Chemical Skin Peels for Acne - Dangers, Risks & Side Effects

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Understanding the side effects of the procedure can help you weigh up the pros and cons of the treatment, although side-effects vary depending on the type of chemical peel and its concentration.

Immediate Side Effects of Chemical Peels for Acne

The most immediate side effect of chemical peeling is discomfort but the pain varies depending on the chemical.

  • AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) is not a particularly painful peel; patients describe a warm sensation and some stinging. At low, over-the-counter concentrations AHA is said to be painless.
  • TCA (trichloroacetic acid) peels are said to be rather more painful and are likely to cause a burning and stinging sensation. A sedative and pain medication may be offered in order control the pain.
  • Phenol peels are the most potent and therefore the most painful. They are so painful that they are mostly done under general anaesthetic. Phenol peels can be immediately dangerous if you have a heart condition.

Short Term Side Effects of Chemical Peels for Acne

If you are concerned about any unusual short term side effects you are experiencing or if they are lasting longer than expected, please contact your doctor or dermatologist.

  • AHA (alpha hydroxyl acid) – As this is the mildest of the three chemical peels it is also the one with the fewest and shortest-lived side effects. Redness, tightness of the skin, irritation, peeling, dryness and sensitivity to sunlight. These side effects should not last much more than a week. In extremely rare cases it is possible that you may get a skin infection. If you think you may have an infection immediately contact your doctor.
  • TCA (trichloroacetic acid) – TCA exhibits all of the short-term side effects of AHA but they tend to be more severe and last longer. You may also experience swelling and could require pain medication. Over-the-counter painkillers like ibuprofen should be strong enough. You should have fully recovered within two weeks.
  • Phenol peels – Phenol is a very strong chemical treatment and has serious, long-lasting side effects. It will have all of the side effects of both AHA and TCA but to a far greater extent. Phenol can cause serious swelling to the point where your eyes may become swollen shut. You may also experience some discolouration and crusting of the skin and blistering that your practitioner should instruct you to deal with. The pain after a phenol peel can be severe and you will probably be prescribed painkillers. Redness of the skin can last for months after a phenol peel and total healing can also take months.

Long Term Side Effects of Chemical Peels for Acne

Long-term side effects of chemical peels are rare and unfortunate. If you have an AHA or TCA peel it is extremely unlikely that you will experience any long-term side effects after the initial healing period. With all peels however, it is probable that your skin will remain sensitive to sunlight for a long time and it is therefore highly recommended that you use a high-factor sun cream at least twice a day for the foreseeable future.

Hyper- and hypopigmentation (darkening and lightening of the skin) are the most common side effect of chemical peels. It is not likely that you will suffer permanent discolouration from AHA and TCA peels but the risk increases when you have a Phenol peel. If your hyper- or hypopigmentation does not fade within around 6 months you should talk to your doctor or dermatologist. In some cases Phenol can also cause permanent uneven skin tone, permanent skin lightening and sun sensitivity as well as lifelong scarring.

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Guide to Chemical Skin Peels for Acne & Acne Scars