Papain is a protease enzyme that comes from the unripe fruit of the papaya tree. Proteins are made up of amino acids linked together to form long chains, and proteases break apart these bonds. Papain is an ingredient in commercial meat tenderizers. Meat consists of strands of muscle tissue held together by a tough protein called collagen. Papain breaks down the bonds in these collagen proteins, making the meat less tough and easier to eat.
Making meat tender isn’t the only function of papain. It has a number of applications in the medical field as well. Because it can cleave the bonds that hold protein together, papain has been used in the past as an ingredient in products used to debride wounds. For some wounds to heal, it’s necessary to remove dead and damaged tissue. Papain “digests” damaged skin tissue without harming healthy skin tissue. Once the healthy tissue is broken down, it can be removed more easily to make room for the growth of healthy tissue. Papain has been used medically to debride a variety of wounds including surgical wounds, burns, cysts, diabetic ulcers and bed sores. Over-the-counter topical drug treatments that contain papain are no longer available since some people who are allergic to papaya experienced reactions.
Papain is also an ingredient in a dental product called Papacarie used to treat dental caries without cutting and drilling. The papain in this product breaks down the damaged tissue inside the cavity without damaging the normal tooth structure. This reduces or eliminates the need for drilling and is less damaging to teeth. It’s also less painful to the patient. In addition, papain is an ingredient in enzymatic cleaners used to clean contact lenses. Health food stores market papain as a supplement to aid digestion. Some people have low levels of hydrochloric acid and other enzymes that break down protein. Papain aids digestion in the stomach by breaking down the protein bonds in meat and other foods that contain protein.
Papain is also an ingredient in some skin care products. Topically, it helps to break down the material between skin cells, allowing dead skin cells to be sloughed off. This uncovers fresh, healthy skin cells underneath, improving skin texture and giving skin a healthy glow. Some practitioners believe that papain helps to open up clogged pores and is effective for addressing blemish prone skin. This enzyme from the papaya fruit also has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties that may be beneficial for aneic complexions. Because of its ability to remove dead skin cells, papain is found in a variety of exfoliating skin care products including facial scrubs, body cleansers, facial masks and peels. It is also found in some hair conditioning products because it relieves static and helps to soften and smooth dry and damaged hair.
There are some safety considerations concerning papain. Oral papain supplements can cause irritation of the stomach lining and the mucous membranes of the throat. There is also the possibility of experiencing a life threatening allergic reaction to papain. This is more common in people who are allergic to latex. Anyone who has a latex allergy should avoid using products that contain papain. Due to these concerns, the FDA requested that companies stop selling unapproved topical drug products that contain papain. This includes a number of topical products used for treating wounds. The FDA still allows papain in cosmetic and skin care products. In the quantities found in cosmetic products, papain appears to be safe for people who aren’t allergic to latex. It can be irritating to the skin, especially for people with sensitive skin.
All in all, papain in topical skin products is an effective exfoliating ingredient that sloughs off dead skin cells and improves skin texture. Removing dead skin cells helps skin reflect light better and gives it a more youthful appearance. Because of its anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties, it may be helpful for people with acne. It’s also an effective conditioning and anti-static agent in hair care products. People who have a latex allergy should avoid products containing papain, and anyone that experiences significant skin irritation or redness shouldn’t use it.