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TCA in peels and creams - what is it and how does it work

Reviewed by Marta September 7, 2011 4 Comments
We are slowly getting to know products from our new find Dermastart, such as the Prana Active Vitamin Lift. In her interview with Sarah, founder Cherie Dobbs mentioned that her latest launch is the TCA Moisture Peel under Prana’s sister brand ClearChoice. Given the excited flurry of response from the TIA community, we simply had to try it. But, you know me, I rarely put anything on my face without having some idea of what it is and I had to find out more about TCA than my vague idea that it had something to do with chemical peels.

Since chemical peels put me in mind of Sex And The City’s Samantha and her trip to a dermatologist that left her looking as if she’d tried to flee a forest fire in six inch Manolo’s, I approached the whole TCA issue with caution. There may only be 10% TCA in this innocent looking blue and white bottle of TCA Moisture Peel, but what exactly is it?

TCA stands for trichloroacetic acid and although it is routinely used for cosmetic chemical peels, tattoo removal and the treatment of genital warts, the discovery that is synonym is “amchem grass killer”, according to OSHA.gov, did not endear me to it. It seems that like hydroxyphenoxy propionic acid in Algenist’s serum it is an herbicide and is “considered to be a corrosive substance”. I was beginning to fear the worst.

Happily, my worst fears weren’t confirmed. During the 1990s, a fair bit of research was conducted on TCA, mostly because (via chlorine) it can end up in the water system. Reviews of various tests, came up with conclusion that it is “not considered to be carcinogenic to humans” (source).

I was still concerned to know how it works on the skin. TCA peels are considered moderate strength: stronger than glycolic or AHA peels, but gentler than a phenol (I’m think Samantha subjected herself to a phenol). TCA, unlike phenol peels, can be effective for darker skin tones without causing hyperpigmentation problems.

Applying TCA to the skin causes “precipitation of proteins”, which I think has something to do with displacing water from the protein’s surface, and coagulative necrosis of cells in the epidermis. Coagulative necrosis refers to “accidental” cell death, but the key thing is that the architecture of dead tissue is preserved for at least a couple days. This means that cells adjacent to the affected tissue will replicate and replace the cells which have been killed off. A similar process happens to collagen and new collagen will continue to form for several months after a chemical peel. TCA also works as a keratocoagulant that produces a temporary frost or whitening of the skin.

A study on 65 people  in Korea (using TCA at 65% or 100% concentrations) showed it to be an effective treatment for acne scars. What interested me about this research was the authors did not want to conduct deep peels because of complications such as damage to adjacent normal skin, but instead used high concentrations of TCA targeted directly on each scar “pressing hard” with a wooden applicator.

Medium depth peels are usually performed with trichloroacetic acid (TCA) in concentrations ranging from 20-35%. Although there are formulations of 50%, they generally not recommended because of the high risk of scarring associated with this depth of penetration. Apparently 10-20% concentrations of TCA will penetrate one–to-two layers of the epidermis.

The concentration of TCA in ClearChoice TCA Moisture Peel is 10%. I started using it a couple of nights ago and am instructed to use it for five consecutive treatments. I’ll report back. But I'm pretty confident that I won't be looking like Samantha.

Ingredients in TCA Moisture Peel: Acqua, organic aloe vera gel, USP glycerin, trichloroacetic acid, vitamin B5, l-carnosine, vitamin E, lecithin, retinyl palmitate, sodium hyaluronate, squalane, NAPCA, chamomile, kojuc acid, alpha arbutin, sage extract, eyebright, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, grapeseed extract
  • September 12, 2011

    by Stephanie G

    I can't wait to hear your results either!

  • September 9, 2011

    by Jan

    Can't wait to hear your results Marta!

  • September 8, 2011

    by Susan

    I've had professional TCA peels on my face and on my hands.

    The peels were painful...and effective.

    My hands were exhibiting sun-damage spots and the peel got rid of them. Three years ago and my hands still look good. The shallow lines on my face became more shallow. My skin looked new.

    I hope your experience is good. I'd love to use this on my hands.

  • September 7, 2011

    by Dennis

    OMG I want it so bad, mostly for areas on the body other than my face that I will not use the full strength TCA peel I have on. This is because after treatment you must keep the treated area smothered in Aquaphor. I can't wait to try this on my hands! I did two TCA peels on my face over the summer, and I can safely say they you should not expect a miracle, but expect to be burned back a few years.

    BTW Samantha Definitely had a TCA Peel. That's how my face looked for a few days after. Phenol makes you look more scabbed: http://www.realself.com/files/images/Phenol-Peel-25764.jpg

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