What Is Skin Cycling And Does It Really Work?

The term “skin cycling” has been a buzz phrase recently in the skincare world. Here, we unpack what exactly it means and discuss some of its benefits and pitfalls – because let’s face it, every skincare routine has both.

By Caitlin Shaw4 min read

While it may be new to our vocabulary, skin cycling is not necessarily a new phenomenon. Dermatologists have long urged patients to avoid using harsher products daily and instead rotate them throughout the week. But it wasn’t until April 2021 that New York City-based dermatologist Whitney Bowe, FAAD, brought the term “skin cycling” to life. And shortly after, influencers, aestheticians, and everyone in between began trying the regimen and posting it on social media. #Skincycling has over 277 million views on TikTok – making it one of the most loved skincare trends of this year and last.  

What Is Skin Cycling?

Skin cycling is a minimalistic, four-night regimen that rotates between the usage of harsher products and gentle, restorative products. The idea behind the approach is simple: Not all skincare products are meant to be used every day, so switching off and allowing your skin to take breaks from harsher products could help avoid irritation and ultimately be more effective. 

Night 1: Exfoliation

Find a chemical exfoliant, like AHA or BHA, and apply to cleansed, damp skin. The goal of exfoliation is to remove dead skin cells, a key step toward achieving clear skin. Neglecting to incorporate an exfoliant into your skincare routine could be resulting in greater acne because dead skin cells will clog pores, ultimately creating blackheads, white heads, or even deeply bedded cysts. However, those prone to dry skin need to be careful with exfoliation, as it can enhance dryness if done too frequently. The beauty of skin cycling, according to dermatologists, is that the regimen will force you to expose your skin to harsh products in small and consistent doses while still ensuring that the skin barrier gets the repair that it needs. 

Night 2: Retinoids

If you've done your research on popular skincare products, then you’re probably aware of the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to retinol. Dermatologists and beauty brands alike market retinol like it’s magic in a bottle (take a look at its price, and you’ll know what I mean). The truth is that it’s a powerful product that can work wonders on your skin if used properly and withstood well. Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that comes in the form of serums, creams, ointments, gels, or lotions. Lower concentrations are sold over the counter, but stronger, more intense versions require a prescription from a doctor.

Retinol is so effective at combating acne because it incites skin cell production and unclogs pores. 

Retinol is so effective at combating acne because it incites skin cell production and unclogs pores. Research also indicates that it aids in reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles because it stimulates a collagen response.

However, with every great skin solvent comes at least a couple of downsides. Retinol is extremely drying and can cause skin tightness, flaking, itching, and discomfort. It’s important to use a pea-sized drop spread evenly across your entire face and neck. Allow the product to soak into your skin for about 15 minutes before applying any moisturizer for the best effect. If you’re new to retinol, it may be helpful to “sandwich” moisturizer on either end of your retinol step to help ease its drying effects.

Nights 3-4: Moisturizers 

The last step of skin cycling is moisturizing, the epitome of restoration and repair. After two nights of harsh products that eliminate the moisture and oil from your pores, your skin will need at least two nights of gentleness. After washing your face with a calming cleanser, skip the antimicrobial acids and peels and instead reach for your most hydrating moisturizer. You can even add in a hyaluronic acid or niacinamide serum along with your cream or lotion if you need extra hydration. 

The goal of this final step is to repair the skin barrier that was likely broken down a bit in the first two days. Without careful and consistent moisturizing, the dead skin cells that result from the dryness of the first portion of the regimen will clog your pores and possibly play a role in creating acne. According to Eternal Dermatology + Cosmetics, dry skin isn’t necessarily a direct cause of acne, but it can trigger the production of more sebum (oil) in your skin. To prevent this, look for a non-comedogenic or non-pore clogging moisturizer that contains ceramides. A good moisturizer should repair the skin without causing it to produce excess oil.

Does Skin Cycling Work? 

Dermatologists get this question all the time, and it’s a difficult one to answer without a defined goal to reference. People try skin cycling for a variety of reasons. Whether it’s for reducing inflammation, eliminating acne, or evening skin tone, this regimen has been deemed effective at improving a variety of skin conditions.

However, there are a couple of things to keep in mind when deeming whether or not this regimen will work for you. First, consistency is key. Like many skincare products, your acne may get worse before it gets better. But stick with it, and you will likely see some benefit at some point. Sometimes harsh products like retinoids and exfoliants will purge the skin, drawing out the dirt and oil from the pores and causing what seems like more acne. If this happens to you, it’s normal. Dermatologists advise waiting at least two-to-four weeks before assessing skin cycling’s efficacy. Second, if you have more oily skin, you may need to increase how often you’re using exfoliants and retinoids to notice a positive change. 

What Are the Benefits?

One of the benefits of skin cycling is that it balances between eliminating excess oil and dry skin while still repairing the skin barrier. Dr. Bowe, the founder of skin cycling, has voiced that one of the reasons why the regimen is designed this way is so that you get the greatest benefit out of your products. Some dermatologists find that too many products at once can actually cause more acne because your skin is fluctuating between being too dry and too oily – both of which can contribute to clogged pores and acne. 

Another amazing perk to this regimen is that it’s simple. Kiss your 10-step skincare routine goodbye because all you’ll need are a handful of products to see productivity with skin cycling.  Many patients complain that a multi-step regimen gets confusing because they can’t remember which products to layer with others. And beyond confusion, it can be damaging and highly irritating to your skin to layer certain products with others. For example, retinols should not be used on the same night as benzyl peroxide or other acids because they can cancel each other out and leave the skin with all the negative effects and no positives.

Skin cycling balances between eliminating excess oil and dry skin and repairing the skin barrier. 

Skin cycling is beneficial because it focuses on repairing and restoring the skin barrier, unlike many other acne-eliminating regimens out there. And what many people don’t realize is that a healthy skin barrier is critical from not only a cosmetic standpoint, but also from a health standpoint. Your skin is your first line of defense from harsh chemicals, allergens, and bacteria. It’s important to keep it nourished and strong, and one of the best ways to do so is through moisturizing products full of vitamins and hydrating complexes. 

Who Benefits From Skin Cycling?

Unfortunately, I’d be lying if I tried to claim that skin cycling works for everyone. The reality is that no skincare regimen will work for every single woman. Your success, or lack thereof, with skin cycling will depend on how dry or oily your skin is, how prone you are to acne, the level of harshness in the acids and retinoids you choose to use, etc. Acne is one of the greatest mysteries in dermatological studies because there is no one singular cause, nor is there one singular cure.

Skin cycling tends to work best at eliminating acne for those with at least semi-oily skin, because this type of skin responds better to exfoliants and retinoids. However, the great thing about skin cycling is that the timing can be adjusted to better fit your specific needs. If your skin can’t handle the drying effects of the harsher products, you may need to add in more days of moisturizing to help your skin barrier fully recover. Always talk to your dermatologist about what’s best for you. 

Closing Thoughts

As someone who has spent thousands of dollars on skincare over my teenage and early adult years, skin cycling is appealing to me because you’re not stuck within one brand or type of skincare. There are tons of affordable options of moisturizers, exfoliants, and even retinoids that can be used to skin cycle. Skincare is never a one-size fits all, and it’s also never a perfect solution to your problems. It’s a constant juggling act between keeping your skin hydrated but not overly oily, and unclogging pores without leaving skin flaky and vulnerable. Finding the right routine could take lots of trial and error, so be patient, do your research, and always consult your dermatologist.

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