This Bizarre Ingredient Is a Game Changer for Exfoliating Sensitive Skin

People with truly sensitive skin (the kind that often itches, turns red, and stings mildly—especially in the dry, cold fall and winter months) face a skin-care catch-22: They want to exfoliate to get rid of dullness and patchiness, but harsh scrubs and some often-name-dropped exfoliating ingredients, like glycolic acid, can lead to irritation and inflammation. “Inflamed skin becomes more red, dry, and wrinkled if it’s exposed to irritants,” says Anne Chapas, a dermatologist in New York City.

Chapas published a study this month (funded by a grant from skin-care brand Restorsea) in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology on a potentially game-changing ingredient, an enzyme derived from salmon eggs that can exfoliate sensitive skin without causing further redness, itchiness, or flakiness. The enzyme “gently dissolves dead skin cells on the surface of the skin to improve skin tone,” says Chapas. Unlike other exfoliators, such as acids or scrubs, the enzyme only does its thing on dead skin cells—it stops working once it encounters living tissue, she explains. “Our study showed that products containing the enzyme were better tolerated than glycolic-acid-containing creams.”

We asked a few other experts who weren’t a part of the Restorsea study to weigh in on Chapass’ findings—and they largely agree with them. “The enzyme found in fish roe has exfoliating properties similar to that of alpha hydroxy acids,” says dermatologist Joshua Zeichner. “It’s extremely mild and nonirritating, making it an option even for people with sensitive skin.” Dermatologist Jessica Weiser is on board with the fish-based ingredient for the same reasons. “It has mild proteases that break down bonds between dead skin cells, allowing them to slough off without affecting or irritating the skin surface,” she says.

Salmon-egg enzyme is an active ingredient not commonly found outside of Restorsea products, where it’s referred to as Aquabeautine XL (we like the brand’s Revitalizing Eye Cream and Repairing Hand Treatment, as well as the no-rinse Blue Plasma facial peel from Perricone MD).

And though the findings of this study are promising, salmon-egg enzyme isn’t the only exfoliating option for sensitive types. “Lipohydroxy acid is a cousin to salicylic acid and provides a mild, cell-by-cell exfoliation, as opposed to sheets of exfoliation with some harsher ingredients,” says Zeichner. “Sugar-based scrubs also provide gentle exfoliation and are a great alternative to harsher ingredients.” Weiser’s recommendations include lactic acid, a gentle natural exfoliant you can find in Colbert M.D. Intensify Facial Discs, rice powder, and kaolin clay. Anyone with an irritation-prone complexion should also look for skin-care products with active ingredients that relieve redness and irritation, such as green tea, white tea, and oat derivatives, plus “rosewater, calendula, chamomile, and honey, which all have natural anti-inflammatory properties,” says Weiser. But for anyone searching for an alternative method of exfoliating sans roughness, salmon-egg enzyme may just be a new skin-care Holy Grail.

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