Those Chemical Peels That Melt Your Face Off Might Also Cause Cancer

The compound used in chemical peels—the anti-aging procedure performed by dermatologists—is raising concern after a growing number of studies suggest it could be a carcinogen. It turns out that pouring acid all over your face could actually be dangerous. Huh.

Trichloroacetic acid (TCA) is used to peel off a layer of skin cells, making it an effective way to remove acne scars, dark spots, pregnancy mask, and sun damage, leaving the skin bright and freshened-up (after a recovery period in which your face looks like raw hamburger).

However, the International Agency on Cancer Research has recently classified TCA as a suspected human carcinogen, after research with animals showed that it can be absorbed into the bloodstream by seeping through the skin, and that it was linked with liver cancer. This summer California announced that it intends to add the compound to the state registry of toxic substances.

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While most of the cancer findings derive from longterm exposure in laboratory animal, a recent report published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research found evidence of genetic and cellular damage in human subjects. But the EPA has emphasized "the dearth of good human studies" with TCA:

No human epidemiology or occupational studies of TCA were located. Case reports and accounts of the medical use of TCA for skin treatments demonstrate its potential for skin corrosion and eye irritation. However, no information on systemic toxicity following dermal exposure of humans to TCA was identified.

Dr. William Coleman, the editor in chief of the journal Dermatologic Surgery, noted that a person receiving a chemical peel "is exposed to TCA for only a few minutes before the acid is washed off," limiting exposure time.

For now, those who are at a greater risk may be the doctors who regularly apply the chemical peels, or people who overindulge in over-the-counter TCA products

The greatest concern may be for those who are exposed on a regular basis, including practitioners who regularly apply peeling agents, as well as consumers over-indulging in over-the-counter, DIY TCA kits.

A Warning on Chemical Peels [NYT]