TikTok’s “Skin Cycling” Trend For Exfoliation

By Danielle Jackson

What Is Skin Cycling?

“Skin cycling is a deliberate and strategic way to bring your nighttime skincare routine to the next level,” says Dr. Whitney Bowe, NYC-based dermatologist and founder of Dr. Whitney Bowe Beauty.

Dr. Bowe coined the practice of “skin cycling” in an effort to clear up the confusion surrounding ingredient layering and how often we should be using actives—like salicylic acid, retinol, and vitamin C—in our skincare routines. Essentially, it’s a four-night cycle that involves one night of exfoliation, one night of retinoid use, and two consecutive nights of recovery to give your skin a break before you repeat the process all over again. This way your skin can actually reap the benefits of chemical exfoliation and the use of actives without going overboard and causing potential damage or irritation.

“Most people assume that more is better when it comes to active skincare ingredients,” she explains. “Particularly on social media, the answers are all over the place and we are seeing angry, irritated skin as a result.”

How Does Skin Cycling Work?

To make the most of your routine, follow these steps:

Night 1: Exfoliation

Dr. Bowe recommends following your usual cleanser with a chemical—NOT physical—exfoliator. “This type of exfoliation gives your skin an immediate glow but also preps you to get the most out of night two,” she says. After exfoliating, you should apply a fragrance-free moisturizer that focuses on barrier repair. Just be careful not to use anything too heavy or greasy, since this may push your exfoliant further into the skin and cause irritation.

“Never slug on exfoliation night, as products like mineral oil, petrolatum, and vaseline can be too occlusive and enhance the penetration of the acids, making them more irritating than they should be,” Dr. Bowe explains. “For the same reason, try to avoid very occlusive oils like coconut oil on exfoliation night.”

Night 2: Retinol

On the second night of your cycle, you should apply a small amount of retinol after cleansing. Retinol, for the rookies, triggers collagen and elastin production and speeds up cell turnover to improve issues like texture, hyperpigmentation, and acne. If you have sensitive skin, Dr. Bowe says you may want to apply moisturizer first, in sensitive areas like around the eyes, the corners of the nose, and the corners of the mouth and neck, before going in with retinol.

“That acts as a buffer, allowing your skin to adapt to a lower concentration of your retinoid,” she says. “Once you acclimate to the retinoid, you can reverse the order: retinoid first, then moisturizer.”

If you’ve never used retinol before, just be aware that it can be irritating and may take some time to get used to, so using it once every few days is a good course of action here.

Nights 3 & 4: Recovery from Exfoliation

Your recovery night is exactly what it sounds like: you’re holding off on your use of exfoliants and actives in order to give your skin a chance to bounce back and recover from the previous two nights. “On recovery nights, you want to focus on nourishing your skin microbiome and repairing your skin barrier,” Dr. Bowe says. This means using hydrating and moisturizing products after cleansing, like hyaluronic acid and squalane.

According to Dr. Bowe, if you follow these steps, you should start seeing results in as little as eight days or two cycles.

“Skin should look and feel more hydrated, and feel softer to the touch,” she says. “If you struggled with any stinging or burning or blotchy red patches before skin cycling, these concerns should be getting much better after just two cycles.” You may also start to see a decrease in the appearance of fine lines and dark spots.

Is Skin Cycling For Everyone?

In general, people with all skin types can benefit from skin cycling, but depending on what your overall concerns are, you may be able to customize your cycles to fit your needs. “If you have acne-prone skin or oily skin, you can cut out one of the recovery nights so it becomes a three-night cycle: exfoliation night, retinoid night, recovery, repeat,” Dr. Bowe says. “You can also bump up the strength of your retinoid and go with a prescription-strength retinoid like tretinoin or tazorac.”

If you have eczema or rosacea, you can adjust the process by adding an extra recovery night.