Updated: Nov 3
Think Enzymes are bad for sensitive skin? Think again!
There is a commonly held belief that enzymes are bad for sensitive skin. Many Internet sources say enzymes are harmful for baby skin, and of course, that is really worrisome to parents. But - well, it's the Internet. I like science, evidence and sources rather than believing everything I read. What I’ve found is that the information I know about from science, and the majority of the Internet sources, conflict with one another on the subject of enzymes for sensitive skin.
First off, what are enzymes anyway?
Enzymes are the main tools which all living things, including plants, depend upon in order to regulate metabolic activity. Enzymes exist in our bodies - breaking down food and transporting nutrients throughout the body. Enzymes are actually proteins and there are over 3,000 different kinds that do different tasks. In our bodies they aid in digestion, transport toxins, they purify our blood and they rebuild tissue. Most importantly, they assist in breaking down food so our body can access the vitamins and minerals essential to keeping us healthy. If your body is deficient in enzymes it reflects in the immune system which can present itself in the skin! Enzyme deficient people can have flare-ups of numerous skin conditions such as acne, rosacea, eczema, and even psoriasis.
Enzymes also exist in plants and perform similar functions in terms of breaking down nutrients and transporting them throughout the plant. A study was recently released that said that enzymes in plants help prevent and undo UV damage - otherwise plants would get "sunburned."
Enzymes for laundry: How does this relate to laundry? When you get a stain that can't be removed by regular laundering, enzymes are the answer as they will selectively "eat" stains. There are enzymes that will specifically eat particular types of stains, like those from grass, grease, etc. Many laundry detergents contain enzymes so the user is pouring them into their laundry machine whether or not they are needed. Most stain treatment sticks, gels or sprays contain enzymes specific to hard-to remove stains.
I believe there is a lot of misinformation about using enzymes for laundry. I've done a lot of research and I haven't been able to find a credible source or any kind of a study that found that enzymes hurt skin.
I think this idea that enzymes hurt skin came about as many of the regular detergents that use enzymes also use other agents like optical brighteners and SLS which can irritate skin and cause allergic reactions and rashes. Skin is partially made up of protein, and one of the hardest to remove stains are protein stains (poop!). The name of the enzyme that eats proteins is called Protease (Pro-tea-ase). One without a science background could conclude that protease would not distinguish between skin and stains since both have protean.
This little snippet is floating around the internet in various forms:
"Enzymes have been known to severely hurt babies' skin. Some babies' skin doesn't seem to be adversely affected by the enzymes but use caution. The concept here is if any enzymes are left in the fabric they will be activated when wet, the child pees or sweats, and will activate any enzymes left in the fabric and they will begin to attack proteins including skin. If your babies skin is smooth and bright pink or red in the wet zone of the diaper, consider that it may be a result of enzymes. These enzymes are also present in your baby's stools and thus the reason we try to change poopy diapers as quickly as possible."
I've seen this copied and pasted on many different websites so I don't know who the original author was.
I'm going to break down why this isn't true in a couple of ways so I can help dispel this a bit better. Part of this comes from the idea that the skin is partially made up of protein. But enzymes don't digest healthy living skin cells, but rather they selectively digest dead or diseased protein without harming living cells. This is why enzymes can exist within our bodies. Part of their job is helping to maintain healthy cells and clearing dead ones away. If enzymes didn't distinguish between healthy and dead cells, we'd be eaten alive! Protease enzymes even exist in our own saliva - but children don't get allergic itchy rashes from the enzymes when sucking their thumbs.
In fact, there are various spa treatments that you can get that utilize similar protein enzymes to get rid of dead skin cells, leaving healthy skin cells alone. These treatments (and various products) are considered ideal for sensitive skin because of how they selectively work. Some natural spa/facial treatments that take advantage of protease are one that utilize papaya, pineapple, grapefruit, and kiwi.
This whole idea that enzymes are going to get "activated" with sweat, poop, pee - that's pseudoscience that sounds really good but doesn't have any scientific backing. Almost all of the enzymes are rinsed away in the wash, anyway. The idea that they somehow take up residence in the fabric and lurk until moisture comes around - well, that's silly.
Okay, so then if it's not enzymes in poop or pee, then why does prolonged contact in a dirty diaper irritate skin and cause rashes?
Rashes can be caused by any of these (or combination thereof):
Acids in the stool (most often with diarrhea)
Ammonia (which is made when urine breaks down)
Moisture (which makes a nice home for yeast and bacteria to grow)
Any of the above can also trigger eczema.
Rashes can also be caused by chafing, or other components of detergent including SLS which can trigger an allergic reaction
Rashes are not caused by enzymes which ignore healthy skin cells.
There was a study by hospital dermatologists that was published in the British Journal of Dermatology that found that enzymes in laundry detergents are not a cause of skin irritation or skin allergy.
From that article:
A U.S. study of hundreds of babies indicated the type of [enzyme] powder used did not affect the development of nappy rash or the severity of the condition. Tests on almost 6,000 adults revealed that biological powder was no more harmful to the hands than enzyme-free products. German experiments focusing on the enzymes rather than the powders showed they did not irritate skin, even when it was slightly broken and the contact lasted for several days Dr Sarah Wakelin, a dermatologist at St Mary's Hospital in London and one of the researchers, said: "What we have found is that ultimately, the balance of all the enzymes in laundry detergents are not a cause of either skin irritation or skin allergy. "Investigations of numerous individuals with skin complaints attributed to laundry products demonstrated convincingly that enzymes were not responsible. "Thus, the supposed adverse effects of enzymes on the skin seem to be a consequence of mythology."
When used alone as a spot treatment before laundering, enzymes will work on breaking down stains. I don't believe that any of the enzymes remain in the fabric when it is used in this fashion. Detergents that incorporate a broad spectrum of enzymes can contribute to breaking down fabrics as there are specific enzymes that are used for "anti pilling" to make fabrics appear smoother - this can also contribute to holes wearing in garments (jeans in particular) which is why I don't like enzymes in detergent.
This is also a better reason for not using enzymes for cloth diapers - them being worse for the diaper as opposed to it being bad for baby skin. Especially where wool is used, as the protease enzyme that can break down protein (poop) also can break down wool.
Enzymes are very specific, so the ones in stain treatment sprays and sticks do not contain those cotton-eating enzymes, and are more specific to protein and starch types of stains which are the most common difficult stains to remove. To prolong the life of your fabrics and clothes, choose an enzyme-free detergent and instead utilize enzyme stain removers where needed.
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