Trichloroacetic acid is a chemical that is commonly used for cosmetic skin peels and removal of warts, skin tags, moles, and tattoos. It works by removing the top few layers of skin, allowing new skin cells to appear. Peels with this acid are considered medium-deep, as compared to alpha-hydroxy acids with are more shallow and phenol peels which are much deeper.
Cosmetic skin peels with trichloroacetic acid are generally performed by dermatologists or plastic surgeons because the solution is too caustic to be safe for home or salon use. After several weeks of pre-treatment with alpha-hydroxy gels and anti-viral medications, the doctor performs the peel during a one-hour visit. Following the peel, the skin looks severely sunburned, and crusts and scabs may form. The recovery time for a peel is at least two weeks, though it might be longer for some people.
Chemical skin peels are cheaper and less invasive than plastic surgery, but they can yield similar results. Fine wrinkles, age spots, and discoloration caused by sun exposure or other environmental factors are removed in a chemical peel. Trichloroacetic acid peels can also remove many types of pre-cancerous lesions on the face. Many patients opt to have this treatment done every two or three years to maintain its effects.
Wart, mole and skin tag removal are another common uses of trichloroacetic acid. For these blemishes, a doctor applies a 50% solution of the acid directly to the area. In general, the blemish comes off within a week. For genital warts and HPV, doctors regularly use trichloroacetic acid to treat external outbreaks of warts that are suspected of being pre-cancerous. This type of treatment is less painful than freezing or cutting off the warts, but some patients require several treatments to completely remove an outbreak. Trichloroacetic acid can't be used on internal genital warts.
Trichloroacetic acid might also be used to remove or fade tattoos, although there are no clinical standards for this use. The concentration of acid used for tattoo removal is higher than that used for the face. In order for this treatment to be effective, it should be performed by a physician. Home treatment kits are available, but these can be ineffective at best, or damaging to the skin at worst. A chemical peel may not be able to remove a very large or deep tattoo, but in most cases, the tattoo significantly fades after several treatments.