I don’t go for facials often (I believe the less you do to your skin, the better), but when I do, I usually opt for a glycolic acid peel.
It smoothes out my skin’s texture, evens out its tone and makes my wrinkles look smaller. The best part? There’s no pain or downtime.
Well, maybe a bit, if you opt for a high concentration, like 70%. I’m still young so I stick to the smaller ones. Painless and effective.
Not everyone is a fan of GA, though. Some people find it too harsh and irritating for their skin type. While they’re looking for something gentler, they often turn to TCA peels. Here’s why that’s NOT a good idea:
What Are TCA Peels?
TCA stands for Trichloroacetic acid, a strong acetic acid used in medium strength chemical peels. It dries the top layers of the skin so they peel off over the next few days.
TCA peels rejuvenate the skin in several different ways:
- Fade dark spots, acne marks, sun spots and freckles
- Reduce fine lines and wrinkles
- Even out the texture of your skin, making it look softer and smoother
- Unclog your pores
- Treat sun damage
Related: Battle Of The Skin-Lighteners: Which One Is The Best Alternative To Hydroquinone?
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What Can You Expect From A TCA Peel?
TCA peels are medium depth peels. They range from 8% to 30% strength. Not as high as other acids (glycolic acid peels can range from 20% to 70%!), but there’s a good reason for that. TCA is more powerful. Any higher and they’ll destroy your skin.
Here’s what you can expect before, during and after a TCA peel:
Before The TCA Peel:
- Stop using all exfoliants and retinoids for at least two weeks: The peel will exfoliate your skin, so no need to do it beforehand.
- Do a patch test 48 hours before the peel: You don’t want to discover you’re allergic to TCA after you’ve slathered it all over your face.
- Get some time off: Your skin will peel heavily in the next few days. You don’t want anyone to see you like that! Take at least a week off work. 10 days is even better.
During The TCA Peel:
- Your skin will be cleansed: It enhances the penetration of the peel. Only then, it can be applied.
- Your skin will sting: Think of someone rubbing sandpaper all over your skin. It’s not painful enough to require anaesthetic, but it’s VERY uncomfortable.
- You skin may “frost”: If you’re getting a high strength TCA peel, some areas of your face can temporarily become white.
- The peel is neutralized: After 5 minutes, a solution of baking soda and water is applied all over your face to stop the peel from working (P.S. The neutralizing solution may sting more than the peel itself!).
- Post-peel care: Your skin is gently washed with water, soothed with an emollient cream and protected with sunscreen.
After A TCA Peel:
- Downtime: Your skin will be red and swollen afterwards and will peel badly for the next 3-4 days. It may even look wrinkly and glossy for a while.
- Antibiotic: Apply an antibiotic cream regularly to protect your skin and prevent infection. Your skin is stripped bare so it needs help against bacteria.
- Apply sunscreen: You have to be super religious with this. Your skin is super sensitive and can’t stand contact with the sun now.
- Longlasting results: They last for about 6 months!
How Do TCA Peels Compare To Glycolic Acid Peels?
I go for a glycolic acid peel every 3 or 4 months, but I’ve never tried a TCA peel before.
Why? I don’t believe in suffering more when you can get the same results with less drama.
I’ve found two studies comparing TCA peels with glycolic acid peels. The first one compared 15% TCA peel with a 35% GA peel. The second 35% TCA with 70% GA. The results were the same:
- Same benefits: The smaller concentrations of TCA worked just as well as the higher concentrations of GA.
- Downtime: The downtime is way worse with TCA. I never peel after a GA peel, but after TCA, heavy peeling is inevitable.
- Irritation: Side effects, such as redness and irritations, were much more severe with TCA.
I don’t know about you, but I’ll stick to glycolic acid peels for now.
Related: The Complete Guide To Glycolic Acid In Skincare: What It Is, What It Does, And How To Use It
The Bottom Line
TCA peels are an effective way to rejuvenate the skin, fade dark spots and reduce wrinkles. But, even small concentrations are pretty harsh, involving severe peeling, stinging and up to 10 days of downtime. Why suffer like that when you can get the same results with a much gentler glycolic acid peel?
I’ve done 15% TCA peels and I’ve never experienced any of what you said, although you may have been referring more to the highest strength 30% TCA peels. It does burn and you are right about the neutralizing solution stinging really bad, but it just stings for a few seconds and then calms down. My skin turns red in places. Once I rinse with cold water and apply cream, though, I haven’t had any swelling, redness or even much peeling. There were some little flakes for one day but that’s it. I did peels 5 days apart and still didn’t have any trouble. I like doing TCA just because it’s supposed to go a little deeper than the glycolic. When I was younger, though, I probably would have done the same as you and went for the glycolic. I love the results that I have gotten- more even skin texture and tone, firmer skin and it’s effective right away. That being said, I’ve also read horror stories about both TCA and Glycolic peels, so it just goes to show how different everyone’s skin is and how what works for one person may not work at all for someone else.
Karma, thanks for sharing your experience with you. As TCA goes a little deeper, it tends to be more irritating than glycolic, which is why more patients in the studies reported worse side effects with it. But I agree with you, everyone’s skin is different and if they work for you, why stop?
I’m a beginner on peels I try a few but honestly the TCA Peels are super great, I’m thanksful to SKIN OBSESSION for the wonderful products they have.. looking younger everyday.
Alejandra, thanks for sharing your experience. G;ad they’re working so well for you.
I’ve gone up to 50% glycolic peels which is more than a little painful. So I figured how much worst could 15% TCA possibly be? Actually, didn’t even sting that much, far less painful. So I started using Peel pads that contain 15% TCA + 15% glycolic + 3% Mandelic acid, and they are really great! No, they don’t even sting as much as 30% glycolic peels. No, they don’t make my face turn red. No, I do not feel any need to hide in my house for several days. My skin does feel a little sensitive and tight afterwards, and after about 5-7 days, results in a gentle, even, overall peel. I have no doubts the results I receive from the TCA peel pads are far superior to any I acheived before with glycolic alone.
RPG, thanks for sharing your experience. Just goes to show how different everyone’s skin is. I love glycolic but it can be quite irritating. Glad you’ve found an alternative that works well for you.
I’ve only done TCA peels, 15% and did 3 layers and yes it was very painful but so worth it. I peeled like crazy! I stayed indoors for one week but was done peeling by day 5 and had fresh new skin which looked beautiful, bright, And smooth as a dolphin. I’m interested in glycolic peels but my only concern is that I wouldn’t be getting any significant peeling or anything that would turn me on to GA. If I’m doing a peel I want to PEEL, I don’t want to flake and look exactly the same. Is it possible to have a deeper peel with GA? Something that would compare to the peeling of a 15%-20%.
Leah, this is something better discussed with your dermatologist. You can get higher % of glycolic acid peels, but you need a professional to administer them and tell you if it’s the best option for you.
I definitely feel like your blog is a little bias with respect to your personal experience with one type of peel. Hence, making an argument against TCA kind of like….why?! I appreciate your thoughts, but until you trial both, I wonder if it’s worth making the argument that one is better than the other. Sorry