Beauty content on TikTok may be wildly popular, but the platform hasn’t always had the best track record when it comes to skincare-specific videos. Most DIY acne hacks or viral beauty product recs take over feeds, only to be followed by a string of warnings from dermatologists. Last year, however, a major exception appeared in the form of skin cycling, a buzzy approach to nighttime skincare routines that’s not only approved by dermatologists…but also created by one.
During the pandemic, dermatologist Whitney Bowe, MD, had noticed that despite her patients increasing interest in skincare, none of of them actually knew which what products to use when. Every time they discovered a new ingredient, they added it to their routines without considering how it would interact with their existing product lineup. So in an effort to help her patients be more strategic with their skincare, Dr. Bowe created skin cycling.
Ahead, everything you need to know about the practice, including how it works, who it’s best for, and which products to use in your skin cycling routine.
What is skin cycling?
Skin cycling is, in many ways, exactly what it sounds like: a cycle. “It’s a thoughtful approach to your PM skincare routine that encourages you to use products in a specific way to set your skin up for success while dialing down unnecessary irritation,” says Dr. Bowe. The principal aim of skin cycling is to simultaneously maximize the efficacy of retinol and minimize irritation.
The classic skin cycling routine spans four nights. The first evening focuses on exfoliation (preferably with a chemical exfoliant, like lactic acid or glycolic acid), the second night features retinol, and the third and fourth nights are all about recovery where you only use a moisturizer, explains dermatologist Sheila Farhang, MD.
Starting with exfoliation on night one ensures that dead skin cells on the surface of skin are sloughed away, giving skin an overnight glow and preparing it to get the most out of night two, which is all about retinol. “Retinol is one of the most powerful ingredients you can include in your skincare routine—it’s proven to jumpstart collagen and elastin production and speed up cell turnover to address everything from aging to acne,” says Dr. Bowe. “Many people struggle with irritation when using retinol, so introducing the ingredient in this controlled way is a game-changer—especially for anyone with sensitive or reactive skin.”
After the “push” nights of exfoliation and retinoids, it’s time to give your skin a break. “On nights three and four—or on the recovery nights—you want to focus on nourishing your skin’s microbiome and repairing your skin barrier,” says Dr. Bowe. This means holding off on potent actives and using a gentle moisturizer or barrier cream with ceramides and hydrating ingredients instead. Once you’ve made it through these four nights, you’ll repeat the exfoliation-retinoid-recovery-recovery cycle.
Does skin cycling work?
Skin cycling absolutely works. By using retinol and an exfoliant only a few times a week and never at the same time. “The two-word sound bite nugget emphasizes what we as dermatologists have been preaching all along: Look at your skincare routine on a weekly view, not daily,” says dermatologist Shereene Idriss, MD.
What products do you use for skin cycling?
A classic skin cycling routine includes an exfoliation night, a retinoid night, and two recovery nights, and while the purpose of each step is clear, which products you should use might not be so obvious. Here’s a quick breakdown:
Night 1: Exfoliator
“The exfoliator your use really depends on your skin goals and skin sensitivity levels,” says Dr. Farhang. “There are stronger exfoliants out there that can only be used once a week and more gentle ones that can be used a few times a week.” But the one tip widely agreed upon among dermatologists is to reach for a chemical exfoliant rather than a harsher physical exfoliator, like a face scrub.
Night 2: Retinol
Retinol is arguably the most important ingredient to include in your skin cycling routine, and as much as the approach seeks to minimize its side effects, it’s not totally foolproof. Retinols come in a variety of strengths and formulations, so it’s important to choose one based on your skin’s tolerance and needs. In addition to prescription retinoids, like tretinoin, there are a number of over-the-counter retinols to choose from, like the four below.
Nights 3 and 4: Recovery moisturizer
On your recovery nights, ditch the exfoliants and retinoids and instead, slather on a nourishing moisturizer or night cream. While one moisturizer is all you need, some skin cyclers opt for two products: a thin, “everyday” moisturizer and then a rich cream or sleeping mask layered on top of it.
Are there downsides to skin cycling?
The skin cycling approach was designed to deliver the benefits of active ingredients without the irritating side effects, so it’s incredibly effective for anyone with sensitive or reactive skin—but the traditional skin cycling routine may be too gentle for others. “It’s a good place to start for beginners and if you have sensitive skin,” says Dr. Idriss. “But two nights a week of exfoliation and retinol isn’t really enough to see results.” Instead, she recommends decreasing the number of recovery nights to amplify the benefits of your exfoliant and retinol.
“The beauty of skin cycling is that it’s a flexible framework that can be personalized for different skin types,” Dr. Bowe explains. “If you are experiencing sensitivity and irritation, you can increase your recovery nights—I call this Gentle Skin Cycling. If you are seasoned and well-adjusted to your retinoid and want to dial up, you can adjust the schedule to include more active nights, which I call Advanced Skin Cycling.”
And even if you start off with the classic four-night skin cycle, you don’t necessarily need to stay there forever; if your skin is loving the routine and you don’t see any signs of a compromised skin barrier after four to six weeks, you can bump up to the advanced routine.
It’s also important to remember that just because skin cycling is trending right now, it doesn’t mean you’re obligated to try it. “You might be someone who has worked hard to get your skin adjusted to a stable and powerful retinoid, and your skin may finally be acclimated to using a retinoid every night,” Dr. Bowe says. “If that’s the case, and your skin is truly thriving (no irritation, no blotchy patches, no sensitivity), then skin cycling probably won’t offer you many benefits!” So, there’s no need to sacrifice the progress you’ve made just to jump on the skin cycling trend.
Skin cycling has taken over TikTok—and the rest of the internet—for good reason. The planned approach to nighttime skincare routines maximizes the benefits of retinols and exfoliants while minimizing their harsh side effects. The classic four-night skin cycle is great for beginners and for those with particularly sensitive skin, but it can always be adjusted to be more aggressive or gentler, to meet your specific skin needs.
Meet the experts:
- Whitney Bowe, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist in New York, NY and the founder of Dr. Whitney Bowe Beauty. Dr. Bowe treats a wide variety of skin concerns and is the creator of the viral skin cycling trend.
- Sheila Farhang, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Avant Dermatology in Tucson, AZ. Dr. Farhang has an expertise in both integrative skincare and cutting-edge procedures.
- Shereene Idriss, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Idriss Dermatology in New York, NY. Dr. Idriss is the founder of Pillowtalk Derm Skincare, a collection of topicals that target hyperpigmentation.
Why trust Cosmopolitan?
Gabby Shacknai is a New York City-based journalist with years of experience researching, writing, and editing beauty and wellness stories. Gabby is an authority in all skincare categories, but is an expert when it skincare trends like skin cycling. She works with the industry’s top dermatologists and plastic surgeons to assess new skincare treatments, trends, products, and technologies.
Gabby Shacknai is a New York-based journalist and editor who produces high-quality content for a wide variety of outlets and brands across various industries.
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