Could Chemical Peels Really Cause Cancer?

Experts say news reports on a recent study raise false flags.

| October 28th, 2013
Could Chemical Peels Really Cause Cancer?

You may have caught the recent New York Times article "A Warning on Chemical Peels" or the ultra-scary headline on Jezebel, "Those Chemical Peels That Melt Your Face Off Might Also Cause Cancer." Wow.

The reports in question refer to animal studies that have named TCA (trichloroacetic acid) as a possible carcinogen when used long term. This year, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) announced its intent to add TCA to the state registry of toxic substances, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer stated that TCA is "probably carcinogenic to humans," but there is "inadequate evidence" to say for sure.

Before you start worrying about the big, scary c-word, our experts say you can relax.

First of all, the reports only refer to TCA peels, not lactic acid, glycolic acid or other acids that have boomed in popularity in the past decade. Some might say TCA peels are old-school and falling out of favor, since these other acids are more versatile and can easily be used in over-the-counter products. So if you get a peel at a derm's office, there's a really good chance it's not TCA to begin with.

MORE: How Peels and Lasers Work

Not that TCA peels don't still have benefits. Used to treat everything from acne scars, sun damage, fine wrinkles and even precancerous cells, TCA has been used on skin for decades. The solution is applied to the face for several minutes while a mild to strong sting is felt, depending on the percentage used. Skin is then typically cleansed, and a sunscreen applied, as the freshly peeled skin is more sensitive to UV rays for a period of time afterwards.

The New York Times reported, “The greatest concern may be for those who are exposed on a regular basis, including practitioners who regularly apply peeling agents and consumers using over-the-counter products a bit too enthusiastically.”


Practitioners wear gloves when applying TCA peels. “Wearing gloves prevents any concern of over-exposure to TCA, even if they are doing several peels a day,” says Dr. Diana Howard, Vice President for Research & Development at The International Dermal Institute and Dermalogica.

MORE: Tips for Performing an At-Home Peel

And as for at-home consumer use, long-term exposure is very difficult to get since the peel is on the skin for a short time. Even the most gung-ho at-home peeler would have to stop at some point, or else all of her skin would be burned off. And over-the-counter TCA peels typically come in superficial strengths of 15 to 25 percent at the most, while physicians often use concentrations up to 50 percent. Deep-depth peels with TCA and other ingredients that cause the Freddy Kruger face and require you to go into hiding for weeks (think Samantha on "Sex & The City") are rarely used anymore, since savvier options like laser are more effective and safer in most cases.

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