Chemical Peels

Gary D. Monheit, MD


Skin Therapy Letter. 2004;9(2) 

In This Article

Medium-Depth Chemical Peeling

Medium-depth chemical peeling is defined as controlled damage from a chemical agent to the epidermis and papillary dermis resulting in specific regenerative changes that can be performed in a single setting. Agents currently used include combination products—Jessner's solution, 70% glycolic acid, and solid carbon dioxide with 35% trichloroacetic acid. The benchmark for this level peel was 50% trichloroacetic acid. It has traditionally achieved acceptable results in ameliorating fine wrinkles, actinic changes, and preneoplasia. However, since TCA itself is an agent more likely to be fraught with complications, especially scarring, in strengths of 50% or higher, it has fallen out of favor as a single agent chemical peel.[4] It is for this reason that the combination products along with a 35% TCA formula have been found equally effective in producing this level of control damage without the risk of side-effects.

Brody first developed the use of solid CO2 applied with acetone to the skin as a freezing technique prior to the application of 35% trichloroacetic acid. The preliminary freezing appears to break the epidermal barrier for a more even and complete penetration of the 35% trichloroacetic acid.[5]

Monheit then demonstrated the use of Jessner's solution prior to the application of 35% trichloroacetic acid. The Jessner's solution was found effective in destroying the epidermal barrier by breaking up individual epidermal cells. This also allows a deeper penetration of the 35% TCA and a more even application of the peeling solution.[6] Similarly, Coleman has demonstrated the use of 70% glycolic acid prior to the application of 35 % trichloroacetic acid. Its effect has been very similar to that of Jessner's solution.[7]

All three combinations have proven to be as effective as the use of 50% trichloroacetic acid with a greater safety margin. The application of acid and resultant frosting are better controlled with the combination so that the "hot spots" with higher concentrations of TCA can be controlled, creating an even peel with less incidence of dyschromias and scarring. The combination peel produces an even, uniform peel. The Monheit version of the Jessner's solution—35% TCA peel is a relatively simple and safe combination. The technique is used for mild-to-moderate photoaging including pigmentary changes, lentigines, epidermal growths, dyschromias, and rhytids. It is a single procedure with a healing time of 7-10 days. It is useful also to remove diffuse actinic keratoses as an alternative to chemical exfoliation with topical 5-fluorouracil chemotherapy. Topical chemotherapy is applied for 3 weeks creating erythema, scabs and crusts for up to 6 weeks. The combination peel will produce similar therapeutic benefits within 10 days of healing. It thus reduces the morbidity significantly and gives the cosmetic benefits of improved photoaging skin.

The procedure is usually performed with mild preoperative sedation and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agents. The patient is told that the peeling agent will sting and burn temporarily and aspirin is given before the peel and continued through the first twenty-four hours if the patient can tolerate the medication. Its inflammatory effect is especially helpful in reducing swelling and relieving pain. If given before surgery, it may be all the patient requires during the postoperative phase.

Vigorous cleaning and degreasing is necessary for even penetration of the solution. The face is scrubbed gently with Ingasam (Septisol®, Vestal Laboratories) 4" x 4" gauze pads and water, then rinsed and dried. Next, an acetone preparation is applied to remove residual oils and debris. The skin is essentially debrided of stratum corneum and excessive scale. A thorough degreasing is necessary for an even penetrant peel.

After thorough cleaning, the Jessner's solution is applied with either cotton-tip applicators or 2" x 2" gauze. The Jessner's solution is applied evenly with usually one or two coats to achieve a light but even frosting. The frosting achieved with Jessner's solution is much lighter than that produced by TCA and the patient is usually uncomfortable, feeling only heat. A mild erythema appears with a faint tinge of splotchy frosting over the face.

The TCA is painted evenly with one to four cotton-tipped applicators that can be applied over different areas with light or heavier doses of the acid. Four cotton-tipped applicators are applied in broad strokes over the forehead and also on the medial cheeks. Two mildly soaked cotton-tipped applicators can be used across the lips and chin, and one damp cotton-tipped applicator on the eyelids. Thus, the dosage of application is technique dependent on the amount used and the number of cotton-tipped applicators applied. The cotton-tipped applicator is useful in quantatiting the amount of peel solution to be applied.

The white frost from the TCA application appears complete on the treated area within 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Even application should eliminate the need to go over areas a second or a third time, but if frosting is incomplete or uneven, the solution should be reapplied. TCA takes longer to frost than Baker's formula or straight phenol, but a shorter period of time than the superficial peeling agents do. The surgeon should wait at least 3-4 minutes after the application of TCA to ensure the frosting has reached its peak. He then can document the completeness of a frosted cosmetic unit and touch up the area as needed. Areas of poor frosting should be retreated carefully with a thin application of TCA. The physician should achieve a level II to level III frosting. Level I frosting is erythema with a stringy or blotchy frosting, seen with light chemical peels. Level II frosting is defined as white-coated frosting with erythema showing through. A level III frosting, which is associated with penetration through the papillary dermis, is a solid white enamel frosting with little or no background of erythema.[8] A deeper level III frosting should be restricted only to areas of heavy actinic damage and thicker skin. Most medium-depth chemical peels use a level II frosting and this is especially true over eyelids and areas of sensitive skin. Those areas with a greater tendency to scar formation, such as the zygomatic arch, the bony prominences of the jaw line, and chin, should only receive up to a level II frosting. Overcoating trichloroacetic acid will increase its penetration so that a second or third application will drive the acid further into the dermis, creating a deeper peel. One must be careful in overcoating only areas in which the take up was not adequate or the skin is much thicker.

Anatomic areas of the face are peeled sequentially from forehead to temple to cheeks and finally to the lips and eyelids. The white frosting indicates keratocoagulation or protein denaturation of keratin and at that point the reaction is complete. Careful feathering of the solution into the hairline and around the rim of the jaw and brow conceals the line demarcation between peeled and nonpeeled areas. The perioral area has rhytids that require a complete and even application of solution over the lip skin to the vermilion.

Eyelid skin must be treated delicately and carefully. A semidry applicator should be used to carry the solution within 2-3mm of the lid margin. The patient should be positioned with the head elevated at 30 degrees and the eyelids closed. Excess peel solution on the cotton tip should be drained gently on the bottom before application. The applicator is then rolled gently on the lids and periorbital skin. Never leave excess peel solution on the lids because the solution can roll into the eyes. Dry the tears with a cotton-tipped applicator during peeling because they may pull peel solution to the puncta and eye by capillary attraction. The solution should be diluted immediately with cool saline compresses at the conclusion of the peel.

The Jessner's-TCA peel procedure is as follows:

  1. The skin should be cleaned thoroughly with Septisol® to remove oils.

  2. Acetone or acetone alcohol is used to further debride oil and scale from the surface of the skin.

  3. Jessner's solution is applied.

  4. Thirty-five percent TCA is applied until a light frost appears.

  5. Cool saline compresses are applied to dilute the solution.

  6. The peel will heal with 0.25% acetic acid soaks and a mild emollient cream.

There is an immediate burning sensation as the peel solution is applied, but this subsides as frosting is completed. Cool saline compresses offer symptomatic relief for a peeled area as the solution is applied to other areas.

Postoperatively, edema, erythema, and desquamation are expected. With periorbital peels and even forehead peels, eyelid edema can occur and may be enough to close the lids. For the first 24 hours, the patient is instructed to soak four times a day with a 0.25% acetic acid compress made of 1 tablespoon white vinegar in 1 pint of warm water. A bland emollient is applied to the desquamating areas after soaks. After 24 hours, the patient can shower and clean gently with a mild nondetergent cleanser. The erythema intensifies as desquamation becomes complete within 4-5 days. Thus, healing is completed within 1 week to 10 days. At the end of 1 week, the bright red color has faded to pink and has the appearance of a sunburn. This can be covered by cosmetics and will fade fully within 2-3 weeks.

The medium-depth peel is dependent on three components for therapeutic effect: (1) degreasing, (2) Jessner's solution, and (3) 35% TCA. The amount of each agent applied creates the intensity and thus the effectiveness of this peel. The variables can be adjusted according to the patient's skin type and the areas of the face being treated. It is thus the workhorse of peeling and resurfacing in my practice as it can be individuated for most patients we see.

For a patient in which there is advanced photoaging changes such as crow's feet and rhytides in the periorbital and/or perioral area with medium-depth changes on the remaining face, a medium-depth peel can be used to integrate these procedures together. That is, laser resurfacing or deep chemical peeling can be performed over the periorbital and perioral areas that have more advanced photoaging changes, while the medium-depth chemical peel is used for the rest of the face. This will blend the facial skin as a unit so that the therapeutic textural and color changes will not be restricted to one area. The patients requiring laser resurfacing in a localized cosmetic unit will have the remaining areas of their face blended with this medium-depth chemical peel. Patients having laser resurfacing or deep peeling to the perioral or periorbital areas alone develop a pseudo hypopigmentation that is a noticeable deformity. The patient requiring laser resurfacing at a localized cosmetic unit will have the remaining areas of their face blended with this medium-depth peel. The alternative—a full-face deep peel or laser resurfacing has an increased morbidity, longer healing and risk of scarring over areas such as the lateral jaw line, malar eminences, and forehead. If deep resurfacing is needed only over localized areas such as perioral or periorbital face, a blending medium-depth peel does reduce morbidity and healing time.[10]


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