Aesthetic Dermatology Update

Acid series: Trichloroacetic acid


The last of the peels in my acid series is trichloroacetic acid (TCA), the big gun, which in my opinion can be one of the most effective clinical treatments for chemical peels – yet can be one of the most dangerous treatments in the hands of an untrained user.

TCA, in a clear colorless solution, is available in concentrations up to 100%, and has not been associated with allergic reactions or systemic toxicity. The available concentrations include those used for superficial depth peels (10%-30%), medium depth peels (35%-50%), and deep peels (greater than 50%).

Dr. Lily Talakoub, McLean (Va.) Dermatology and Skin Care Center

Dr. Lily Talakoub

TCA causes coagulation of the cellular membrane of epidermal proteins in the epidermis and, depending on the concentration, the dermis, which results in frosting of the skin. Repair of the epidermal cells induces resurfacing of the skin and neocollagenesis. TCA can be combined with other acids, including glycolic acid (Coleman peel), Jessner solution (Monheit peel), and solid CO2 (Brody peel). It has also been combined with lactic acid, mandelic acid, and salicylic acid in combination peels of various concentrations.

Although there are many studies, case reports, and textbooks related to this topic and the applications, combinations and treatment options for TCA peels, it is important to highlight here how many of these solutions – at high concentrations – are available directly to consumers, med spas, and the general public through online websites, including Amazon and overseas sites. Over the last 15 years, I have seen complications of this acid alone in people who have bought TCA online, related to applications not just on the face but on the body, neck, eyes, vaginal, and anal areas. Pigmentation, erosions, ulcers, and strictures are just some of the possible complications that occur not just with a more concentrated solution, but more often from application errors, aggressive layering of the acid, allowing the acid to sit on the skin too long, and improper tissue prepping and posttreatment skin care.

TCA can be an untamable acid, with little control over the depth of penetration even in the most controlled situations. The inability to be neutralize TCA creates an environment in which the depth of penetration and tissue coagulation is not a precise science. Once applied, the tissue reaction cannot be “stopped” or rapidly reversed making it highly variable in its mechanism. Patients of all skin types have the potential to develop complications as the epidermal and dermal thickness, moisture content, sebum production, and pigmentation are highly varied between individuals.

Dr. Naissan O. Wesley, a dermatologist who practices in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Dr. Naissan O. Wesley

In my opinion, it is a dangerous product to have on the market – not just for the untrained medical providers using it but for estheticians and the general public who now can buy TCA anywhere.

But with effective training, reliable sourcing and appropriate preparation of the patient’s skin, however, a TCA peel can be a highly effective tool for difficult-to-treat dermatological problems, such as scarring and xanthelasma.

Dr. Talakoub and Naissan O. Wesley, MD, are cocontributors to this column. Dr. Talakoub is in private practice in McLean, Va. Dr. Wesley practices dermatology in Beverly Hills, Calif. This month’s column is by Dr. Talakoub. She has no relevant disclosures. Write to them at

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