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The painful lessons I learned after The Ordinary gave me chemical burns


TextSara Chaudhry

Writer Sara Chaudhry reflects on her recent experience of using the cult skincare brand’s AHA peeling solution

Our face is usually one of the first people see of us, and sadly, quite often judge you on. So, when I was recently taken into A&E after suffering chemical burns from using The Ordinary’s AHA peeling solution, the experience reminded me of the power of vulnerability. 

I wanted to use the peel to help exfoliate my skin, reduce scars, hyperpigmentation, and even out my skin tone. I have used acids before in the form of salicylic and glycolic acid and my skin had definitely built up a tolerance over the years. I’ve never suffered from sensitive skin or had any issues when getting chemical facial peels by a professional. This time was different.

It was a Saturday night and I used the peeling solution after cleansing my face. I had done a patch test 24 hours before, with no problems. I then applied it fully and, as instructed, left in on for no more than 10 minutes. I noticed some tingling – nothing out of the ordinary – and then washed it off completely, applied moisturiser and went to bed. The next morning, I woke up with a wet face. I remember thinking that maybe I’d been drooling in my sleep, but my skin was red and burnt.

I was hoping it would get better and return to normal, but when I sent pictures to my friend later in the day they said it wasn’t normal so I called 111 (the medical helpline in the UK). They advised me to seek medical help from A&E. I spoke to a doctor there who explained it was a chemical burn and that it may take a few weeks to heal.

After the ordeal, I contacted Deciem (The Ordinary’s parent company)  to explain what had happened, including photographic evidence. I was told that I would be reimbursed a mere £6.25 – the cost of the product – as a “goodwill gesture”. Obviously I didn’t think that was sufficient as I’d suffered from burns that had peeled away the first layer of my skin, causing oozing, swelling, burning, and a constant itchy sensation, but I didn’t hear back until I went public about my experience on Twitter

While I received plenty of support from family, friends, and colleagues, I was surprised that others personally attacked me about the experience, telling me that it was my own fault and that I should have been more careful. “That’s what you get when you skip the professional and do these things yourself,” one reply read. “Next time, spend the money, go see an esthetician.” Other comments were from people saying I didn’t know my skin type and not being careful enough when using the product. 

To find out more, I spoke to Teodora Brotherns, licensed esthetician and skincare specialist. “30 per cent AHA is definitely very high, especially to be sold over the counter – people should be very careful with this product,” she explains. “I highly advise consulting with an esthetician or dermatologist before using this. They know your skin and can analyse to make sure what you’re putting on your face goes with your skin type and if you’re a candidate for a peel, they can point you in the right direction and determine what the best peel would be for you.” 

I later found out this wasn’t an isolated incident and others privately messaged me with their own stories. “I have used other products from The Ordinary but the AHA peeling solution left me with chemical burns,” said one person who wanted to remain anonymous. “I was too embarrassed to leave the house and I became depressed. My skin took a long time to heal; it was a horrible time for me.” 

“I have used other products from The Ordinary but the AHA peeling solution left me with chemical burns. I was too embarrassed to leave the house and I became depressed. My skin took a long time to heal; it was a horrible time for me” – Anonymous 

Rashelle, 22, had a similar experience: “I used the peel for 10 minutes, during which there was some discomfort. When I rinsed my face, I noticed patches on my face were white and slightly bubbled, as though I’d been burnt with hot water. Eventually, it began to scab over, but I was worried about the damage beneath my eye and I didn’t want it to encourage the appearance of ageing. It was a very unpleasant experience.”

Muriel, 30, was equally distressed after her experience left her with dry and burnt skin. “I was genuinely scared about what had happened,” she says. “People need to hear about the dangers of a product like this.” None of the others went public with their experiences or received compensation from Deciem. 

Showing your chemically burnt face on the internet wasn’t a pleasant experience, but something I felt I needed to do. While I have been in touch with Deciem since, I don’t feel like I have received a satisfactory response or adequate compensation. It feels like a slap in the face when it’s such a well-liked brand internationally. Fighting for justice seems like a long way off, but I plan to continue holding them accountable and plan to take legal action. 

By no means am I saying others should boycott The Ordinary/Deciem – I have previously used other products and they’ve worked without any issues. However, I know I am not the only one to suffer from the AHA peeling solution and I hope my experience can bring greater awareness about using potent over-the-counter chemical peels and open discussions around whether they should be banned. 

It’s so easy to feel disheartened when you scroll through social media and see flawless, unblemished, airbrushed skin, which subconsciously makes us believe this is the norm. If I’m taking one thing away from the experience, it’s that the only way to counter this is by being vulnerable and celebrating our true, unfiltered faces. 

We reached out to Deciem for comment, but had not heard back at the time of publishing. 

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