Why Didn't my Chemical Peel Frost?

Ever wonder why that 25% TCA didn't frost or result in peeling of the skin? Its pH level may have been too high, although the percentage was listed as 25%.  pH levels and percentages may be confusing, but they are quite different and have important distinctions, depending upon desired outcome.

Shopping for Chemical Peels

I have to decide what the purpose is for my peel: if I want a medium or deep peel, which causes peeling of the skin and induces collagen production more quickly, I shop for chemical peel agents with a pH level between .05 - 1.0. If I want a superficial peel to deal with acne or moisture, which will not necessarily cause necrosis (death of most or all cells due to damage), I usually shop for a higher pH level product, something I can use more often.

But there's an important caveat: even higher pH level chemical peels can be effective at inducing collagen synthesis--it just takes longer. If my skin is sensitive, I may also want a higher pH product, which is effective, but it may not irritate my skin as much or cause apparent tissue damage. Here's a quote from a clinical study that compared the efficacy of acids with different pH levels: "When using a 70% glycolic acid solution, the lower pH products (below pH 2) create more necrosis than the partially neutralized products with a pH above 2. At this time there is no evidence that creating necrosis leads to a more favorable result of the peel. Therefore, the use of partially neutralized glycolic acid solutions seems prudent, since they have a better safety profile than low pH solutions, which contain only free glycolic acid."

Remember, peeling the outer layers of skin is not the real purpose of a medium or deep peel, although it does kick start the body's healing process faster. I will admit that there's some satisfaction in peeling; the real purpose is to induce collagen production. So, if I bought a 25% TCA chemical peel that never frosted, it may have still been beneficial! Now, more about the pH scale...

The pH scale measures the acid or alkaline level of chemical peels (and any other substance that is measurable), and it ranges from 0 to 14. As a reference, here’s the pH level of some commonly known items:



pH Levels

Technically speaking, pH is a logarithmic measure of hydrogen ion concentration, but that doesn't really matter to me. pH levels are important to me because I use chemical peel acids, and when the skin's proteins react with an acid of low pH, the acidic environment destroys the existing tissues, and the body's repair system works to replace the destroyed tissue with new structures. The lower the pH, the stronger the chemical peel. Don't confuse pH with percentage; this is completely different. pH levels in products purchased can be altered--up or down; this is called buffering, but when the percentage is changed, we easily understand what that means: how much of the entire product is actually active vs. inert.

Testing pH Levels

To test my solutions, I use pH strips that measure 0.0 - 14.0 because they are more accurate (show pH level in increments of .02, which is good for testing products) than the pH strips that measure the body's pH level, which usually show pH levels between 4.0 - 8.0.


Buffering

Anytime the natural pH level of an ingredient or product is altered, it’s called buffering. Buffering can either increase or decrease a pH level. Buffered and non-buffered products can carry the same percentage of an active ingredient, but the pH level is not in its original range.

When I dilute my 50% TCA with distilled water, I am lowering the percentage, not the pH since water is neutral. If I mix my 50% TCA with ammonium hydroxide (ammonia), lye, calcium carbonate, or another highly alkaline base, it will increase the pH and drastically reduce its strength, although the percentage of TCA may be the same as the one I mixed with water.

Imagine two different products with the same percentage of TCA (let's say 25%), but with different pH levels: one has a pH level of 1.3 and the other has a pH level of 0.5. Which is going to create a frost or create a frost faster?

Let's take a different approach at understanding pH; for example, this 30% glycolic acid has a pH level of 2.1; it has been chemically altered to give it a higher pH level so that the inexperienced at-home user has a safer peel; interestingly, their 50% glycolic acid also has a pH of 2.1, which means that the percentage of acid to other ingredients is higher than in the 30% product—but not the pH. What do you think the outcome of using the first product would be compared to the second?

Here's a final example: their 70% glycolic acid peel has a pH of 0.6 – its pH has been chemically altered to be lower. Why do you think that is? The difference on the scale may not seem like much, but it makes a big difference.

A leave-on product, such as this 15% Glycolic and Hyaluronic acid serum has a pH level of 3.4, which  allows me to keep this on my skin without feeling that constant stinging, while still benefiting from the acid, although it will take more applications over time to achieve the same results, but there's no down time!

Free Acid Values and Compounds

Free acid values and compounds are an important concept; this is an area where a product's concentrations may be misleading. A compound is a mixture of ingredients that contain not only the acid(s) but also water, alcohols, preservatives, etc., which all make up a portion of the compound, so a 30% glycolic compound is not really 30% glycolic acid. I can only guess what the actual amount of acid is in that compound, but legally, a company can state that this compounded product is 30%, so I always ask to make sure.


24 comments:

  1. Hi, 4 days ago I used 35% glycolic acid peel on my face, but I have not had any frosting or peeling.
    I have a brown mark on my chin, it was where I had a blemish. It has turned brown, I am quite worried now, I hope I haven't scared myself.

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    1. Hi Anon, Most glycolic acid sold to consumers has a higher pH level--too high to create frosting. Does the product list its pH level? I've never frosted with glycolic acid purchased online specifically because of the pH level. In fact, most people rarely see the microscopic peeling that results from glycolic acid peels.

      I wouldn't worry: the brown spot will likely flake off, given some time and no picking. Do you have darker skin or lighter? When I use 40% glycolic acid with a pH level of 1.5, if I apply several layers to a blemish just as a spot treatment, it will do sort of the same, but it gets red first, then turns a light brown when it's drying out--sort of a mini scab but very thin. DO NOT PICK AT IT. If you pull it off too soon, you can create a mark that would be prone to hyperpigmentation.

      Remember to use a good sunscreen after any type of chemical peel to protect the skin while it's healing and peeling (even if you can't see the peeling).

      Now TCA peels are a different story because most have a pH level low enough to cause necrosis, although you should always find out the pH level of any product you use on your face.

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  2. Hi again :)
    The product is by Yavonae & does not provide any details of what PH balance it is.
    Today I noticed that my face has broke out, I have little red blemishes all over. I would like to apply my Retin -a , it maybe a little too early to that perhaps another few days.
    Is it important that you do not use any chemical peels /Retin-a for a week before a TCA peel?

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    1. I love her TCA products, but I've never used her glycolic acids, although the red bumps don't surprise me: glycolic acid is one that will cause purging and it shouldn't be too bad but expect it after each use until you have used it a few times to get the pores cleaned out. I use it before bed; mine clear in about 12 hours.
      I can use retin-a the next night but not the other way around for me. I have to wait sometimes before a TCA if my skin is red from other products, but some people don't have to wait. I find prudence pays off because my skin always reacts better if it's in good shape--not red or irritates--before using a peeling agent.

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  3. It will be a week Saturday that I applied the Glycolic peel. I am not seeing any difference. First day 2 days my face looked bright & clear but now it has gone back to looking lifeless again. When I wash my face or add moisturiser, the blemishes look like measles -red!
    I want to use Retin-a but I am too anxious too, just in case I get a reaction. I have not tried TCA & have read a lot of negative posts about it, Stating that you shouldn't use it, if you have no experience.
    Also the suggested dosage for beginners is 10% & then slowly build the dosage up.
    I wouldn't be able to dilute the strength, like you do. I am not too confident at doing that.

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    1. We're all different, so that could be purging or a reaction. I'd probably try the glycolic again on Saturday night before bed to start a weekly routine. Once my skin adjusted, I'd incorporate the retin-a during the middle of the week to have a couple of days between.

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  4. I will give the Glycolic another try. Hopefully this time, I see a difference. The solution application time was 8-10 mins.
    I managed in total, to do 9 mins. At 7 minutes, it was getting too much! So I stuck my face in front of the fan.

    How do you manage to apply all your face in 30 seconds? Took me couple of mins lol

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    1. I pour some into a shallow dish and use a chemical peel fan brush--makes a huge difference!

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  5. Hi Gabi, I tried the Glycolic acid 35% strength twice on a weekly basis. And in between that used Retin-a 0.05% three times last week & once this week. I am not getting any side effects like other people state.
    The Glycolic acid does sting at first & after an hour that redness goes. But so far no peeling at all. However there was a bit of itching first two times of using the
    Retin-A , but not sure if that was mosquitos trying to get at me. The doses are low for a beginner, so I am really confused. Gem

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    1. Gem, how's the glycolic acid working to clear your blemishes? Most people experience stinging, itching, and some redness, but rarely have frosting or visible peeling unless the pH level is really low. I've had purging with glycolic, but only when I've gone for some time without using it.
      Be careful using the glycolic too soon after the retin-a because it really can be too much and end up burning those sensitive areas. I'd always wait a few days after using retin-a before the glycolic acid.

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  6. Hi Gabi, I'm afraid my blemishes are still here :/
    I am not I should of done a before & after photo. That way I could compare my pores, they look less but not too certain.
    I use the Retin-A , 2-3 days after using the peel. I only did the peel twice & it has been 10 days since the last. I could message you a photo on your facebook page to show how bad my blemishes are. Your skin is perfect compared to mine!!
    I know with the Retin-A , you have to be patient . But with Glycolic acid I haven't noticed much change. What do you think of a higher dose or different brand?
    Do you use Retin-A daily? Three times a week should be okay for a beginner right?
    Turned to you the Pro, to help out lol

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    1. Gem, retin-a does nothing for my blemishes! Only glycolic acid clears me up, but I have to use it every week, consistently, or they come back with a vengeance. It can take several applications to get everything cleaned out, but that would be my best bet-- the glycolic acid - for clearer skin. Also, the formulation of retin-a may be a factor if it's too creamy or alcohol based. I know there are different formulas, based upon your goals. I use it for anti aging, so I use the cream, but it causes problems if I'm not using glycolic to stay clear.

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    2. Gem, I use retin-a 2-5x/week, depending on what's happening with other products or my skin. Retin-a irritates my skin a lot, so some weeks I just have to skip it until the redness or blemishes are taken care of.
      I don't think you need to change glycolic acid brand or strength. I think I would increase the application time if I hadn't experienced any problems, or possibly apply it twice a week and skip the retina until I was clear.

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    3. I was hoping the Retin-A would help both blemishes & wrinkles. But like you, I also have very sensitive skin ��

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  7. Do you mean to use Glycolic twice a week? I want to make my own vitamin C serum. But not sure if I am able to use it a few days after the Glycolic treatments. , i And use the Retin-A perhaps once a week.

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    1. If the blemishes are persisting, the glycolic acid is what I would increase--until that's under control.
      I mix my own C, but I'm able to use it only about 1x/week because it makes me break out I have to use MAP since it's the less irritating of the two C varieties. I get mine from skinactives.com

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  8. I also noticed small red veins on my nose, I assume they are spider veins. I also have uneven skin tone. So that pretty much explains that I also have Rosacea. Urghhhh what a nightmare :/
    Can chemicals help on this? Some sites suggest it does & some don't think they do help.
    BTW I am using SPF 50 , even that factor doesn't protect you all day which is quite annoying. Apparently sun shields protect you between 4-5 hours max. Not much help considering it is school holidays now & my daughter wants to be out in this
    30C weather ��

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    1. Hi Gem, I'm afraid too many chemicals may make the rosacea worse, at least for me. It's a constant balancing act: use the chemicals to fight blemishes and wrinkles but not so much that it exacerbates the rosacea.
      I've learned to wear a hat and sunglasses when outside. I also sometimes reapply my sunscreen, which is only 30 SPF.

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  9. Hi Gabi, this is very frustrating, so if I have treatments it will make the rosacea worse? This will make my skin treatment process a lot more harder.
    And here's me thinking that, I was finally stepping forward :/
    You do not have rosacea do you? Your skin face looks flawless.

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    1. Gem, everyone is different, so your rosacea may not be affected. I would be cautious just in case. I have not been diagnosed by a derm as having rosacea, but I have all the symptoms. I never really had the broken caps and acne until I reached my 40s, so it's an assumption I've made.

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  10. I also haven't been diagnosed but I suspect I have it. Not giving up yet, I am going have another go with the
    Glycolic peel tonight.
    A friend of mine has asked me if TCA works on stretch marks? I told her that, I haven't seen any reviews stating it does works, so I am not certain.
    What do you think?

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    1. Good luck with you peel tonight. I've read that it can take 5-6 sessions to get moderate acne under control.
      I've never seen any topical agent completely remove stretch marks, unfortunately.

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    2. You can use a 60% TCA every 6months to help with stretch marks if you do not have dark skin. But you must do a test spot First. I can give more info if you would like...
      B

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  11. Thanks Gabi for your time

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