What Is The Difference Between Acids and Enzymes In Skincare?

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In last weeks Q and A over on my instagram stories someone asked me ‘what are enzyme exfoliants?’ and I thought this topic was worth exploring a little more intensely.

So, today’s post is all about what enzymes are, how they exfoliate and how they differ from acid exfoliants.

Let’s start with a quick summary of what enzymes are and why they are useful to us.


Enzymes are biological molecules, usually proteins, that speed up the rate of chemical reactions.

They work in pretty much every chemical reaction that occurs and so there are a wide variety of enzymes in the body depending on which reaction they are speeding up. They are vital to life and  a wide range of important functions in the body like your metabolism and digestion.

Enzymes in skincare

Enzymes in skincare work by digesting the proteins that hold together the outer layer of skin. In doing so they are revealing the underlay of skin cells and therefore, exfoliating the skin.

They are also being researched to be used in sun protection. This is because DNA repair enzymes may have the ability to enhance removal of DNA damage when applied topically. More research needs to be done on this but it is very likely to be a new technological advancement in sun protection skincare.


Acids also work to remove the outer layer of skin cells but in a slightly different way. On the pH scale acids are any pH number between 0-7 meaning that they lower your skin’s pH when applied.

This means that they can denature (take away the characteristics of) the proteins therefore, loosening the adhesion between cells and causing the skin’s natural shedding process to take place, loosening the dead surface skin cells.

So, acids and enzymes have a similar outcome but they get there in different ways.

Should I use acid or enzyme exfoliation?

Enzymes work more slowly on the skin and so this reduces the impact and decreases the risk of irritation. Hence, if you have sensitive skin enzyme exfoliation is a little safer.

Essentially enzymes work on everyone’s skin but acids can be very irritating because of how quick they are to react and the fact that they work further down the dermis.

So, as with most things pertaining to acids – use them with caution and if you experience irritation try an enzyme exfoliant instead. It’s also just a good idea to use different types of exfoliation so working an enzyme exfoliant into your skin is useful to prevent ‘over-aciding’.

Product recommendations

This product recommendation is for only enzyme exfoliant products because I have so many acid posts with recommendations already!

Enzyme Cleanser Dr Barbara Sturm

Sunday Riley Tidal Brightening Enzyme Water Cream

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