Protease at a glance

  • Name for a diverse group of enzymes
  • Found in animals, plants, bacteria, and fungi
  • Break down proteins and peptides
  • Help skin shed old and damaged tissue

Protease description

Protease is perhaps better known by its plural form proteases or as proteolytic enzymes. The name protease covers a large number of enzymes that break down proteins and peptides into shorter peptides or amino acids. These enzymes are made by plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria. In the human body proteases function to inhibit the function of certain proteins, break down inactive proteins into active peptides, and serve as an agent to kickstart certain biological processes. In the world of dermatology, proteases have been used in cleansers to remove “dirt” proteins (as in the proteins naturally found in soil) from skin. In leave-on formulations, proteases can help remove old, dead skin cells to reduce skin flaking and help moisturizers work better to restore skin’s barrier, particularly if it’s naturally deficient in the proteins that help keep it strong. In essence, proteases help skin’s surface with the natural process of desquamation – also known as exfoliation. Extensive research has not been conducted yet showing how effective proteases are in direct comparison to “chemical” exfoliates such as AHAs and BHA. Still, these ingredients are helpful in maintaining skin’s normal balance, which is always a good thing. Rather than replacing chemical exfoliants, using products with proteases can help boost their skin-renewing properties.

Protease references

  • Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, August 2022, pages 3,300-3,307
  • Molecular Medicine Reports, August 2013, pages 551–556
  • Journal of Clinical and Experimental Dermatology, June 2013, pages 14–22
  • Journal of Biological Chemistry, November 2008, pages 30,433–30,437
  • Dermatologic Surgery, February 2005, pages 139-148

Peer-reviewed, substantiated scientific research is used to assess ingredients in this dictionary. Regulations regarding constraints, permitted concentration levels and availability vary by country and region.

Ingredient ratings


Proven and supported by independent studies. Outstanding active ingredient for most skin types or concerns.


Necessary to improve a formula's texture, stability, or penetration.


Generally non-irritating but may have aesthetic, stability, or other issues that limit its usefulness.


There is a likelihood of irritation. Risk increases when combined with other problematic ingredients.


May cause irritation, inflammation, dryness, etc. May offer benefit in some capability but overall, proven to do more harm than good.


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Not rated

We have not yet rated this ingredient because we have not had a chance to review the research on it.