When proteostasis becomes unbalanced, unfolded proteins can accumulate and aggregate. Here we report that the dye, tetraphenylethene maleimide (TPE-MI) can be used to measure cellular unfolded protein load. TPE-MI fluorescence is activated upon labelling free cysteine thiols, normally buried in the core of globular proteins that are exposed upon unfolding. Crucially TPE-MI does not become fluorescent when conjugated to soluble glutathione. We find that TPE-MI fluorescence is enhanced upon reaction with cellular proteomes under conditions promoting accumulation of unfolded proteins. TPE-MI reactivity can be used to track which proteins expose more cysteine residues under stress through proteomic analysis. We show that TPE-MI can report imbalances in proteostasis in induced pluripotent stem cell models of Huntington disease, as well as cells transfected with mutant Huntington exon 1 before the formation of visible aggregates. TPE-MI also detects protein damage following dihydroartemisinin treatment of the malaria parasites Plasmodium falciparum. TPE-MI therefore holds promise as a tool to probe proteostasis mechanisms in disease.