How Chemical Peels Work: Common Peeling Agents

By Kara Roth, LA February 23, 2015 2 Comments

common chemical peel age

Last week I covered the major differences between chemical peels. Specifically, we looked at how PH level is used to determine the overall power of the peel. Since that post, we received some questions concerning the specific active ingredients of the most popular chemical peels.

Here’s a brief overview of common chemical peel ingredients (peeling agents):

Salicylic acid: This unique monohydroxybenzoic acid derived from willow bark, can penetrate deep into the oil glands making it an ideal ingredient for treating acne and oily skin.

Lactic acid: A naturally occurring acid found in human skin and milk, lactic acid is a less irritating AHA that can naturally moisturize the skin. Lactic acid is ideal for skin brightening, as well as treating pigmentation, dry skin and rosacea.

Glycolic acid: The most common agent found in peels, Glycolic acid can come in different pH levels and concentrations (typically 20-70%) which will determine how much peeling it will cause. Glyciolic acid is a great active ingredient for treating fine lines, light sun damage, enlarge pores and blackheads.

Tartaric acid: A natural acid from grapes, tartaric acid is a good mild alternative to glycolic acid in terms of skin exfoliation. Tartaric acid helps increase the skins hydration level. This ingredient is great for treating superficial pigmentation, light acne and photo damage.

Malic acid: Derived from pears and apples malic acid is another alternative mild to glycolic acid.

Citric acid: Citric acid comes from lemons and oranges. It works in the same way as tartaric and malic acids. It can be used to treat acne, photo damage, rosacea, superficial pigmentation and eczema.

Fruit enzymes: Naturally occurring enzymes from acidic fruits like pineapples or cranberries can be used within peels to treat acne, rosacea, dehydrated skin or hyperpigmentation. Fruit enzymes are antibacterial and relatively mild, making them a good choice for individuals with sensitive skin.

Trichloroacetic acid (TCA): Trichloroacetic acid is a stronger peeling agent than glycolic acid. TCA is typically utilized in medium depth peels; however its level of concentration can be manipulated to be higher for use in deep peels. Due to its increased power, TCA can be used to treat moderate lines and wrinkles, acne scars and hyperpigmentation.

Carbolic acid: The strongest type of peeling agent available, carbolic acid is used for very deep peels to treat deep wrinkles and severe scarring or sun damage. Carbolic acid should only be used by medical professionals.


Kara Roth, LA

Kara Roth, Licensed Aesthetician, received her education at Avenue Five Institute and the Texas Aesthetics Training Academy in Austin. Kara specializes in laser and cosmetic procedures including Laser Hair Removal, chemical peels, V-Beam , Hydrafacial MD, Microdermabrasion, Cooltouch for acne, Clear and Brilliant, and Fraxel.


2 Responses to “How Chemical Peels Work: Common Peeling Agents”

  1. Treda says:

    Your information is greatly appreciated!

  2. Anne says:

    Thanks for sharing. I didn’t realize that chemical peels have different degrees of power or effectiveness

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