Acids Vs. Enzymes

What’s the real difference between acids and enzymes when it comes to exfoliation? An easy way to explain how each works: dissolve and digest. Enzymes DIGEST – acids DISSOLVE.

Choosing an Exfoliant

Exfoliation is a necessary component of skincare regardless of which type you use. It’s a fact that cell regeneration declines as we age. Shedding corneocytes (the outer layer of the skin) which used to turnover in about a month now may take up to two to three months to shed. This prolonged adhesion causes a buildup of cells and a compromised barrier, leading to transepidermal water loss (TEWL). If bacteria is present, breakouts can occur even with mature skin.

Chemical exfoliation with acids is effective, especially for minimizing the appearance of fine lines, but it’s not the best option for everyone. For sensitive skin types, enzyme exfoliation may be a better choice. It’s important to check your skin reaction each time you exfoliate. Enzymes are a gentler option for very dehydrated or sensitive skin conditions. The following should help you choose the appropriate exfoliation method for your skin’s ever-changing condition.


Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are a powerhouse for skin regeneration. AHAs include glycolic (hydroxyacetic) acid, which is an organic carbon containing molecule.

When it comes to glycolic acid, it is important to always know your source, pH and percentage. Glycolic acid is generally derived from sugarcane, but it can also be sourced from fruits such as kiwi. It is hydrophilic and has a small molecular structure and weight. It penetrates deep within the upper layers of the epidermis, weakening the lipid bond (intercellular glue) and allowing the skin cells to be removed. This chemical process is believed to be caused by a reduction of calcium ions from cell adhesions.

In experienced hands, AHAs are amazing acids for antiaging. AHAs speed up cell turnover, dissolve lipid bonds, stimulate the skin to produce collagen and, if used on a regular basis, fade hyperpigmentation, plump and hydrate to reveal softer, smoother skin. AHAs do not get rid of scars as some companies claim.

Estheticians use a higher percentage (up to 30%) and lower pH than consumer products. Everyday products need to be a minimum of 10% to be effective, but professional products over 10% are more apt to compromise skin health.

Glycolic acid causes biochemical reactions in the skin due to chemicals such as calcium oxalate. Only well-educated estheticians should use AHAs, specifically acids with a lower pH and a higher percent. Strong glycolic acids can also have some inhalation toxicity when used in high levels over long periods.

There are many limitations with stronger AHAs, such as sensitivity and Fitzpatrick type. Glycolic acid suppresses tyrosinase, which can cause a loss of pigment. Improper use in higher concentrations can, in rare cases, cause a lingering burning sensation, blistering and scarring. A mild lactic or malic acid is generally safe and beneficial and should not cause hypopigmentation. However, a product is only as safe as the practitioner that is administering it.


Enzymes are highly selective catalysts for so many processes in the body, where 75,000 of them can be found. Simply put, they speed up the rate of most of the chemical reactions within our cells. They are crucial for life itself and help to facilitate a wide array of key functions in the body (i.e. digestion and metabolism).

Facial enzymes generally come from the family of enzymes called proteases, or proteolytic enzymes (breakdown protein). When formulated at a lower pH, they are more effective at loosening the corneocyte cohesion (shedding of dead cells). The proteins are broken down into smaller polypeptides or single amino acids. The peptide bond is broken by hydrolysis (water). Yes, water severs the bond. No potential for toxicity there.

Enzymes are classified as chemical exfoliants; however, in my mind, they are biological catalysts that have a physical action—they break down or eat protein. Think of it like the little garra rufa fish that eat calluses off during a pedicure, only without any of the ick factor. Because enzymes digest, not dissolve, they can remove dead cells without drastically changing the pH of the skin or damaging barrier function.

Enzyme treatments are an effective, gentle way to keep cell regeneration moving. This clears a path for product penetration and allows oxygen to kill bacteria, fundamentally maintaining and improving overall skin health. Enzymes are so versatile; they can be used in conjunction with mechanical exfoliation and microdermabrasion.

Cleansers formulated with enzymes break up dirt and makeup without altering the pH, so hydration levels are maintained. You shouldn’t notice a tight, irritated feeling after cleansing, unless there are a lot of minerals (hard water). There are numerous sources for facial enzymes, each with its own beneficial attribute. Two of the most popular are bromelain, a proteolytic enzyme taken from the stem and juices of the pineapple, and papain, derived from papaya.

Bromelain. For centuries, bromelain has been used for home-care remedies and has been the topic of multiple studies on digestive disorders, dentistry, and wound healing in general. Bromelain has also been associated with headache relief, where some find it as effective as over the counter NSAIDs. It is often used for its anti-inflammatory properties, treating soft tissue injuries and blood thinning capabilities. Hawaii, Japan, and Taiwan have used bromelain for centuries for homeopathic remedies. Still today, it is used for wound care in some regions. It is a gentle exfoliator that has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. It contains an abundant amount of vitamin C, a potent antioxidant that targets hyperpigmentation, reduces redness by strengthening capillary walls, plays a vital role in collagen synthesis and aids in the natural cell regeneration process.

Papain. Derived from papaya, papain is known for its antioxidant properties of A, B, C and lycopene. Its flavonoids fight free radicals and help to protect against premature skin aging. A 2017 study stated that due to its prolific ability to remove damaged keratin buildup on the skin, it was suggested that it is a viable treatment for scarring. It can decrease hypertrophic scarring and lighten post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. The enzymes, betakeratin, vitamins and phytochemicals in papaya are thought to have skin lightening properties. It has also shown promise for topically healing skin ulcers. Researchers worldwide are looking at the benefits of papain for its healing properties. A 2012 systematic review of studies concluded that papain is effective and safe in treating many types of wounds in various stages of healing.

Pumpkin. Pumpkin enzymes are popular and a great opportunity for seasonal promotional treatments. As the air turns crisp and the cool winds begin to blow, the effects are noticed on the skin. People scramble for their pumpkin lattes, which dehydrate them further. They then book their pumpkin enzyme facials. Pumpkin enzymes contain vitamins A, B, C and E. Essential acids and vitamin E help to regulate sebum production, and vitamin B (niacin) helps acne. This combination is great for oily, congested skin. Pumpkin also contains the vital minerals, potassium, and zinc to fight redness. Zinc is also an acne fighter. Pumpkin enzymes are also great for dry skin. The natural exfoliating enzymes are softening and hydrating. While this hearty fruit enzyme has many therapeutic and anti-aging benefits, it is highly active, so use caution with first time clients. If you would like to use it on sensitive skin, it would be best to buffer it, or choose papaya instead.

Berry enzymes. Blueberry and raspberry enzymes are packed with antioxidants. Blueberry works great with acneic skin, as its active enzymes help soften sebaceous material trapped within the follicles. It works great for normal and combination skin too; however, it is a bit too stimulating for sensitive skin or rosacea. Aside from being proficient at digesting excess keratin cells, raspberry does not get enough credit in my opinion. It is anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, antioxidant and a tyrosinase inhibitor, so great for compromised skin and unwanted pigmentation. The raspberry truly is a superfruit. It contains high levels of polyphenol antioxidant ellagic acid. It has one of the highest oxygen radical absorbance capacities (ORAC) of many fruits. Raspberries are loaded with vitamins A, C, B6, riboflavin, niacin, folate, magnesium, potassium, copper, calcium, zinc, and manganese. The numerous minerals work masterfully in synergy with all the vitamins.

There is a major benefit to using enzymes and acids together since they exfoliate by the way of different mechanisms. One works on the buildup of dead protein cells, while the other works on intercellular cement. So synergistically, they become even more effective. As with any esthetic service, a thorough client consultation should rule out any allergic reactions, granted the practitioner knows the source of the products they are using. If due diligence is paid, the results should be very “appealing”.

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