- TCA peels are a type of chemical peel offering powerful rejuvenating results
- Although they are typically performed in a clinic, it is possible to do a TCA peel at home
- At-home TCA peels carry a high risk of accidental skin damage
- Other products are available to safely and effectively improve your skin with fewer risks
A trichloroacetic acid (TCA) peel chemically exfoliates the top layer of skin from the face, revealing healthier, undamaged skin beneath. Although they are typically performed in a clinic by a dermatologist or plastic surgeon, you can perform a TCA peel at home at a much lower cost.
On the downside, giving yourself a TCA peel without proper training carries a high risk of injury. As an alternative, other products and procedures are available that can safely and effectively exfoliate your skin.
Benefits of a TCA Peel
A TCA peel addresses many skin concerns, including fine lines, sun damage, age spots, freckles, melasma, hyperpigmentation and acne scars. If you have acne, TCA provides a deep exfoliation to eliminate the dead skin cells and debris that lead to breakouts.
Can You Do a TCA Peel at Home?
Dermatologists and skin care professionals generally advise against performing a TCA peel at home. If you do choose to do one, you face the risk of permanent skin damage.
Do not attempt a TCA peel if the following applies to you, as the risks are intensified under these conditions:
- Have broken skin or a sunburn
- Have active cold sores
- Took Accutane in the past year
- Recently received chemotherapy or radiation treatment
- Are pregnant or breastfeeding
What to Buy
A TCA peel can be bought on its own or in a kit containing all the materials necessary for use at home. TCA peel solutions are available at concentrations ranging from 5–100%. Concentrations above 25% must be diluted to prevent chemically burning your skin.
To perform the face peel, you’ll need the following equipment:
- Fan brush or gauze
- Small glass or ceramic container
- Neutralizing solution (can be homemade: dissolve 2 tsp baking soda in 1 cup water)
TCA peel kit
A TCA peel kit includes all the materials you need to perform an at-home peel. However, kits still usually require TCA dilution. To lower your risk of injury, choose one containing TCA at a concentration of 15% or less, especially if it is your first time.
At-Home TCA Peel Instructions
One week before your peel, start using a skin care product containing an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) such as glycolic acid or lactic acid. AHAs will gently exfoliate your skin for a more even result after your peel. Common formulations of AHAs are facial cleansers, serums, wipes and gels.
Before your peel, it is important to patch-test a small area of skin to determine if the solution is too strong or if you are allergic to it. To perform the patch test:
- Clean a small area of skin on your arm with soap and water then wipe down with rubbing alcohol
- Dab the TCA solution on with a cotton ball. After 4 minutes, or if the burning becomes intense, rinse with cool water
- Apply a topical antibiotic ointment (e.g. Bacitracin) over the area and wait 24 hours
The tested area should turn pink or brown, then blister and peel. If your skin’s reaction is severe, dilute the peel solution before proceeding.
To perform the peel, follow all instructions provided with your product. Dilute the peel solution as directed to reach the desired concentration of TCA.
Prepare for the peel by securing your hair away from your face and washing your face with a mild cleanser. Apply rubbing alcohol or a prep solution, if included in your kit, to remove any remaining surface oils from your skin. Spread a thin layer of petroleum jelly around your eyes, mouth and nose to protect those delicate areas.
Wearing gloves, use gauze or a fan brush to apply the peel solution over your entire face, avoiding the protected areas. The length of the peel depends on the concentration of the peel solution and your skin’s tolerance, but 2–5 minutes is typical.
TCA does not necessarily need to be neutralized. As long as you are using a low concentration, you can simply splash your face with water to cool your skin after 3–5 minutes before moving on to the final step. However, if your kit instructions tell you to use an included neutralizer, be sure to do so.
If you start to see frosting—a normal reaction to a strong peel in which the skin coagulates and turns white—it’s time to immediately neutralize the peel. To do so, apply the neutralizer using gauze or a cloth.
Lastly, wash your face with water and apply a layer of Bacitracin ointment; reapply several times a day for 48 hours.
For at least 2 weeks after your peel, avoid sun exposure and wear a sunscreen of at least SPF 30 every day. Additionally, do not use skin care products containing AHAs, retinol, salicylic acid, vitamin C or any other exfoliating products to allow your skin to recover.
If your skin flakes or peels, do not pull or rub the loose skin; this may cause permanent scarring.
Risks and Side Effects
Performing a TCA face peel at home carries a risk of accidental skin burns. This risk increases if you use a product containing more than 15% of the chemical. Risks of using more than 35% TCA include infection, scarring and organ damage.
In darker skin tones, TCA can cause skin discoloration whereby the treated area becomes lighter or darker than your natural skin color.
Expected side effects of a TCA peel are redness, swelling and peeling lasting up to 2 weeks. During that time, your skin will be sensitive to light.
Alternatives to At-Home TCA Chemical Peels
The best alternative to an at-home peel is a professional treatment from a clinician or dermatologist. These are safer and generally provide better results than at-home peels. They address the same skin concerns, including:
- Acne scars
- Fine lines and wrinkles
- Sun damage
Some of the most common professional skin care treatments are chemical peels, including TCA peels, glycolic, lactic and salicylic acid peels, and more. Other popular skin care and anti-aging treatments are ablative laser skin resurfacing and microneedling. A professional will be able to advise you as to which procedure would work best for your skin.
Retinol can also address many of the same issues as a TCA peel. Available both as a prescription and over-the-counter skin care product, retinol and other retinoids are usually applied every day for several months to rejuvenate the skin.
TCA peels are an effective means of removing dark spots, acne scars and other blemishes from the face while rejuvenating and brightening the skin.
If you choose to do an at-home TCA peel, avoid the risk of a chemical burn by only using products with 15% or lower TCA. Follow all included instructions and an appropriate post-peel care regimen to prevent complications. Side effects include redness, swelling and peeling that lasts up to 2 weeks.
As an alternative to an at-home peel, consider a professional treatment. A treatment performed by a skin care expert in a safe environment offers significant skin improvements with a far lower risk of damaging your skin. Alternatively, retinol products are a safe at-home alternative to rejuvenate your complexion.
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