How Does Skin Cycling Work?

skin care

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Key Takeaways

  • Skin cycling is a simple method where you rotate your nighttime skin care products throughout the week to optimize results and avoid irritation or damage to the skin. 
  • Skin cycling can work for any skin type because you can adjust the products you use and how often you use them in your skin care routine. 
  • Those with active skin conditions should speak with a dermatologist before making any changes to their current skin care regimen.

With so many skin care products on the market, it can be challenging to find the ones that work best for you and your skin type.

But a viral beauty trend called “skin cycling” is hoping to change that narrative. Instead of taking a more-is-better approach, this skin care practice is preaching the opposite: having a simplified skin care routine can be more beneficial for the skin compared to a complicated one.

Whitney Bowe, MD, a New York-based board-certified dermatologist who introduced the concept of skin cycling on TikTok, said that skin cycling encourages people to use products strategically to complement one another “and set you up for success while dialing down unnecessary irritation.”

“Skin cycling is a less-is-more approach to skin care, being thoughtful and deliberate about your skin care routine,” Bowe told Verywell via an email.

Here’s everything you need to know about the latest beauty sensation and whether it’s right for your skin type.

What Is Skin Cycling? 

Skin cycling is a simple method in which you rotate your skin care products between retinoids, chemical exfoliators, and moisturizers throughout the week to maximize the benefits of each product and to avoid over-exfoliating your skin.

“Retinoids and exfoliants help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles,” Peter Young, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and medical director of skin care company Facet, told Verywell in an email. “They also brighten your complexion, unclog your pores, and give your skin a healthier and more youthful appearance.” 

Skin cycling is also about designating specific products to certain days rather than using all of them every single day to avoid skin sensitivity, dryness, and inflammation, according to Bowe.

Here’s a step-by-step guide for the four-night skin cycling routine.

Night 1: Exfoliate 

Cleanse your skin with a gentle cleanser. Pat dry then apply a leave-on exfoliant, such as such as alpha hydroxy (AHA) or beta hydroxy acid (BHA), which helps to remove dirt, debris, and dead skin cells. 

On top of your exfoliating product, apply a fragrance-free moisturizer that “specifically rebalances the skin microbiome and repairs the skin barrier,” Bowe said.

Avoid using a product that is too heavy or greasy because that can push the exfoliating acid into the skin and create unnecessary irritation while the exfoliant is working to remove dead skin cells. Also, avoid products that contain inflammatory ingredients like essential oils.

Night 2: Retinoids 

After washing and drying your skin, apply a retinoid or retinol, which helps increase the turnover of skin cells.

Retinoids are a common treatment for acne and skin resurfacing. However, use retinoids sparingly. A pea-sized amount will be enough to apply over your entire face. You can also use retinoids with moisturizers to avoid irritation, especially if you tend to have dry or sensitive skin. 

“Some people can tolerate retinoids more frequently than others,” Bowe said. “However, most people find that if they use them too frequently, or layer them with other potentially irritating ingredients, they end up with irritation rather than results.” 

Night 3 and 4: Recovery

Night 3 and 4 are for recovery, meaning no exfoliating acids or retinoids. Cleanse your skin, pat dry, then apply your favorite moisturizer.

Susan Massick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, said a moisturizer that contains hyaluronic acid and ceramides can help repair and replenish the skin’s natural barrier. 

“Hydrate for one night with more oily or acne-prone skin. Hydrate for two to three nights with more sensitive, dry, or easily irritated skin to allow for longer repair and recovery,” Massick told Verywell in an email.

Bowe added it’s key to hold off on using any exfoliating acids and retinoids on these nights because it will give your skin a chance to recover. “On recovery nights, you want to focus on nourishing your skin microbiome and repairing your skin barrier—think hydration and moisture,” she said. 

Once you complete the four-night cycle, you simply repeat the steps. What you do in the morning should stay the same every day. 

Bowe noted while this is the traditional skin cycling routine, the structure can be personalized and changed based on individual needs.

Is Your Skin Suited for Skin Cycling?

According to Massick, skin cycling can work for any skin type because you can adjust the type of products used or the number of nights in each cycle, such as adding more recovery nights or exfoliating nights into your routine.

For example, if you have acne-prone or oily skin, moisturizing may not be as critical because you “already have enough natural oil and sebum on your skin,” Massick said. In that case, you can opt for shorter recovery night cycles.

Bowe added that if you’re already well-adjusted to retinoid, you can also “dial-up” your skin cycling routine by omitting one recovery night for a three-night cycle.

Although skin cycling works for most skin types, it may not be recommended for people who have certain active skin conditions. “There are certain skin conditions, such as inflammatory and nodulocystic acne that would require more consistent, frequent use of topical retinoids versus once every four days,” Massick said.

Who Should Avoid Skin Cycling?

According to Bowe, there are certain scenarios in which skin cycling may not be ideal for everyone, including:

  • If you’ve worked hard to get your skin adjusted to using a stable and powerful retinoid every night, you may have built up a tolerance over time. If that’s the case, skin cycling may not offer many benefits and you should stick to your routine
  • If you’re using an exfoliating product every day without irritation, then you might be someone who has oily, acne-prone skin and requires daily exfoliation. 
  • Anyone with an active skin condition like acne or rosacea should speak with their dermatologist to personalize their skin cycling routine. If you’re on prescription medication for a skin condition, you should always consult with your dermatologist before making any changes to your current skin care regimen.

Is Skin Cycling Safe? 

Skin cycling is a safe and helpful method for people who may be struggling to find a good skin routine, according to Young. 

“Skin cycling is safe, as long as you don’t overdo it by applying too much of any of your skin care products or forgetting to rotate your products throughout the week,” Young said. “Overlapping your products on the same day can lead to redness, irritation or peeling skin.” 

It’s also a skin care trend that dermatologists are supporting because of its simplicity, and in some cases, affordability. 

“People are finding that the 12-step programs that were so popular a few years ago were overly complicated and unrealistic to maintain, and in some cases, actually exacerbated skin conditions,” Massick said. “Skin cycling allows time for each step to be effective.” 

What Products Should You Choose for Skin Cycling?

For those looking to start skin cycling, experts recommend researching and using products that are fragrance-free, non-comedogenic (non-acne forming), and hypoallergenic. It’s also important to include a daily sunscreen in your regimen as well.

“Simplify your steps and choose a gentle facial cleanser, your OTC retinol or Rx strength retinoid, and moisturizer,” Massick said. “That’s all you really need to get started.”

Young cautioned that some skin care products, including hypoallergenic products, can cause a skin reaction or skin irritation. This is why he recommends that people test each product before applying it to their faces.

“To test a product, apply a small amount to your inner forearm twice a day for four to five days,” Young explained. “If your skin looks normal and is free of any redness, itching, and other reactions, then you can apply it to your face.”

Talk to a board-certified dermatologist if you have any questions about certain products, need help with your skin care needs, or need a guide for your skin care routine.

“Skin care regimens do not have to be complicated or expensive to be safe, effective, and easy to follow,” Massick said.

What This Means For You

Skin cycling can work for any skin type. However, people with active skin conditions such as acne or eczema should speak with a dermatologist before starting skin cycling or making any changes to their current skin care routine.

By Alyssa Hui
Alyssa Hui is a St. Louis-based health and science news writer. She was the 2020 recipient of the Midwest Broadcast Journalists Association Jack Shelley Award.