What Is ‘Skin Cycling,’ and Should You Try It?

If you’re on the skin-care side of Instagram or TikTok, chances are you’ve seen the words “skin cycling” floating around recently. Maybe you’ve noticed friends using the hashtag #skincycling in their posts, or heard it mentioned as part of influencers’ daily skin-care regimes. On TikTok, #skincycling is associated with 122.3M views, and overall, posts that mention skin cycling have garnered 3.5B views on the social media platform. Clearly, skin cycling is popular, but what is this buzzy practice, and is it the step your skin-care routine is missing?

Despite its name, “skin cycling” is not a spin workout for your epidermis. Instead, it’s a term used to describe the way products are applied to the skin, says Debra Wattenberg, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. “Rather than applying the same products every day, when skin cycling, products are applied with ‘rest’ days,” she explains.

While the term “skin cycling” is new — it was coined by Whitney Bowe, MD, a New York City–based board-certified dermatologist, whose skin cycling TikTok post has 2.1M views — the concept has been around for a while. Dermatologists have been recommending intermittent or alternating use of active ingredients for a long time, says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. And Dr. Wattenberg has noticed the same thing in her own practice: “We’ve been recommending a slow start to most of our topical skin products for years.”

So why is this beauty trend gaining traction now? Maybe the catchy name helped it take hold, or maybe people are realizing that our skin, like the rest of our body, needs rest. “Particularly during the pandemic, people were adding layer after layer after layer onto their skin-care routines and experimenting with ingredient cocktails that were irritating and damaging their skin,” Dr. Bowe says. “There’s been so much confusion surrounding how to layer active ingredients. … Particularly on social media, the answers are all over the place and we are seeing angry, irritated skin as a result.”

Instead of piling more products on top of each other, skin cycling encourages people to use products strategically so that they actually complement one another, Bowe says.

What Is Skin Cycling?

Skin cycling is a skin-care routine that allows for “rest days” during the week, so that your skin can repair itself after using certain products. This can help prevent irritation and inflammation, says Wattenberg.

An exfoliator (like glycolic acid or salycylic acid)
A retinoid (think retinol or retinaldehyde)
A moisturizer (opt for a fragrance-free ointment or cream, suggests the American Academy of Dermatology, or AAD)

With those ingredients in hand, it’s all a matter of timing. “The classic skin cycling regimen is a four-night cycle — the first is the exfoliation night, the second is a retinoid night, and the third and fourth are recovery nights, then you repeat the cycle,” explains Bowe. Your dermatologist might suggest variations on the method, depending on how your skin responds.

How Skin Cycling Works

Here’s a night-by-night how-to:
Night No. 1: Exfoliation

On this night, you’ll cleanse and pat dry, then exfoliate, which takes off the dead skin cells from the surface layer of your skin, according to the AAD. There’s a good reason for this step coming first: “Your other products will perform more effectively because they are able to penetrate more deeply into the skin in a controlled, predictable way,” says Bowe. Afterward, you’ll want to moisturize. A quick word of warning, though: While some people say exfoliation improves the look of their skin, if you do it incorrectly — too frequently, for example — it can lead to redness and irritation, the AAD warns. Another tip: Bowe prefers chemical exfoliants, which she says are more gentle than physical scrubs.
Night No. 2: Retinoids

This night is focused on retinoids, which are vitamin A derivatives that can help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, Harvard Health Publishing notes. These include prescription medications, like tretinoin, and gentler, over-the-counter products, like retinol. “Retinoids are one of the powerful ingredients to include in your skin cycling routine,” says Bowe. But they also come with a disclaimer: “They can be very irritating when you first introduce them, or if you have sensitive, reactive skin,” she adds. Before applying, be sure to cleanse and pat dry. For those especially sensitive to retinoids, it’s a good idea to first moisturize around sensitive areas, like under your eyes and in the corners of your nose, before putting the retinoid on. And if your skin is still feeling dry, you can moisturize again, on top of the retinoid.
Nights No. 3 and 4: Recovery

The recovery period, typically nights three and four, is the final step. “On recovery nights, you hold off on the exfoliating acids and retinoids and give your skin a chance to recover,” says Bowe. “You’ll want to focus on nourishing your skin microbiome and repairing your skin barrier, so think: hydration and moisture, and avoid any irritating ingredients.” Cleanse your skin before applying a moisturizer, and for these nights you don’t have to pat dry — it’s fine to leave your skin a little damp, Bowe says. You can also apply a hydrating serum before your moisturizer, she adds.

In practice, your cycle timing can depend on skin type, and your dermatologist may suggest personalizing it further. “If you are experiencing sensitivity and irritation, you can increase your recovery nights,” says Bowe. “Or, if you are seasoned and well adjusted to your retinoid and want to dial up, you can omit one recovery night for a three-night cycle.”
A Note on Frequency

As for how long you need to continue the practice, Bowe says that you can repeat and modify your skin-cycle regime over time. “It can be a reset, but it can be used continuously depending on how your skin responds to the ‘active’ ingredients you are applying,” adds Wattenberg.

One good rule of thumb: When it comes to your routine, whether you’re skin cycling or otherwise, consistency is more important than frequency. Products are much more effective when used regularly, even if you’re not using them daily.

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