The skin cycling trend has been making the rounds on social media lately. But what is it, and is it right for everyone?

Essentially, skin cycling is a routine based on alternating the application of skin care products instead of using them all at the same time. Once you know the basics, it’s pretty simple to follow and has potential benefits for the skin, but it’s not a magic fix for skincare woes, and it might not be suitable for everyone.

Where Did Skin Cycling Start?

The concept of skin cycling is not new; it’s something dermatologists have been recommending for years. But the term was only recently coined by New York-based dermatologist Whitney Bowe, MD, whose TikTok on skin cycling for beginners has 2.5 million views.

Some people attribute this sudden rise in popularity to the pandemic, when people had time on their hands and wanted to find ways to feel good about themselves.

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What's the Point?

The founding principle of skin cycling is to avoid irritating or damaging the skin by applying too many products at once. The idea is to only apply active products on certain days of the cycle, while the other days are so-called rest days that allow the skin to recover.

The basic routine is a four-night cycle consisting of an exfoliation night, a retinoid night, and two recovery nights.

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Night One

Night one of the cycle is exfoliation night. Cleanse first, then pat dry before exfoliating. Follow up with a moisturizer. Exfoliation is the first step of the cycle because it allows other products in the cycle to better penetrate the skin, making them more effective. Dermatologists recommend chemical exfoliants like glycolic acid or salicylic acid over traditional scrubs as they are gentler on the skin.

Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic acid have the added benefit of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, useful for treating acne, hyperpigmentation, and scarring.

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Night Two

Night two is all about retinoids, molecules derived from or with similar properties to vitamin A. They treat a variety of skin conditions, including fine lines and wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and acne. Some retinoids, like tretinoin, are only available on prescription, but others, such as retinol, are commonly found in commercial skin care products, usually in the form of a serum. Cleanse and pat dry before applying, and follow up with a moisturizer.

Retinoids can cause irritation, especially during the early stages of use. If this happens, moisturizing the sensitive areas of the face first can help reduce irritation.

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Nights Three and Four

The next two nights in the cycle are recovery nights. Set aside any harsh chemicals and focus on gentle cleansing and hydration. Cleanse, pat dry, and moisturize; that's all. For extra hydration, try adding in a moisturizing serum or a nourishing oil like rosehip—full of skin-loving fatty acids—or squalane, but nothing that will irritate the skin.

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Why Are Recovery Nights Important?

Active products like retinoids and exfoliants are an integral part of the routine, but using them too often can cause irritation. Recovery nights are an opportunity to rebalance the microbiome, which is essential for good skin health, and repair the skin barrier.

This is why it's important to use products full of nourishing, hydration-boosting products without any irritants.

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The four-night skin cycle can be adapted to suit individual needs. For example, people experiencing sensitivity may wish to add in a third recovery night, while those accustomed to using active products may find they only need one recovery night instead of two, reducing it to a three-night cycle.

For people wishing to see a bigger impact, there's the option to add in a second retinoid night (straight after the first one, so it's two back-to-back) or to increase the potency of the retinoid or exfoliant. As with any new skincare routine, use caution and scale back if there are any unwanted side effects.

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Essential Skincare Products

Every night of the routine involves cleansing and moisturizing, including recovery nights, so it's important to choose gentle products free of irritants. A simple water or oil-based cleanser is best for daily use. People who wear makeup or sunscreen may prefer to double cleanse, first with an oil-based cleanser and then with a water-based one, to make sure all traces of the day are wiped away.

Opt for a fragrance-free, non-comedogenic moisturizer to hydrate without irritation.

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The greatest advantage of skin cycling is the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of the active ingredients, such as an improvement in fine lines and acne, while reducing the chances of any unwanted side effects. Dr. Bowe, who champions skin cycling, says that people who stick with the routine for a few months enjoy softer, less irritated skin and see a reduction in breakouts, dark spots, and fine lines.

The simplicity of skin cycling makes it great for people who want to develop an effective skincare routine but don't know where to start. It encourages consistency, which is essential for seeing the best results from any routine. A consistent, hydrating skincare routine may also help reduce the drying effects of cold, windy, and dry climates.

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Potential Downsides

Skin cycling is generally considered safe for all skin types, but people with skin conditions such as acne or rosacea should talk to their dermatologist first, especially if they are taking medication for it.

Some people may not find that skin cycling is giving them the results they want. For people who already use retinoids or exfoliants regularly, this routine won't really have a noticeable impact. In this case, try adapting the routine by increasing the days of active product use or increasing the potency of the products.

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