Skin Cycling Is the Latest TikTok Trend That Promises Your Best Skin Ever

Photo credit: Tanja Ivanova - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tanja Ivanova - Getty Images

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A great skin care routine is not unlike a great fitness routine. And when it comes to working out, the importance of recovery truly can’t be understated. From Olympians to amateur athletes, anyone who exercises regularly knows that doing the same strenuous routine every day without any downtime will only hinder—not help—progress. The same line of thinking has proven essential for productivity in work and school, mental health, and even relationships. So as she watched her patients mix, match, and layer every ingredient imaginable onto their skin night after night, dermatologist Whitney Bowe couldn’t help but wonder why recovery had not yet been embraced in our approach to skin care.

“There was this focus on individual ingredients and this thought that the higher the percentage, the better, so certain ingredients were being layered in a way that was actually just causing irritation rather than driving results,” she says. The New York City–based derm asked her patients to bring in the products they were using and explain the order in which they applied them and how often they used each in a given week. Bowe soon discovered that no one seemed to know which products to use when and that anytime they learned about a new ingredient, they simply added it into their existing regimens.

“Their routines were getting very long, very cumbersome, and they ended up with either severe irritation or they just hit a plateau and weren’t seeing any real changes or benefits in their skin,” she notes. “So as I was thinking about their skin care and changing variables, I knew we needed to find a more strategic and deliberate way to approach skin care." Bowe understood that the full range of benefits would only come from using these ingredients in isolation, rather than all together, so she devised a new plan for her patients: skin cycling.

After experimenting with the rotational skin care approach within her practice and taking note of her patients’ impressive results, Bowe took to social media last year to share the wonders of skin cycling with the rest of the world. In recent months, the concept has gained serious traction (perhaps you’ve seen the viral TikToks), earning rave reviews and convincing testimonials from patients and fellow dermatologists alike. But before you try your own luck with the trend, it’s important to know exactly what it entails.

What is skin cycling?

In simplest terms, skin cycling is a four-night rotational skin care regimen that alternates between using active ingredients and letting the skin rest and recover. The approach, New York City dermatologist Dendy Engelman explains, “is designed to improve the efficacy of active ingredients and minimize irritation by cycling through active and inactive products over the course of four nights.”

Night One

Typically, a skin cycle will start with an exfoliation night, followed by a retinoid night, and, finally, two nights for recovery, before returning to night one to do the whole thing over again. “The concept there is that during exfoliation night, you use an exfoliating product—ideally a blend of different acids—that’s going to slough away the uppermost layer of dead skin cells on the surface of skin, so you’ll not only get sort of a glow overnight, but your skin will also get the most out of night two, your retinoid night,” Bowe says. “Because when you remove the layer of dead skin cells, the next product you use will penetrate better.”

Bowe continues, “When it comes to exfoliation night, I find that a blend of acids is more effective than a single acid, and an AHA like glycolic acid that’s formulated in 8 to 10 percent strength has been shown to stimulate collagen production, which matters long-term.” She adds, “It’s one thing to unclog your pores and brighten your skin overnight, but it’s another thing to actually create this scaffold and structure in the deep layers of your skin that will make your pores literally smaller over time and help with fine lines and wrinkles.”

Night Two

The next night, retinoids are the star of the show. As one of the most beloved and versatile ingredients in skincare, retinol has a place in nearly every skincare routine. But since most people can’t tolerate it every night, cycling can be crucial. “A lot of patients try a retinoid and give up within the first couple of weeks because of the dryness, irritation, and purging, but they need to push through that,” Bowe notes. “So you can introduce retinoids much more successfully with skin cycling.”

When choosing your retinoid for night two, it’s smart to keep your tolerance in mind. “Although the aim of skin cycling is to minimize side effects of retinol usage, it is not foolproof,” Engelman points out. So if you know you have sensitive or reactive skin, you should stick with a lower-percentage, over-the-counter retinol rather than a stronger prescription retinoid.

Nights Three and Four

After the two “push” nights, when exfoliants and retinoids are used to deliberately push skin out of its comfort zone, it’s all about recovery. “Nights three and four focus primarily on hydration, nourishing the skin microbiome, and repairing the skin barrier,” the skin cycling creator says. “So you want to avoid any potentially irritating ingredients and just focus on repair.”

What are the benefits of skin cycling?

At the very core of skin cycling is the idea of improving ingredients’ efficacy and minimizing irritation, but that’s not the only benefit the approach offers. “It makes the usage of active ingredients, like chemical exfoliants and retinols, more manageable for the skin, while allowing for better consistency with applying these active-containing products,” Engelman explains. “So this type of routine allows for better tolerance and compliance with the use of formulations that are known to powerfully improve the appearance and function of the skin.” Plus, the recovery days allow the skin to repair itself from some of these actives’ harsher, less desired effects, like redness, peeling, and burning.

Skin cycling is also a relatively simple and easy-to-follow method, which comes as a welcome change in a time when skin care routines can often feel too time consuming and overwhelming. Instead of adding more and more products to your nightly regimen, this gets back to basics, focusing only on ingredients that will benefit all skin needs.

Does skin cycling work for everyone?

Since skin cycling has exploded on TikTok, Bowe has received messages from people with all kinds of skin types and skin goals, all wondering whether the routine will work for them. And while she says the four-night cycle is always a good place to start, the dermatologist thinks the beauty of this method is that you can really modify it to your specific needs.

“My rosacea patients, for instance, have very sensitive skin and a very thin skin barrier, so I have them on a five-night cycle—an exfoliation night, a retinoid night with a much gentler over-the-counter retinol or retinal, and then three recovery nights—and I do the same for my eczema patients,” she says. “And on the other side of the spectrum, patients who have more oily, acne-prone skin can actually drop a recovery night and go up in the occurrence of their retinoid, so they’ll do a three-day cycle with an exfoliation night, a retinoid night, and one recovery night.”

There are also products you can add on once you master the core four-night cycle. “If you have oily, acne-prone skin and skin cycling is working for you, you may want to add a salicylic acid cleanser to your morning routine,” Bowe says. “It won’t derail your skin cycling, but I wouldn’t start there.”

At the same time, if you’ve never used an exfoliant or a retinoid, it’s best to start your skin cycle with just one of these ingredients for the first few weeks to ensure your skin can tolerate it, and then you can add in the other active. “It’s important to monitor your skin closely at the beginning of skin cycling to see how it reacts to this regimen,” Engelman adds. “If your skin isn’t used to the effects of retinol and becomes irritated, you may need to start slower or use gentler products.”

Photo credit: Anna Efetova - Getty Images
Photo credit: Anna Efetova - Getty Images

What should you keep in mind when starting skin cycling?

Although simplicity is central to skin cycling, there are a few things to be aware of when first introducing the approach to your skin care routine. Above all else, Los Angeles aesthetician Chanel Jenae says, “this is a matter of knowing your skin type and using the appropriate products for it.” So look for products that will not only play their role in the skin cycle but also go above and beyond it.

What you put on top of these active ingredients also matters, as you don’t want to diminish their efficacy or cause separate issues. “Slugging is a really big trend right now, but you never want to slug on exfoliation night or retinoid night, because using a product with petrolatums, petroleum jelly, or mineral oil on top of exfoliating acids or retinol can potentially enhance their penetration in an unpredictable way and create more irritation,” Bowe warns.

At the end of the day, skin cycling is meant to serve as a basic framework, and to see results, you should be patient and pay attention to how your skin responds. “Consistency is key to achieving your skin care goals,” Jenae notes, so it’s best to stick with your skin cycling routine for at least a few weeks before making any adjustments or giving up on the approach entirely.

And it’s important to remember that this approach to skin care is not for everyone. “There’s always going to be someone out there who uses their retinoid every single night and their exfoliating serum every single morning and has amazing skin, and to that person, I would say don’t skin cycle; if daily use works for you and you love the way your skin is responding, don’t mess with it,” Bowe says. “Skin cycling is really a solution for people who aren’t getting those results and aren’t having that experience.”

A Sample Skin Cycling Routine

If you’re ready to incorporate skin cycling into your nightly skin care routine but don’t know where to start, here’s a basic, four-night routine to get you on the right track.

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