Dermatologists, estheticians, and all-around skin experts worldwide endlessly extol the virtues of using exfoliating acids to treat common skin complaints like acne, hyperpigmentation, and blackheads — and for good reason. They're simple to use, more environmentally sound than physical scrubs with microbeads, and most importantly, they really work: Alpha-hydroxy acids like glycolic, lactic, and mandelic exfoliate the surface layer, while beta-hydroxy acid, better known as salicylic acid, exfoliates deeper inside the pore.
As a result of their increasing popularity, beauty brands are formulating cleansers, toners, moisturizers, face masks, serums, and more with the liquid skin perfectors. It's now easier than ever to incorporate acids into your routine at home, regardless of your skin type or how much time you set aside for skin care each morning and night.
For more challenging skin issues, like acne scarring or hyperpigmentation, potent clinical-grade acids — also known as chemical peels — are available. When used by professionals with extensive skin training and in a controlled, sterile environment, these treatments are safe. However, experts have discovered that high-strength acids are landing in the laps of individuals with no expertise whatsoever, and the results are incredibly dangerous.
There is a risk of infection, scarring, burning, and worsening of pigmentation.
A simple online search throws up a handful of websites selling acids, particularly glycolic and lactic acid blends, at varying strengths for the purpose of at-home use. Some range from 10% to 25% in strength, while others rather dangerously reach the 30% mark. Most websites advise that acid peels at these percentages are "very strong," and warn against using them if you're pregnant or taking Accutane — but none list the side effects, which can include painful chemical burns, scarring, and increased pigmentation.
Dr. Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist and author of The Skincare Bible: Your No-Nonsense Guide To Great Skin, is one expert advocating for the regulation of such products being readily available to consumers with little to no experience. "A number of patients have attended my clinics over the past few months with skin issues such as pigmentation, and on further questioning during the consultation, it transpired that they were buying high-strength peels online," she tells Refinery29. Individuals are using home-bought peels for a variety of different reasons: "Skin complaints range from trying to treat their acne to improving their skin tone or texture, or hoping to remove skin pigmentation," Dr. Mahto says.
Little do consumers know that they can cause more harm than good when using these professional-grade acid peels. "High-strength acid peels should only be carried out in a medical setting by an appropriately trained professional such as a qualified aesthetician, nurse, or doctor," advises Dr. Mahto. "There is otherwise a risk of infection, scarring, burning, or pigmentation, to name a few effects. Appropriate aftercare may also not be carried out at home."
The trend for purchasing clinical-grade acids online can perhaps be put down to the expense of visiting a dermatologist or qualified esthetician for skin treatment: With non-essential dermatology appointments often exceeding $200, it's hard to blame individuals for opting for cheap DIY peels — and with more people taking interest in their skin, Dr. Mahto says, many will turn to at-home methods without being aware of the associated risks.
This is something Jasmine*, 27, knows all too well. "I bought a chemical peel online because I'd had a few facials in the past and thought it was something I could do myself at home. I wanted to target some red marks left behind by some hormonal spots, as they just wouldn't fade. The product was clear and runny and looked like water, really. I used a brush to paint it on to my face and it started to sting almost immediately," she recounts. "My face was literally burning. The pain was unbearable and I remember just panicking. I rinsed it off quickly but my face was red and blotchy for hours afterwards. The area around my eyes was super sensitive for days and I couldn't apply any skin care there; it would hurt like hell."
To prove just how easy it is to buy professional acids online without any skin care qualifications, we scoured the internet ourselves and came up with tens of hits; on Amazon, a 30% glycolic acid peel is available for roughly $50, no questions asked. It is clear that regulations must be put in place, but buying professional acids is also at the discretion of consumers, says Dr. Mahto. "While there is no doubt that better legislation is required for the sale of these types of products, it is also important that the individual takes responsibility for their own health," she says. "Professional treatments simply should not be carried out at home."
That doesn't mean you have to ditch at-home acids altogether: There are plenty of safety-tested over-the-counter treatments to choose from. "For anyone looking to incorporate over-the-counter acids into their skin-care routine, start off cautiously, especially if there is a history of sensitive skin," Dr. Mahto advises. "Maybe start using the products a few times a week and slowly build up to see the chemical exfoliation benefits."
If you're experiencing any sensitivity, such as peeling, flaking, increased redness, stinging, or burning, stop using the product immediately. If the symptoms worsen, consult a qualified skin expert as soon as possible. And if you are using any kind of acid, regardless of its strength, it pays to wear sunscreen during the day (in all seasons), as acids can make skin sensitive to sunlight and cause further skin issues, like pigmentation — the exact thing you're trying to address in the first place.
*Name has been changed. At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission. This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.