Can You See Your Skin Peeling from Peeling Gels?

Whoops, not that kind of peel

It is nice to get a question from one of my oldest friends on Twitter, Musical Houses.

Hi Colin, I was hoping you’d be able to answer a burning question I have regarding peeling gels. They are HUGE in Asia right now (and making their way to the West), and they claim to exfoliate gently. They are hugely popular because they appear to ‘work’ – when you rub the product on your face you get all these little white balls which look like dead skin cells. A typical ingredients list looks like this: water, glycerin, acrylates/C10-30, alkyl acrylate crosspolymer, dicocodimonium, chloride, steartrimonium bromide, aloe barbadensis leaf extract, gingko biloba extract, rosmarinus officinalis/rosemary leaf extract, butylene glycol. I don’t see any exfoliating on the list, but instead see a whole bunch of polymers. Do you think it’s possible that the little white balls produced are a reaction within the product itself that causes the product to pill up, forming those little white balls? I’m rather skeptical that all this is actually dead skin. Was wondering how products like these work?

I hate to have confirm your skepticism.  You are quite right, you are not seeing dead skin peel off.

This trick is sadly rather a simple one.  You make a gel by thickening up water with a polymer. There are plenty of these to choose from.  The relevant one in the ingredient listing you kindly sent me is the acrylates/C10-30, alkyl acrylate crosspolymer.

Normally, the formulator takes care to make sure that the polymer is in at a level whereby it gives the gel its viscosity and consistency, but doesn’t actually congeal when rubbed on the skin.  If it does, it is known as balling and is usually considered to be a problem.

But from time to time someone hits on the idea of using this balling effect to give the impression that skin is being removed.  I saw this being done over thirty years ago in a popular product that claimed to remove dry skin from the feet.  It pops up every now and again, and thanks for letting me know that it is popular in Asia at the moment.  It is always good to know what is going on elsewhere.

But the bottom line is you are quite right, these products don’t give a skin peeling effect that can be seen visually.  They might well contain physical or chemical peeling agents that actually do have that effect, but as you rightly point out there is not one in the ingredient list above.

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17 thoughts on “Can You See Your Skin Peeling from Peeling Gels?”

  1. Thanks for making an entry about this. I was just about to ask the same question. I was suckered into buying one but I felt like it’s the formulation that’s making those dead skin-like stuff. The dead giveaway? The supposed dead skin is too many. I figured that if it was actually skin tissue, my face would be very raw after washing.

  2. Gibson Girl Beauty

    Jeanne Rose’s herbal books have a recipe for something called a Mayonnaise Peel that sounds similar… I don’t have the recipe hand but my recollection is that one put a layer of oil on the face, then rubbed with an infused herb water, then rubbed over that with lemon juice which would cause “little balls of gluck” to form. Same principal?

  3. Thanks Colin for a fabulous and clear answer! I actually did an experiment earlier using the peeling gel – I put it on a piece of plastic and rubbed it with another piece of plastic (a plastic bag wrapped around my hand), and I got the same “peeling” effect rubbing it between those pieces of plastic (which proves those balls are in the product, and not from your skin)! It’s great to have an actual cosmetic chemist confirm my suspicious! When I eventually post about my experiment (been busy at home due to a new pet!) I will definitely link to your post! 🙂

    PS – you are, too, one of my oldest twitter friends, and still one of the most informative!

  4. I have to comment about the exfoliant product mentioned above. I have used this product for a year now and I’ve been buying one that is manufactured in Japan. In all honesty I never thought the big balls were skin but rather the polymer attaching to dead keratin which does build up on the skin. I can absolutely tell that it does exfoliate by going over my lips, I can feel the the pieces of skin that are still left on the inside of the lip. I have seen a reduction in fine and deep lines and have even purchased some for my neighbor to try, as she has acne due to use of the birth control pill. It apparently effectively removes the bacteria, extra oil and dead cells well enough that her acne is gone. Also, the product I’ve been using does not yield large balls, but rather small tiny pieces. I have been using an FGF/EGF cream for 3 months, and have experienced less sloughing with the exfoliant. I think your blanket statement should be redacted, unless you’ve tried the product yourself.

  5. I have been using these products for a while and I agree with Cherie, the products absolutely work to remove dead skin. Better than, may I say, scrubs and acid peels I have used. I actually use the product on flaky spots that I have and immediately they are smoothed over in a way that no scrub or acid peel can. Also, my skin is immediately smoother and silkier after I use these, which is not always the case with scrubs or acids. Plus they are very gentle as they have the consistency of a lotion.

    I agree with Cherie that you should retract your statement unless you have actually tried the product yourself and have evidence that they are not working. I have used several of these for a while and I think these exfoliants are much better than any other type of exfoliant out there. They actually work and are extremely gentle.

  6. @Cherie and Mirabella – thank you for taking the time to comment. I am glad you are so passionate and confident in your views, but I think I will decline your editing suggestions. I am sure readers can make up their own minds.

  7. bascially the peeling white peeling comes from reaction bw the carbomer and dicocodimonium chloride… i don’t think dead skin cell is actually coming out from the skin.. there is chemical reaction involved with carbomer and the salt. hope this helps!

  8. Interesting.. I was skeptical too but, what about koh gen do spa gel? i couldn’t find acrylates/C10-30, alkyl acrylate cross polymer yet they still produce that white jump when you rub of the gel with your skin. i could find carbomer on the list, was that the case?

    the ingredients are like this:
    Water, Butylene Glycol, Steartrimonium Chloride, Carbomer, Alcohol, Palmitoyl Carnitine, Chrysanthellum Indicum Extract, Caffeine, Betula Platyphylla Japonica Juice, Scutellaria Baicalensis Root Extract, Morus Alba Root Extract, Salvia Officinalis (Sage) Leaf Extract, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract, Lithospermum Erythrorhizon Root Extract, Japan Hot Spring Water , Lecithin, Olea Europaea (Olive) Fruit Oil, Propylene Glycol, Phenoxyethanol.

  9. Chemical reaction from anionic thickener such as C10/30 Acrylate Copolymer and cationic agent caused balling effect. It doesn’t need to neutralized the polymer during the process so it come out with low pH.
    Then issue comes when we have to reach neutral pH (6-6,5).
    Any suggestion?
    Or can we using nonionic thickener to replace anionic polymer?

  10. Lab Muffin wrote a great piece on “peeling gels” that explains why Colin is only half right and why Cherie is also right.

  11. Pingback: [Review] Cure’s – Natural Aqua Gel | Trendcended

  12. I think the piint is a bit missed by some of the commenters. The point is that, looking at the ingredients list, there is no reason to think that chemical peeling will happen. So if people using these product do see skin being peeled off, especially those seeing it happen at a higher rate than when using chemical peels or vigorous manual peels, then actually you should be asking the question. of what is in the ingredient that is peeling your skin off.

  13. I just wanted to say that Lab Muffin does absolutely not in any way say that Cherie is right or that Colin is only half-right. Lab Muffin very generously stated that these products could be used as some way overpriced / badly formulated “gentle physical exfoliant” which is nothing that your cleanser and tips of your fingers cannot achieve. It does not do antibac miracles or whatever Cherie said for your skin. It is just a trick of marketing and it’s not right to tell lies to waste people’s money that they could be using on good skincare, and make them believe lies.

  14. Pingback: Fact-check: Do peeling gels really peel off my skin? – Lab Muffin Beauty Science

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