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  • The Details on TCA

    The Science
    By Dr. Claudia Aguirre

    While our skin naturally sheds (desquamates) its outer layer on a regular basis, this process slows with age. Chemical peels are a powerful tool to resurface and rejuvenate skin with instant results. Other skin issues like photodamage and acne can also greatly benefit from chemical peels.

    You might be surprised to know that many of today’s chemical peeling agents originated from household kitchen items. Take the hydroxy acids: Tartaric Acid comes from grapes, Malic Acid from apples, Glycolic Acid from sugar cane and Lactic Acid from sour milk, to name a few. Similarly, the more potent peeling agent TCA (trichloroacetic acid), is a modified synthetic chemical based on common vinegar, or acetic acid. However it’s a powerful solution that effectively desquamates the outer layers of the skin without posing serious risk for toxicity.

    TCA is considered a keratocoagulant, meaning it coagulates the skin’s proteins together. This process is a lot like cooking egg whites – the raw egg white is slightly clear and goopy and cooking it turns it white and hardens it. On the skin, once keratin proteins are coagulated, they too turn a whitish color. This whitening is called “frosting” on the skin. Once frosting occurs, the TCA chemical self-neutralizes and is no longer active. Since the frosting is visible, it serves as a good marker for the professional skin therapist to know when to end treatment with the acid. In the treatment room, you’ll find that it’s a fantastic peeling agent that can tackle concerns of pigmentation, aging and even acne.

    TCA and the Skin Therapist
    By Whitney Johnson

    TCA is a great acid that any skin therapist can incorporate into her or his treatment arsenal to focus on pigmentation and aging. If combined with other chemical agents (like Salicylic Acid), it can also show marked changes on acneic breakouts and the common side effects that acne leaves behind, such as post-inflammatory pigmentation.

    While similar to Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs), TCA is a much stronger acid that causes a denaturing of skin proteins. As Dr. Claudia specified, the effect will produce a white “frost” on the skin or cause the tissue to turn white. This characteristic of TCA is a great tool for skin therapists as it helps us to monitor the progress of the peel. If frosting has occurred during the treatment, it is a signal that the peeling step of the treatment is done; progressing further will only inflict serious damage to the skin as frosting is a sign of cell death. Achieving a frost on the skin will give great results, however frosting may not always occur and should not be forced. Remember: peeling is about controlled inflammation – triggering excess inflammation would encourage premature skin aging, and that defeats the whole purpose of a peel!

    Another unique characteristic of TCA is that it has the ability to self-neutralize. Therefore, TCA does not depend on timing to trigger a frost or change, unlike AHAs. This feature makes the ingredient an especially unfailing chemical agent for skin therapists to use.

    Sometimes a manufacturer may offer TCA as a stand-alone formulation. While it is effective when used alone, research has shown that when combined with other ingredients like Lactic Acid or Salicylic Acid, it will enhance the effects of these ingredients and provide a more effective skin resurfacing result. Look for concentrations under 20% as it is an excellent acid for use in superficial chemical peels. Note that higher concentrations lead to medium depth peeling, which should only be done by a medical professional.

    *Be sure to double check your manufacturer’s directions when using a formulation with TCA, as some may require a neutralizer of some sort.

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