It is known from detailed notes on papyrus that medical personnel were using peels formulations to treat dermatological conditions in ancient Egypt as far back as 1550 BC. This was the period just before the coming of Rameses I when the Hysos kings ruled the great land and it is documented that like today skin physicians were in great demand amongst the more affluent women as sun damaged skin was a sign of lower rank in society. In those days, before Botox and skin lasers women used a variety of substances such as alabaster, oils, and salt to improve the skin.
Of interest, is the fact that sour milk was highly valued as an exfolient, most probably because it contained lactic acid, an alpha-hydroxy acid commonly used today. But, time like the sun in the sky passes on and eventually an Egyptian family from Luxor waged a fierce set of wars against the foreign Hysos kings and finally drove them out of Egypt forever. Many years later a copy of the formulations of these chemical skin cures was found between the legs of a mummy in the Assassif district of the Theben necropolis. The manuscript passed through many hands until it was eventually purchased by Edwin Smith in Luxor in 1862, and thereafter became known as the Ebers Papyrus. In Europe, that year, Otto van Bismarck became premier of Prussia, dissolved parliament and started collecting taxes for a conflict that ended with the Franco-Prussian War. The war had Bismarck’s desired effect of unifying the southern Germanic states and unfortunately nearly cost the life of a young German army physician called Paul Gerson Unna. In 1871, in spite of serious injuries he returned to the University of Heidelberg to continue his studies and eventually become one of Germany’s greatest dermatologists. In 1881, Unna opened the Dermatologikum private dermatological hospital in Hamburg and the following year he described a chemical peel composed of resorcinol, salicylic acid, phenol, trichloroacetic acid that is still in use today.
In 1903, as Mayor George Mc McClellan was inspecting the final touches to New York’s subway system, the Chairman of Dermatology of that city’s university told a hushed audience about the advantages of using phenol peels for acne scarring. This means of exfoliation continued to be used and during World War I, its antiseptic properties was used for wound care, especially after the rising number of explosion burns to the face in the dirty trenches. It was during this period that a French physician called LaGasse noted the improved aesthetic out-come of wounds that had been dressed in phenol bandages. It is not known whether any of these soldiers eventually died of cardiac toxicity but we do know after the war ended his techniques were brought to America by his daughter Antoinette who then began a cosmetic practice in California. The art of chemical peeling remained amongst these cosmetic practitioners until the early sixties when Litton and later Baker and Gordon presented patients that they had treated with some of these cosmetic formulations to their dermatological colleagues. The Baker-Gordon peel of about 50-55% phenol is still widely in use today. It is made by combining 3 cc of 88% phenol, 2 cc of distilled water, 2 drops of croton oil, and 8 drops of Septisol. The croton oil and Septisol are added to allow deeper penetration and more absorption of the phenol. In 1966, Baker published results of its effect on 250 patients. It was the same year that John Lennon caused record burnings in the Southern US’s “Bible Belt”, after he was quoted in the London newspaper, The Evening Standard as saying that the band was now more popular than Jesus.