if the consumer has sunburn or severe erythema or inflammation, or is currently using Accutane or other medications causing severe skin sensitivity.

It takes experience to comfortably work with enzymes. Other than the above-mentioned uses, enzymes are used as exfoliants in cream formulations to remove the dead skin cells and brighten skin. Papaya and pineapple scrubs are quite popular as raw exfoliants. Enzymes are combined with salicylic acid and retinoic acid to prevent acne and improve skin tone. Use of enzymes in skin care products is becoming more popular and are not only limited to skin care but also for hair care, dental hygiene and several other beauty products.

Enzymes work fast. They are a great choice for consumers seeking instant, visible results. 


  1. Infinita Biotech Ltd. Enzymes…Cosmetics
  2. Skin Care Beyond the Basics, M. Lees, 3rd Edition

Navin Geria
Chief Scientific Officer
Ayurderm Technologies, LLC
[email protected]
Navin Geria, former Pfizer Research Fellow is a cosmetic and pharmaceutical product development chemist and the chief scientific officer of AyurDerm Technologies LLC, which provides Ayurvedic, natural and cosmeceutical custom formulation development and consulting services to the spa-wellness-dermatology industries. He has launched dozens of cosmeceutical and ayurvedic anti-aging products. Geria has more than 30 years of experience in the personal care industry and was previously with Clairol, Warner-Lambert, Schick-Energizer, Bristol-Myers and Spa Dermaceuticals. He has nearly 20 US patents and has been published extensively. Geria edited the Handbook of Skin-Aging Theories for Cosmetic Formulation Development focus book published in April 2016 by Harry’s Cosmeticology. He is a speaker, moderator and chairman at cosmetic industry events. 

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