Among the dozens of staple fruits, like apples and bananas, papaya has successfully risen above them all to become the most popular for topical application.
Papaya is one of the most popular home remedies for acne, recommended in countless recipes. It’s said to be a gift from nature, a natural way to clear acne.
Is this true? The answer is no – papaya is a complete failure. Papaya is one of the most overrated natural topical treatments of all time. The theories about its benefits have an ounce of truth to them, but the shocking downsides are forgotten about.
The consensus is completely wrong – papaya will inflame and irritate your skin, and suck the moisture away, leaving only a desert of dryness and flakiness.
Here’s why you should never use topical papaya and its wondrous enzymes for acne.
Topical papaya – the theories
Simply put, there’s many gifts from nature out there. Cinnamon and turmeric both increase collagen production when applied topically, while this obscure study revealed that a 3% concentration extract of basil improved signs of ageing like moisture loss.
Many herbs and fruits are full of opportunity, but papaya is not one of them.
The main claims revolve around papaine, an enzyme found in the flesh of the papaya fruit. Papaine is a protease, meaning that it breaks down proteins, just like natural proteases secreted by your stomach. It’s similar to bromelain from pineapple; both papaine and bromelain have been used in natural meat tenderisers to soften the texture naturally.
Firstly, papaya and papaine are said to dissolve dead skin cells trapped in your skin pores and unclog them. P.acnes bacteria has less room to multiply and acne will decrease. Papaya achieves this without the drying and harsh effects of benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid.
Papaine also has natural exfoliating properties, which effectively but gently remove the outer layer of dead skin cells and leave your face smooth and fresh. Papaya achieves enzymatic exfoliation, dissolving dead skin cells, rather than harsh mechanical exfoliation with a brush or grainy creams.
It’s also said that papaya and papaine stimulate the generation of new skin cells. Once the outer layer of skin cells is dissolved and eliminated, you may experienced a hot red flush, a tingly rush of blood to your skin. This is a sign that your skin’s layers are restoring themselves, restoring themselves with a healthier, sleeker and smoother new layer. Papaya is also recommended widely for acne scars, effectively by dissolving the dark marks.
There’s no doubt that papaya is rich in papaine. If papaine achieved those things, then so would papaya. The recommendations for application are identical to other home remedies – creams or masks in combination with ingredients like yogurt, honey, and lemon juice.
Topical papaya – the truth
Papaya sounds like an excellent topical treatment at first. It has the natural appeal, and the papaine theories make complete sense scientifically. What most people never knew about is the side effects.
The fact is that proteases including papaine and bromelain are great to eat, but applying them to your skin in high amounts is foolish. When you consider that your entire skin is a giant layer of protein, a complex combination of collagen, keratin and structural compounds, what would you expect to happen? You are effectively dissolving your skin.
Your skin actually produces its own proteases, such as small amounts of collagenase (too much is a bad thing) which breaks down old, weak collagen to form new and stronger collagen. However, these are produced locally and targeted very specifically. Applying papaine en masse to your face is a foolish move, and the inevitable result is irritation, inflammation and reddening. Such stories have been reported among those experimenting with papaine. Surely the fact that “pain” is in its name is a clue?
Papaine is proven to have more complex detrimental effects too. In particular, it has negative effects on your skin barrier, the buffer of defence against external threats.
Firstly, applying papaine topically degrades tight junctions in the skin barrier. You have tight junctions in your digestive system which permit or deny the absorption of nutrients into the blood, and skin tight junctions are similar. Degraded tight junctions caused by papaine will increase “barrier permeability” making your skin more vulnerable to air pollution, chlorine, and chemicals in make-up.
Papaine also increases trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL), the quantity of moisture being released and lost through your skin. This power is almost certainly related to the damage to tight junctions and the skin barrier. Papaine increases TEWL within just 30 minutes, and interestingly, papaine molecules with the enzymatic powers deactivated have been shown to have no effect on TEWL. The power that attracts many is what causes papaya’s downfall.
Your skin barrier isn’t the only thing vulnerable. The immune system seems to recognise this protease as a threat, since papaine stimulates a surge in pro-inflammatory chemicals. and in particular, neutrophils. Acne patients were proven here to have greater levels of neutrophils in their skin than average.
Papaine also pushes up vascular permeability, the ability of molecules to flow through capillary walls and into the bloodstream; this might be why the immune system targets it with fury. Once more, non-enzymatic papaine does not increase neutrophils, as found in this study.
When using papaya, you will achieve many of the theoretical objectives. You will dissolve dead skin cells within your pores, and you will exfoliate your outer layer of skin. But papaine is such a blunt instrument that you cannot control the impact, and your entire skin will experience enzymatic degradation.
Papaine’s scenario might sound tempting, but beneath the surface, more subtle factors than mere exfoliation will occur, resulting in much less healthy skin once you are finished. Papaine is NOT a good home remedy for acne.
The story changes when eaten
However, that doesn’t mean that papaya is useless either, because as a food, both papaya and papaine are excellent for acne.
Inside the body, papaya behaves completely differently. Like bromelain from pineapple, papaine can join forces with existing proteases in your digestive tract and enhance nutrient absorption. Any nutrient from protein based foods will more bioavailable, including acne-friendly ones.
Examples of nutrients include high amounts of zinc in meat and fish, which clear acne by controlling the immune system’s pro-inflammatory chemicals. Selenium from nuts, eggs and salmon will be more bioavailable, and with it selenium’s antioxidant powers for acne. Magnesium from meat and nuts will be able to improve your sleep quality, decrease stress, and lower insulin levels more effectively. A few bonus benefits of papaine include treating acid reflux and stomach ulcers.
A more advanced benefit for acne is that papaine and papaya can allow you to eat nuts more cleanly.
Nuts are the most annoying food group in the acne world. Many are extremely nutritious; almonds are rich in vitamin E and antioxidants, while pistachios enrich your healthy gut bacteria. The problem is their antinutrients, one of which is protease inhibitors, enzymes which disrupt the action of natural proteases in your stomach.
Protease inhibitors are one reason why nuts must be restricted, but by supplementing your own proteases with external ones like bromelain and papaine, these villains can be deactivated. Furthermore, the nutrients within nuts will become more bioavailable, no longer hidden behind a wall of defences. Nuts like almonds are some of the best sources of magnesium in particular, so combining nuts and papaya is a very smart, very secret nutritional trick for acne.
Nuts are actually a very rich food group in protein, which is why vegans love them, but this also means that proteases will be particularly useful. The reason for their protease inhibitors? Nuts like almonds are actually seeds, and require protection against digestion from predators so that, if their plan succeeds, they can survive and cover every inch of earth with their trees.
A tenet of the raw food diet is live, natural enzymes in foods like papaya, mango, raw honey, pumpkins and raw dairy. This failure of a diet is correct about this particular theory, because many people in the 21st century have weak digestive systems.
Many proteases are churned out not just by your stomach, but by beneficial gut bacteria, bacteria which people lack. People consume too many grains and way too much soy, which contain protease inhibitors without the benefits of nuts. We’re designed for real food rather than ready meals, so it’s also possible that we’re adapted to supplement our own enzymes with fruit and vegetable ones.
Papaine and papaya are completely different depending on how you use them. Topically, they’re a disaster. As a food, they’re a great secret to know about. They join the club which already consists of olive oil and lemons, and in all likelihood, pineapples.
Papaya as a fruit – how does it compare?
- Vitamin A – 22% of the daily allowance.
- Vitamin E – 4%.
- Vitamin C – 103%.
- Vitamin B6 – 1%.
- Vitamin B3 (niacin) – 2%.
- Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) – 2%.
- Zinc – 0%.
- Calcium – 2%.
- Magnesium – 2%.
- Selenium – 1%.
- Manganese – 1%.
Papaya is a monstrous source of vitamin C, a hidden one. Most people mention strawberries and blueberries, but papaya beats them both. Let’s compare vitamin C foods: the top fruits per 100 grams include pineapple (79%), strawberries (97%), and oranges (88%). Among vegetables you have broccoli (143%), kale (200%), and brussel sprouts (141%).
Papaya is almost the best fruit source of vitamin C. Guess which fruit beats it? The kiwi fruit, with 154% of the daily allowance.
Vitamin C helps to defeat acne by acting as an antioxidant, decreasing stress, and increasing collagen formation. The minerals are all weak, but the same is true for most fruits. The vitamin A, in its plant form beta-carotene, is also above average for fruits, though beaten easily by kale (200%), sweet potatoes (283%) and spinach (187%).
As for the all-important sugar content, papaya contains just 8 grams per 100 grams. Strawberries, raspberries and blackberries beat it with just 5 grams each but papayas are much safer than bananas or grapes. They’re an excellent way to flood your skin with vitamin C.
Papayas are also a confirmed low-FODMAP food, unlike apples or apricots. There’s no hidden sensitive compounds which make this acne-friendly food a hidden villain. Last but not least, papayas ranked as the 7th cleanest food for pesticide and insecticide contamination in 2017. They nearly always appear in the clean fifteen, unlike celery or apples.
A strong source of lycopene
The strange thing about papaya is that for such a popular fruit, very few studies have been performed on it. Few have analysed acne-friendly factors like anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
The best antioxidant studies used a fermented papaya meal created over many months, a completely different proposition. The ORAC antioxidant score of papaya is 300, which is beaten easily by strawberries or raspberries at 4000 plus.
Where papaya excels is in its lycopene content. Lycopene is the signature antioxidant of tomatoes (with 3041mg), which in reality is beaten with ease by watermelons (at 4532mg), and payaya also contains it (1828mg). Lycopene is a carotenoid antioxidant with a red pigment, but unlike beta-carotene, cannot be converted into vitamin A. It’s left behind to exert its own influence and be one of the healthier antioxidants known to mankind.
We talked in the watermelon article about how strongly anti-inflammatory lycopene is. This study discovered that lycopene supplementation lowered TNF-a and stimulated interleukin-10 production; TNF-a and IL-10 are pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory chemicals respectively. Lycopene also inhibits the inflammatory regulator COX-2, which is behind both red and painful acne and is inhibited by painkillers, making papaya one of the natural painkiller foods.
However, a more recent 2017 study got a bunch of mice addicted to cigarettes, which resulted in elevated levels of pro-inflammatory chemicals like interferon-y and TNF-a in their lungs. Lycopene supplementation reversed all of these increases. Another 2017 study found that tomatoes and lycopene decreased inflammation to an equal extent, suggesting that most of tomatoes’ anti-inflammatory properties are down to the lycopene. Studies on lycopene are pouring in monthly.
Then there’s lycopene’s powers for glutathione, powers which we haven’t covered before. This, this, and this study found that lycopene consumption increased levels of the glutathione antioxidant, in addition to the detoxification form of glutathione. The evidence for this is still fairly weak, but soon we will discover the truth. Finally, there’s the fact that lycopene is a fat-soluble antioxidant itself.
Lycopene is a weaker source of lycopene than guavas, watermelons, and tomatoes, but easily contains enough to calm your acne.
Even though scientists haven’t bothered to test papaya itself on inflammation, seemingly being distracted by the properties of papaine, it will indirectly reduce it, through being the 4th best source of lycopene. It’s also been found that the form of lycopene in watermelons is stronger than that of tomatoes, so who knows – maybe papaya will enjoy the same advantage, or the reverse.
Papaya is not a gift from nature; it’s a topical treatment which you need to avoid. A short and intense blast might dissolve dead skin cells, but for your living cells, there’s nowhere to run, literally. Papaya is a failed topical treatment – say no to the recommendations!
Papaya also illustrates that natural topical treatments have dangers too. They’re not quite a never-ending source of clean and wholesome acne-clearing goodness, even though I easily recommend them first on the whole. Papaya is worse in some ways than benzyl peroxide or topical antibiotics, which will clear acne well for about two months before side effects kick in. Papaya is known to irritate the skin instantly, and trans-epidermal water loss increased within 30 minutes. The benefits such as unclogging skin pores will take longer to materialise than the side effects.
Even without science, applying an enzyme which dissolves proteins to your face was never going to be a smart idea. Papaine’s enzymatic properties were first discovered in 1873, but I would have recommended against it even then, a century before the moisture loss was discovered.
Like olive oil, however, papaya is much more acne-friendly as a food. How does it rank among fruits? It’s in the top quarter, because of the very papaine which is deadly topically. Papaya and pineapple have similar digestion-enhancing benefits. The very best time to eat papaya is with a meal or snack containing nuts and seeds.
Elsewhere, papaya is almost the best fruit for vitamin C, but one of the weakest for antioxidants, which is the opposite of pomegranate. It’s possible that lycopene’s anti-inflammatory properties are stronger than its actual antioxidant abilities.
Overall, papaya is a terrific fruit to eat for acne. Just resist the home remedy urge at all costs!
Thanks for reading!