The traditional pool care routine consists of a sanitizer to kill harmful bacteria, oxidizer to break down contaminants, algaecide to control algae, and products to adjust pH and maintain water balance. In addition, pool owners routinely perform physical maintenance such as skimming, brushing, and vacuuming to remove debris and keep the pool looking sparkling clean.

Often included with this maintenance is removal of accumulations at the waterline. Oils, lotions, and other organic contaminants float on the surface of the pool water and collect dirt and debris. Over time, these contaminants accumulate along the wall surface at the waterline or in skimmers. Such physical maintenance is what consumes most of the time owners dedicate to taking care of their pool or spa.

Recently, a product category that aims to alleviate the maintenance owners must perform has gained in popularity in the industry. More consumers are now choosing enzyme-based products to break down and remove the organic accumulations that build up in the filter, around the waterline, and in the skimmer. 

What is an enzyme?

Enzymes are proteins that speed up chemical reactions of other substances without being destroyed or altered.  As a catalyst, enzymes perform the activity of accelerating the process of breaking down or combining specific materials. 

Most enzymes are globular proteins, which consist of long chains of amino acids that form a three dimensional structure resembling a balled-up telephone cord.  They are highly specific, meaning an individual enzyme can only target a narrow range of compounds, referred to as the substrate.  The twists and folds of the enzyme form locations called activity sites, which define its specificity and provide the points where catalytic reactions occur.

In a pool or spa, the enzymes move freely through the water and agglomerate (collect) the oils, lotions, or other organic material at the active sites. Once the enzyme encounters the material, it forms an enzyme/substrate complex. Upon completion of the reaction, the products are released and the enzyme is free to perform the reaction again. 

Reactions with other chemicals

The catalytic abilities of enzymes are affected by many different conditions. Temperature, pH changes, water activity, ionic strength and other variables all influence the ability of a protein to function as an enzyme. For instance, an enzyme that is very effective in one environment may be completely ineffective when introduced into an environment — like a swimming pool where oxidizers are present — that can alter the enzyme structure. This is why it is critically important to choose an enzyme that has been specifically designed for use in environments such as a pool or spa.

Often, pool enzymes are paired with other components, such as surfactants, that are used to help lift deposits from pool and spa surfaces. A surfactant consists of hydrophilic and hydrophobic components, meaning that one side has an affinity for water where the other side doesn’t. Rather than being attracted to water, the hydrophobic parts are typically attracted to oils. The “oil-loving” tails

attach to the greases and oils that build up on surfaces, and the “water-loving” heads help lift them off the surface.

Once in the water, the oils interact with the enzymes and break down into smaller pieces. It is this tandem effort of both the enzymes and the surfactants that allows for the removal of pool contaminants.

For pool owners, determining when to use an enzyme is usually rather easy. Pools and spas that experience a large amount of organic contamination, exhibit higher bather loads, or have bathers who routinely enter the pool or spa before showering are good candidates. Those vessels often  accumulate the notorious waterline that is so frustrating to remove.