Hi, hello, and welcome to my Ted Talk on TCA peels, one my personal favorite (and like, every, dermatologist’s favorite) option for an in-office chemical peel. The first time I had a TCA peel—aka a trichloroacetic acid peel—I was beyond impressed with the results: My skin was smoother and softer, my pores looked smaller, and my post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation from old breakouts was less noticeable too. All good things!
The only “downside”? TCA peels are super powerful (and can have negative side effects, like scarring and inflammation, if they’re not done properly and by a licensed medical professional), so it’s important to go into the whole thing prepared. So, pls, keep reading for everything you need to know about TCA peels, including how they work, what they’re good for, and what to expect before, during, and after your treatment.
What do TCA peels do?
TCA stands for trichloroacetic acid, a peeling agent that has been used safely in skin treatments for over 50 years, says dermatologist Cynthia Price, MD. TCA peels are exceptionally good at minimizing the appearance of pores and uneven texture, reducing hyperpigmentation, and stimulating new collagen production to smooth fine lines and wrinkles, adds Dr. Price. Overall, they’re great for improving skin tone and texture and giving skin a radiant glow. And depending on your skin type and the specific results you want, your doctor may also combine TCA with antioxidants or another peeling agent, like lactic acid, says Dr. Price.
It’s also worth nothing that TCA is an ingredient that should be left in the hands of trained professionals or physicians. “It is not an ingredient that people should use at home,” says Dr. Price. As I mentioned before, TCA is super powerful, and if used or applied incorrectly, it can result in post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, unwanted brown marks after application, and even burns and intense irritation. Yikes.
What percentage TCA peel should I use?
This depends on a few things, like your skin type, skin tone, skin concerns, but ultimately, your dermatologist will know what percentage is best for you. “TCA can be used in percentages below 10 percent to as high as 50 percent,” says Dr. Price. “These percentages correlate to superficial, medium, and deep peels, which also correspond to downtime”–i.e., how long your face will take to calm down after.
How do I prepare my skin for a TCA peel?
This part is super important: For a few weeks before your peel, stick to gentle, non-irritating skincare. So lay off the exfoliating acids (like salicylic and glycolic acid) or retinoids, and instead stick to the basics: a sulfate-free cleanser, a moisturizer with ingredients like ceramides and hyaluronic acid, and SPF 30. Basically, you want your skin barrier to be strong and healthy. “The condition of your skin pre-peel will affect the penetration and outcomes of your peel,” says Dr. Price. “If the skin is properly prepared, complications are unlikely.”
4 sunscreens to use before and after your TCA peel
What should I expect during a TCA peel?
First, the dermatologist, physician’s assistant, or nurse performing your peel will remove any makeup that you’re wearing, clean your skin, and then de-grease your face with acetone. It smells awful, I’ll be honest, but it’s necessary for making sure the peel can effectively penetrate your skin.
Next, the actual peel is applied to your face, either with a gauze pad or cotton applicator, in multiple passes or layers (more layers = more intensity). Your doctor will know how many layers to apply based on your skin type and desired result. As the peel itself is being applied, you’ll start to feel a hot, tingly sensation, but don’t worry—most derms will give you a fan to hold up t
o your face during the treatment to minimize any discomfort. Once the peel is complete, your derm may also apply a cooling mask or treatment to your skin. The whole thing is pretty quick—about 10 minutes from start to finish.
How long does it take for a TCA peel to heal?
This really depends on the intensity of your peel. If you do a mild TCA peel, or a peel with a blend of TCA and other ingredients, you may experience minimal downtime (like mild redness and flaking) and just need to stay out of the sun for 48 hours and be super-diligent about using sunscreen, says Dr. Price.
But for the stronger TCA and blended peels? “There can be a week- to two-week-long period where your skin may turn dark, peel, and require extra care while the new, fresh skin cells rise to the surface.” For best results, be sure to follow your doctor’s specific aftercare instructions and use any specific products they recommend at home too. After my TCA peel (I did one at Allure Plastic Surgery Center in NJ called the PCA Skin Sensi Peel, which combines TCA and lactic acid, and basically made my pores disappear) my provider sent me home with a little kit full of post-procedure products and detailed notes on when/how to use them, which was super helpful during the healing process.
How much does a TCA peel cost?
The price depends on where you live and where you get the peel done (it’s not covered by insurance), but on average, TCA peels can cost anywhere from $400-$800 per peel, and usually require multiple peels spaced a few months apart for best results.
Is a TCA peel worth it?
Despite the price, yes, I think TCA peels are ultimately worth it for the right candidate (which will be determined by your derm). IMO, a TCA peel is great for anyone who already has a good, consistent skin routine and is looking to give their skin an extra boost, or anyone with stubborn lines or dark spots that aren’t responding to at-home treatments. Just remember to get your TCA peel done by a professional (no shady Groupon deals, okay?) who has experience treating patients with chemical peels, and you should be golden.
Deputy Beauty Director
Lauren Balsamo is deputy beauty director at Cosmopolitan, where she writes, edits, and produces all types of beauty content—from product reviews to personal essays and trend reports. She has covered beauty for nine years at Cosmopolitan and has contributed to Women’s Health and Seventeen magazines as well. Follow her on Instagram.