This Common Enzyme Could Be Causing Your Skin Rash

Do you experience frustrating “mystery” rashes with no clue as to what’s causing them? You might want to check the labels of your skin or hair care products.  This common enzyme causes strong allergic reactions in sensitive people.

Papain Could Be Causing Your Chronic Skin Rash

I often have patients who consult me for troublesome rashes that show up out of nowhere.  They can occur anywhere on the body, but the most common areas are the face and hands.  They can range from mild to marked in severity and cause a lot of distress.  I usually identify the culprit when I ask my patients if they’ve recently started using a new hair or skin product.  That’s when I tell my patients to read their product labels and see if it contains this common enzyme – papain.

Papain is a naturally occurring enzyme from unripe papaya.  It’s used as meat tenderizer in cooking as it breaks down tight-bond proteins.  Digestive enzymes also contain it.

The skin and hair care industry also uses papain in many products.  It breaks down dead skin cells leaving healthy new skin.  For that reason, it’s used in many exfoliant skin care products.   It’s also used in acne products as it helps break down blackheads and pimples.  Hair care products also often contain papain as it prevents static electricity and smooths damaged hair.

Natural papaya contains good amounts of Vitamin A which is a strong antioxidant.  As such, it helps remove brown age spots, whitens skin, and fight skin cancer.

Sounds great, right? Well, partly.  Researchers at the University of Vienna found that it can also cause mild to severe reactions in sensitive people.  At worse, it can produce life-threatening allergic cross reaction in people who are allergic to latex.

Papain is often contained in many of the following skin care products:

  • Hair conditioners, some shampoos
  • Exfoliating facial and body scrubs
  • Facial masks, peels
  • Acne treatment products
  • Topical wound treatment creams
  • Enzyme-based pet shampoos

Papain is also contained in many digestive supplements that are taken orally.  These products can cause irritation of the mucous membranes of the mouth and throat, esophagus, and stomach lining.

The Vienna researchers found that papain behaves a lot like the dust mite allergen.  And, people who are sensitive to dust mite allergens may also be sensitive to papain.  Papain causes the breakdown of the skin’s “tight cell junctions”.

The degrading of these cell junctions causes the skin to lose its barrier function.  The barrier function in skin protects you against viral, bacterial, fungal invasions into your body. With your skin’s barrier function in this broken down state, you become at much higher risk for internal infection from any of these organisms.

The FDA has asked some wound care manufacturers to take their papain-containing skin care products off the market.  These products generally contain more papain than cosmetic skin care products.  For that reason, most of the skin care products noted above have FDA approved levels of papain in them.

Shortly after exposure to papain, the skin’s vascular system becomes porous and inflammatory cells set in.  Your body’s immune system mounts a response and starts to recognize these inflamed cells as allergens.  The result:  You develop a red, itchy or burning, rash on your face, hands, or body, wherever you used the product.

Treatment for a papain-type, mild to moderate skin rash is often an anti-itch, anti-redness, cream like hydrocortisone, for several days.  More marked reactions may also require you to take an oral steroid, like prednisone, to more quickly turn off the allergic response.

If you are allergic to latex, however, you may have a more severe, possibly life-threatening, reaction to a papain-containing product. This usually requires an emergency room visit and having an EpiPen on hand in the future.  If you have a latex allergy, you’ll need to read labels of all skin care and hair products you use to be sure they don’t contain papain, or even papaya.

Papain-containing skin care products can be part of a useful skin care regimen for many people. But if you break out in a rash after using a certain hair or skin care product, it could contain papain and you likely are sensitive to it.

About Dr. Mark Rosenberg

Dr. Mark A. Rosenberg, MD Dr. Mark Rosenberg received his doctorate from Georgetown University School of Medicine in 1988 and has been involved with drug research since 1991. With numerous certifications in several different fields of medicine, psychology, healthy aging and fitness, Dr. Rosenberg has a wide breadth of experience in both the public and private sector with particular expertise in both the mechanism of cancer treatment failure and in treating obesity. He currently is researching new compounds to treat cancer and obesity, including receiving approval status for an investigational new drug that works with chemotherapy and a patent pending for an oral appetite suppressant. He is currently President of the Institute for Healthy Aging, Program Director of the Integrative Cancer Fellowship, and Chief Medical Officer of Rose Pharmaceuticals. His work has been published in various trade and academic journals. In addition to his many medical certifications, he also personally committed to physical fitness and is a certified physical fitness trainer.
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