Experts Warn of Risks of Some at-Home Chemical Peels

One woman shares her experience of an at-home peel gone wrong.

ByABC News
January 5, 2017, 8:44 AM

— -- Chrissy Dixon describes herself as having “some skin issues,” including “fine lines, large pores and dark spots.”

To address those issues, Dixon, a beauty vlogger and cosmetologist, turned to an at home chemical peel containing 30 percent trichloroacetic acid, TCA, typically used by physicians and trained professionals. Dixon said she purchased the peel online for $25.99, a fraction of what a doctor might charge using a similar product.

“I knew it was going to burn,” Dixon said, admitting that, despite her familiarity with lower grade TCA peels at a salon, she wasn’t prepared for what she described as the considerable pain and uneven results caused by her do-it-yourself peel.

“My whole face started to flame up like it was on fire,” she said. “‘My face is ruined.’ This is what’s going through my head.”

Chemical peels are designed to work by removing part of the top layer of skin to reveal fresher skin for a more youthful appearance. Many products containing low concentrations of acid are sold through beauty retailers and drug stories and are often safe to use. However, some consumers, like Dixon, are opting for more potent peels and documenting their mishaps online.

When it comes to alpha hydroxy acids or AHAs, like salicylic and glycolic acids, a concentration of 10 percent or less is safe for home, and more than 30 percent should be reserved for a professional environment, according to a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel.

But there is nothing to stop consumers from purchasing chemical peels with higher concentrations of acids online. “Good Morning America” was able to purchase six of the peels with higher concentrations online, including two vials of 100 percent TCA , which is a stronger acid that AHAs.

The peels purchased online ranged in price from $15 to $200. The price for a professional chemical peel can range from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000.

Dr. Mark Abdelmalek, a Philadelphia-based dermatologist and an ABC News medical contributor, warns that several of the chemical peels purchased online by “GMA” should not be used without supervision.

“Acids work by destroying tissue, and if you put more acid, you’re going to destroy more tissue,” he said.

The product that caused the most concern for Abdelmalek was the tiny vial of 100 percent TCA.

“I’ve never done a 100 percent chemical TCA peel, ever,” he said. “It’s just, I think, too dangerous.”

While the product is meant to be diluted with water, according to the instructions that the vial came with, Abdelmalek maintains even a diluted version has risks, especially as the product did not come with measuring tools to provide an accurate dilution.

“You have to be really careful about diluting this 100 percent to get it to a safe ingredient,” he said. “And I think that’s asking a lot of people to dilute this really strong acid in a very safe way and go ahead and put it on your face.”

A 30 percent TCA peel, like the one vlogger Chrissy Dixon said she used at home, is considered an aggressive treatment even by professional standards.

“It’s crazy to do that in a nonregulated environment,” said Dr. Michael Brown, a Virginia-based plastic surgeon who performs 30 percent TCA peels routinely in his practice but cautions against doing them at home. “If you get TCA into your eye, nothing good is going to come of that.”

Several dermatologists contacted by “GMA” report an uptick in injuries resulting from high-level acid peels performed at home.

“I have seen more complications related to both at-home peels as well as those performed by technicians without proper training or adequate experience,” said Dr. Diane Berson, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Berson said the desire to look younger is helping drive interest in do-it-yourself peels.

“Certainly as the anti-aging market has grown along with consumer interest in products and procedures that can turn back the clock, more have jumped on this bandwagon,” she said.

“GMA” reached out to the companies that manufacture the peels purchased online by a “GMA” producer.

The maker of a 70 percent concentration of glycolic acid peel purchased by “GMA” said its product is safe to use at home, as long as the consumer follows the instructions — which would include a patch test to test skin sensitivity — and has gradually increased levels of glycolic acid in prior chemical peels.

Another company that manufactures a mixed acid peel purchased by “GMA” said it has a strict policy of selling exclusively to licensed medical practitioners.

“We work diligently to stop the distribution of our peel through online marketplaces,” the company said in a statement emailed to ABC News.

“GMA” could not reach the company from which the 100 percent TCA peel was purchased.

While the chemical peels were significantly cheaper online, Abdelmalek warns there is a hidden cost to using peels intended for professionals.

“There’s a cost to just rolling the dice, and I think a lot of this is just rolling the dice,” he said.