I was really bored back in May. So–as one does–I ordered some 15% Trichloroacetic Acid and put it on my face. Seemed like a good time to do a dramatic chemical peel; we’re still sheltering in place, so the main drawbacks of doing a peel (risky sun exposure, people seeing your wounded face) weren’t particularly relevant. And then, three-ish weeks later, I did it again–but stronger!–‘cause why not?
Well, I’ll tell you why not. Gather ‘round and I’ll tell you the terrifying tale of Finch, who flew too close to the sun in pursuit of vanity and was horribly, horribly burned.
What: Makeup Artists’ Choice 15% TCA peel
How much? $20 for 7.4ml “sample” size (almost always on sale–I paid less than $19, including shipping costs).
Why the hell would you do this: Light-medium- to medium-depth TCA peels can improve skin texture, tone (including PIH, PIE, and sun spots), minor wrinkles, and pore size–all within the space of a week or two. Additionally, it prompts collagen production–leading to further reduction in wrinkles–over the course of four to six weeks; so effects continue to improve even after the peel is long over!
Some risks you should be aware of: Acids, improperly used, can cause hyper- and hypopigmentation, scarring, and nasty texture (all the stuff you’re trying to get rid of!). Peels increase sun sensitivity (hence increased risk of hyperpigmentation); pulling off peeling skin (or otherwise “aiding” the peel in any way, including picking at zits or trying to squeeze out emerging plugs) can expose raw skin and lead to scarring; and a moisture barrier that’s been damaged by a too-intense or too-frequent peel can lead to increased acne and infection risk, “orange-peel texture,” and nasty dryness. The stronger the peel–and you probably should not be doing anything stronger than 18% TCA at home, period–the greater your risk of complications. Additionally, melanin-rich skin is more likely to risk hyper-or hypo-pigmentation from a TCA peel. There are also a lengthy list of medical conditions contraindicated with a TCA peel (such as pregnancy, cancer, or recent Accutane use), and you should probably check out that list before trying one.
The product arrived within three days and carefully packaged; the acid was in a dark brown vial with screw cap, accompanied by an instructional trifold. Their “kits”–available in quantities from ½ – 2 ounces–also come with gloves, an in-house pre-cleanse gel, and a post-peel neutralizer. I already own gentle cleansing gels, surgical gloves, and can make my own post-peel neutralizer (it’s baking soda and water; they include a recipe in their trifold), so I opted for the non-kit “sample” size.
A note on their “samples,” and why I keep throwing it in quotations–that 7.4ml contained enough product to do three layers on my face, four on my hands, two on my neck and three on my chest. If you–like most smart people–restrict it to one layer each on hands, face, neck, and chest, I expect you could get three peels. If you were just doing your face? Probably five or six. Just hands? (More about that later!) At least a dozen. Given that TCA peels are $$$ at med spas and derm offices, MUAC’s acids are a great value. (Their products are also created in an FDA/EPA-regulated lab, carefully regulated for purity, percentages, and pH levels, and are Leaping Bunny certified! Huzzah!)
But “great value” only matters if it works, right? So how’d it go?
The first time I did it, I followed the instructions exactly. Patch-tested my face, neck, and hands 48 hours prior. “Prepped” my face by using AHAs regularly, discontinued acids and retinoid use 24 hours in advance, and gently cleansed and dried my face prior to application. I smeared a thin layer of Vaseline to the areas I didn’t want damaged (immediate eye area, nostrils, lips), put on my gloves, dripped a bit of acid onto a cotton round, and gentle swiped my face from the forehead down, being careful not to let any get into my eyes. I then applied a bit more to the round and applied it to my neck and chest.
The five minutes for which I kept the acid on my face was a lot less excruciating than expected. It was mildly uncomfortable, but not remotely painful. It didn’t even “burn” to a degree that I would’ve bothered fanning myself for relief. After the allotted time I applied the homemade neutralizer with a gentle cloth–which immediately neutralized any and all discomfort–then rinsed and cleansed my face. I put on a thin layer of Neosporin (as suggested) and went to bed.
Next day? Nothing. Day after that? Nada. Not even any redness. They tell you to expect peeling starting around day 3-4, but I hit a week with nothing but mild flaking (more minor than what I dealt with on Accutane!). Eventually my skin did evenly–albeit verrrry slowly and in bitty little flakes–slough off, but I never got that peel effect I wanted.
That was a major bummer at the time; but in retrospect, who cares that I didn’t get any true peeling? Peel or no, it was still doing its job. After ten or so days, my skin looked great. Most of my under-skin gunk–closed comedones, keratin plugs, whatever–were pushed from where they’d been lurking deep beneath the surface for god knows how long. Sometimes I’d go look in the mirror to find a plug emerging from its pore without zero interference on my part, or I’d gently wash my face (no washcloth) and feel them coming out beneath my fingers. It was bizarre, and sounds gross, but if you’ve ever dealt with persistent non-inflammatory clogs then you’ll know what an exciting development that was.
And oh, man… that emerging skin? Baby-soft, glowing, and smooth as an android’s bottom. It was sensitive, of course, and very delicate (you’re supposed to refrain from using any actives, scrubs, or other potential irritants for two weeks–with militant sunscreen use, of course!). I still looked a little spotty, since it fast-forwarded the acne cycle for my existing inflammatory acne (leaving minor PIE in its wake). But it felt great, looked great, and had better texture than I can recall having for the entirety of my adult life.
Did I still have pores? Yes. I have–and always will have–giant pores (thanks, genetics!). And while the TCA was busy pushing up gunk, it did also push up a small cluster of cystic zits on my upper right forehead that must have been hanging out for years. I didn’t much care, though; I’d previously suffered from such dramatic bumpiness and uneven texture–we’re talking more square inches of bumps than non-bumps here–that purging a few deep cysts was no big deal.
But did I care that my skin was looking better than ever? NO. I wanted MORE! MORE! I was so bummed about the lack of true “peel” that I emailed the folks over at MUAC–who have only ever been extremely helpful, gracious, and prompt in their responses–to ask how soon I could do another and whether I should try a stronger peel. I told them my skin was used to acids (true) and that I’d barely flaked from a 15% single layer (also true). They told me I could try again in a couple of weeks and that I could layer the 15% on top of itself–each successive layer boosting the strength by 25%–for a total ~18% peel. (Note: Most people do a single TCA peel, then follow up every 3-6 months to maintain results. But it’s also permitted to do a second peel just 3-6 weeks after the first peel if your initial results weren’t sufficient, and then maintain every 3-6 months.)
So… I did. And this time, it hurt. The pain wasn’t intolerable–I’ve had worse sunburns–but it was distracting. And keeping it on for ten minutes (five minutes first layer, no rinse, five minute second) was not pleasant. (I also did my neck, chest, and hands again.) Neutralized, rinsed, Neosporin, bedtime.
This time, I got my peel–starting around day three. (Pictured!) It started around my mouth and slowly spread to the edges of my face, exposing extremely soft, tender skin underneath. It was done peeling by day ten, but this time my skin didn’t feel quite as happy. It was hyper-hyper-sensitive. Even Neutrogena gentle cleanser left it stinging. And this time, cysts began emerging everywhere but my upper-right forehead towards the very end of the peel period. Yayyyyy.
Since I’m still not sure whether the peel caused the zits or simply exposed them, I’m not sure whether to be happy (that the deep, deep grossness is finally out) or regretful (that I trashed my skin unnecessarily by doing a second peel). Either way, I don’t think I’ve ruined my moisture barrier; in addition to not having any of the tell-tale signs, my skin sensitivity has subsided enough that I’m able to do short-contact benzoyl peroxide therapy every morning and alternate acids and tretinoin at night with no pain or lasting redness. My skin is technically healthy enough, just… covered in cystic acne. And since I’d begun the second peel with angel baby skin, that’s a bummer of a change.
[Full disclosure: I hopped on a new tret prescription as soon as my post-peel skin allowed it, so it’s entirely possible that the cysts are a combination of some peel purge + classic tret purge.]
Even though the second peel turned my face into Cystic Acne Central, I’d still recommend doing a peel.
My first peel was a great experience, an easy and affordable process, and it came with the pleasure of immediate gratification–there’s no other skincare product I’ve tried that delivers such significant, obvious, quick results.
But I wouldn’t recommend following right up after with a second. (Hopefully you’ve gleaned that from the above experience!). Even if you think your skin is tough, don’t do it! And if your skin isn’t already used to strong-ish acids–I use a 14% AHA combo acid every night and a 32% AHA/BHA combo peel every week or two–I probably wouldn’t even start with one layer of 15%. MUAC sells a variety of TCA %, along with gentler chemicals and blends (such as the Jessner peel or TCX) that might cause your skin less distress and can target slightly different concerns. I mostly wanted a dramatic resurfacing, and that’s mostly what I got–I noticed only minor improvements in hyperpigmentation on my face, for example, which might be better addressed with one of their other options.
If you’re itching to try a peel but don’t want to risk your face, the results on my hands were AMAZING. Holy cow. It didn’t occur to me to get pics, but the “after” hands look a solid decade younger than they did before–it erased any unevenness in texture or tone, including stubbornly hyperpigmented remnants of minor cuts and burn scars, faint to medium freckling, saggy skin, and minor wrinkles. (It did not get rid of hypertrophic scars from major burns, though it did–much to my delighted surprise–smooth out the smaller hypertrophic scars.) The results were so dramatic that my spouse, who is not vain or even generally attuned at all to social pressures regarding looks or aging, wanted me to do his as well.
So even though I’ll wait a while before doing another face peel (I’m thinking no sooner than three months after these cysts have all finished healing), I will absolutely purchase another sample-sized vial of 15% TCA solely for the purpose of peeling my hands every two or three months. The results are gorgeous.
Have you done a peel? Would you do a peel? Feel free to share thoughts or experiences below! :) (But, uh, if you want to call me an idiot for doing two strong peels in quick succession, please call me an idiot nicely. I’m well aware that it was a foolish choice.)