Skin Cycling: Explaining The Viral TikTok Trend

By PMUHub Editorial Team| Last updated on March 31, 2023
skin cycling
⏱️ 6 min read

By now you’ve probably heard of skin cycling – the viral skincare trend that still has TikTok (and the rest of the internet) in a chokehold.

It attracted attention for a good reason – this planned approach to a nighttime skincare routine is said to maximize the benefits while minimizing the side effects of harsh ingredients. Sounds like a very good reason to go viral! But, is it justified?

Let’s delve into the trend and explain how skin cycling works, what are its benefits and downsides and how you can adapt it to your needs.

What Is Skin Cycling?

Let’s begin by first explaining what even is skin cycling.

This term, as well as the process itself, in fact, was coined by a dermatologist, Whitney Bowe, MD. This technique’s goal was to shift the focus from constantly adding new products and risking the ingredients interacting poorly, to using them in the right order to actually achieve what the products claim.

This has two major benefits for your skin health.

Firstly, it lessens the possibility of skin irritation due to too much active ingredients being used at the same time. Because after all, the skin, like the rest of our body, needs to rest.

Secondly, it makes your routine much more effective as you’re giving your skin exactly what it needs at the time. Instead of piling products on top of each other, skin cycling encourages you to use products strategically so that they actually complement one another – and not create another irritating (or worse, damaging) ingredient cocktail.

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What Are the Benefits of Skin Cycling?

Since it was created by a dermatologist, skin cycling is one of the safest and most effective skincare trends we’ve seen in a while. While obviously helping you achieve your skincare goals and making your products more effective, the biggest skin cycling benefits are related to skin health.

Skin Cycling Helps Repair the Skin Barrier

The protective skin barrier helps shield you from allergies, harsh chemicals, and infections. So, when compromised, it may lead to acne, eczema, or atopic dermatitis symptoms, among other skin conditions.

Over-exfoliation and the use of potent retinoids can damage the skin barrier, which is something skin cycling helps prevent. This is exactly the point of recovery nights – concentrating on feeding the skin barrier is what actually gets you better-looking skin.

You can learn more about the importance of skin barrier and how you can help fix the damage here.

Skin Cycling Decrease the Side Effects of Active Ingredients

While active ingredients are what make an impact on complexion improvements, using them improperly can result in some side effects.

By mixing ingredients that shouldn’t be mixed, or using them over the recommended amount, you’re risking skin irritation, redness, dryness, and inflammation – among other things.

But cutting down on products with active ingredients and allowing your skin to rest in between is what will significantly decrease any unwanted side effects.

Skin Cycling May Help Shield Skin From Seasonal Problems

Weather changes can influence the health of your skin and its barrier. Skin cycling can make the transitions easier as it lessens the possibility of skin irritation and prevents your skin from getting dry in the first place. This means skin cycling can make your skin potentially handle the elements better.

You can learn more about the importance of seasonally adjusting your skincare routine to warmer weather here, or harsher, cold climates here.

Are There Any Skin Cycling Downsides?

While the skin cycling approach was designed to deliver the benefits of active ingredients without the irritating side effects (making it incredibly effective for anyone with sensitive or reactive skin) – it doesn’t mean you won’t get any of the side effects associated with starting the retinoid treatment.

These symptoms include dryness, irritation, and even inflammation. But they usually lessen as your skin adjusts to the ingredient.

Also, don’t forget that retinol makes your skin more sun-sensitive so you need to use sunscreen daily if you want to keep your skin healthy.

How Does Skin Cycling Work?

There are a few variations obviously, but a four-day cycle is the most popular. A classic skin cycling routine consists of an exfoliation night, a retinoid night, two recovery nights – and then repeating.

Let’s explain the importance of each step in more detail:

Night 1: Exfoliation

Exfoliation removes the dead skin cells from the surface layer of the skin, allowing other products to penetrate more deeply and effectively into the skin. This controlled and predictable penetration improves the overall performance of the products.

But it’s important to do it correctly (not too much, too harsh, or too often) and safely to avoid any negative effects. Using a gentle exfoliant, following a regular schedule, and moisturizing after exfoliation can help maintain healthy, glowing skin.

Night 2: Retinoid

The focus of this night-time routine is on retinoids, which are vitamin A derivatives that can help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and other blemishes like hyperpigmentation or scarring.

However, retinoids are powerful ingredients and can cause irritation when first introduced, especially if you have sensitive or reactive skin.

To minimize the risk of irritation, it’s recommended to moisturize sensitive areas like under the eyes and the corners of the nose before applying the retinoid. If the skin still feels dry after applying the retinoid, you can apply another layer of moisturizer on top to provide additional hydration and protection.

Nights 3 & 4: Recovery

Think of it as rest days for your skin. These nights are to enable the skin to repair itself after using active, skin turnover-promoting ingredients. This helps prevent irritation and inflammation.

Think about hydration and moisture while avoiding any ingredients that can irritate your skin. The focus is on feeding your skin’s microbiota and rebuilding your skin barrier. Also, you could use a moisturizing serum before a moisturizer.

Different Variations

The beauty of skin cycling is that it’s flexible and can easily be customized for various skin types and needs.

Most people start off with the classic four-night skin cycle, but once your skin becomes well-adjusted, you can start including more active products and move up to an advanced skin cycling routine.

This means you can try decreasing the number of recovery nights to amplify the benefits of your exfoliant and retinol. Think of it as a warm-up routine – the cycle shortens as your skin becomes more tolerant.

Those with oily or acne-prone skin may need to adjust their routine by using salicylic acid toner or more powerful exfoliating acids.

On the other hand, if you’ve got sensitive skin or are experiencing irritation, you can adjust the cycle for more recovery nights. This is called gentle skin cycling. A tip Dr Bowe gives to people with sensitive skin, is switching up the application process.

You can use your moisturizer first as a buffer against the potential effect of retinoids, and then apply retinoids on top of the moisturizer. This approach helps to repair the skin barrier and maintain hydration while also receiving the benefits of the retinoid.

Once your skin is used to the retinoid, just reverse the order and start applying the retinoid first and then the moisturizer on top.

What Products to Use for Skin Cycling?

Now that we’ve explained the purpose of each step, let’s also go over which kind of products to look for to use in your skin cycling regimen. Here’s a quick breakdown:

Exfoliator

By using chemical exfoliators, AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs, you can achieve a deeper exfoliation that is still gentle on the skin and less likely to cause irritation or damage, especially when compared to physical scrubs.

When choosing an exfoliator, it’s important to consider your skin type and sensitivity levels. Those with dry or sensitive skin should opt for a milder exfoliator, while those with oily or acne-prone skin can benefit from a stronger formula, especially from something like salicylic acid.

Retinoids

Overall, retinoids can be a great addition to a skincare routine to help reduce the signs of aging, but it’s important to use them carefully and gradually to avoid irritation or damage to the skin.

They come in a variety of strengths and formulations – prescription medications like tretinoin, and over-the-counter products like retinol, which are gentler.

It’s crucial to select a retinol based on the tolerance and requirements of your skin. Here are a few good choices to start with:

Moisturizer

To help your skin barrier recover, it’s recommended to choose a nourishing moisturizer or night cream that can provide the skin with essential moisture and nutrients, helping to keep it healthy and hydrated.

Look for formulas that contain ingredients like ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and glycerin, which help to attract and retain moisture.

So, Should You Try the Skin Cycling Trend?

While the main concept of this trend isn’t anything new in dermatology, skin cycling started gaining popularity as people realized that using more products doesn’t necessarily lead to better skin. This is a less-is-more approach that gives you a structured skincare routine schedule and helps your skin remain healthy.

But if you’re still not sure if a skin-cycling routine is right for you, consult with a dermatologist for your best course of action. Especially if you have a skin condition like acne or rosacea, or are taking prescription medication for your skin, a dermatologist can help you personalize your skin cycling regimen.

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