Skin cycling might sound like some new workout for your face (we’ve seen far weirder things that have become popular on TikTok), but it’s actually about a skincare routine that dermatologists and skincare pros can truly stand behind.
Dubbed by dermatologist Dr. Whitney Bowe, skin cycling garnered more than 60.6 million TikTok views, and it’s designed to help you simplify your routine — especially if you have sensitive skin — to save you from adverse side effects like redness, irritation, and dryness. Similar to the idea of skinimalism, the goal of skin cycling is not to overwhelm your skin with an excess of products. Here, we dive deeper into the practice and how it might help boost your skin’s radiance and overall health.
Meet the Experts
Anna Chacon, M.D is a Miami-based dermatologist.
Danielle Gronich is a clinical esthetician, acne specialist, co-founder of CLEARSTEM Skincare, and owner of San Diego Acne Clinic.
Lian Mack, M.D. is a dermatologist based in New York City.
Marisa Garshick, M.D. is a dermatologist at Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery.
What is skin cycling?
“Skin cycling” involves using certain skincare products on specific nights of the week as part of your skincare routine, explains Anna Chacon, M.D., a Miami-based dermatologist. “By being strategic and deliberate about the products you’re using, and when applying them, you can garner impressive results,” she says. “This technique will also let you enjoy the benefits of your skin care products while avoiding the common downsides of certain ingredients, such as irritation and sensitivity.”
While the trend feels new, the concept is anything but. In fact, for years, dermatologists have recommended that their patients swap out or take breaks from certain ingredients in their skincare routine. For example, an exfoliating face mask should not be done on the same day as Retin-A, or you’ll probably give yourself a chemical burn, explains Danielle Gronich, clinical esthetician and owner of San Diego Acne Clinic. “If you alternate a physical exfoliant with a chemical one every other night, for example, you’ll see less irritation and more improved results,” she says. “For those who use retinol, they should alternate nights with an alpha-hydroxy-acid like glycolic, since using the two in the same day could lead to irritation.”
According to Dr. Bowe, skin cycling is meant for your nighttime routine. “My morning skincare routine is pretty consistent. I might switch a product based on how dry my skin feels, but the order and the key steps stay the same,” she says in a social post.
Who would benefit most from skin cycling?
No matter your skin type or skin needs, you can stand to benefit from incorporating skin cycling but sensitive, acne-prone skin can especially benefit from the trend since most prescription acne medications can be quite irritating and drying. “The concept of skin cycling affords the benefit of using the medications with decreased irritation because of the built-in recovery period,” says Lian Mack, M.D., a dermatologist based in New York City. “When using this technique, acne-prone patients will benefit by seeing a reduction in acne and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation without the irritation.”
How to Incorporate it Into Your Routine
Skin cycling is usually performed in a sequence of four nights, with the first night involving exfoliation, the second night using retinol, and nights three and four dedicated to hydrating and moisturizing. Here’s a breakdown of how to pull it off at home.
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Night One: Exfoliate
Use a gentle chemical exfoliant like Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment, which utilizes lactic acid to slough off pore-clogging dead skin cells and enhance your skin’s natural glow. Your exfoliator should be used in conjunction with a simple routine of cleansing, a moisturizer, and serum or face oil.
Night Two: Use Retinoids
Skip the exfoliation and instead use retinoids. Dermatologists hail retinoids for being one of the only topical solutions that can yield actual anti-aging results. They’re also incredible acne fighters, so they can benefit most people’s skincare routine. “Choose retinol based on your skin type and how adjusted your skin already is to retinol,” says Marisa Garshick, M.D., dermatologist at Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery. If you’re just starting out, she recommends using serums with soothing ingredients, but if your skin has already adapted to retinol, you can use higher levels. For example, she recommends Sunday Riley A+ High Dose Retinoid Serum, which is gentle enough for first-time users and free of potentially harmful ingredients such as sulfates, parabens, and phthalates.
Nights Three and Four: Recover
On nights three and four, you take a break from active ingredients (your chemical exfoliators and retinol). Instead, Dr. Chacon recommends focusing on nourishing your skin microbiome and repairing your skin barrier. “Incorporate hydrating ingredients such as squalane, glycerin, ceramides, peptides, pre and postbiotics, and Centella Asiatica — a.k.a. cica,” she says. Try Sunday Riley Ice Ceramide Moisturizing Cream, which is enriched with ceramides to protect the skin’s natural moisture barrier and prevent loss of hydration.
Night four is another night dedicated entirely to ensuring your skin is well hydrated and getting what it needs to glow and stay healthy. “Your skin needs to reset, as over-exfoliating and using powerful actives every night can be very irritating for your skin,” says Dr. Garshick. “On recovery nights, focus on using products that are nourishing and contain ingredients that fortify the skin barrier.”
If at any point you find yourself breaking out or suffering from redness and irritation, put your skincare routine on hold and schedule an appointment with your board-certified dermatologist. “There are some sensitive-skinned rosacea patients, for example, who can not tolerate retinoids at all, even when used infrequently,” notes Dr. Mack. As with any skincare routine, she emphasizes the importance of listening to your skin’s needs. “If the product is too irritating and drying even with using barriers and using the product infrequently, it could be that your skin is unable to tolerate such a product,” she adds.
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