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If you’ve spent any time on TikTok recently, you’ve probably seen quite a few videos dedicated to skin cycling; the topic has generated 3.5 billion views across countless videos. However, unlike some of the other recent viral trends, skin cycling doesn’t pose a threat to your health, and actually predates TikTok.
“Despite the recent spike in popularity, this method has been trusted and recommended by skin health professionals like dermatologists and estheticians for years,” says Shane Miller, a licensed esthetician and the creator of the popular skincare Instagram account @howtohydrate.
Want to know what goes into skin cycling, and the best products you can use? Read on for more tips. (And it goes without saying, but it’s always a good idea to consult a board-certified dermatologist before trying a new skincare routine.)
What Is Skin Cycling?
So, what exactly is this skincare regimen all about? Created by board-certified dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D., skin cycling optimizes your skin cell turnover by incorporating exfoliants, retinoids, and barrier recovery into our nightly routines over the course of four days. Essentially, you’re strategically using certain products on specific days to allow for “rest” days, almost like you would at the gym when you train different muscle groups.
How to Skin Cycle Correctly
When it comes to incorporating skin cycling into your own routine, the process is fairly straightforward and all about consistency. “If you’re new to skin cycling, remember: slow and steady wins the race,” Miller says of starting Bowe’s method. “If you don’t have a ton of experience with chemical exfoliants or retinoids, start with gentle formulas to avoid compromising your skin barrier.” When getting started with skin cycling, Miller advises that you follow this four-day sequence:
Night 1: Exfoliation
At this point in your daily routine, you’ve likely tried a range of exfoliating grooming products, which essentially get rid of the dead skin on our faces. Exfoliating products can contain a variety of chemical exfoliants, including AHAs (alpha-hydroxy acids), which help break down the bond that holds the top layers of dead skin together to reveal newer, softer skin, as well as BHAs (beta-hydroxy acids), which penetrate the top layer of our skin to break down excess oil, sebum, and dead skin.
PHAs (polyhydroxy acids), meantime, help provide the top layer of the skin with a more gentle exfoliation than AHAs can. This makes them a great option for those with sensitive or reactive skin, and for those whose skin doesn’t respond well to AHAs or BHAs.
“After cleansing the face, pat it dry with a fresh towel before applying a chemical exfoliant,” Miller says. “Follow with a moisturizer suited towards your skin type.”
Night 2: Retinoid
Retinoid is actually an umbrella term that incorporates a range of ingredients, differentiated by their derivatives and the process required for our skin to break them down. There are multiple forms of retinoids on the market that are available without a prescription. Miller recommends the following for any skin cycling routine:
- Retinol: The most common Vitamin A derivative used in OTC products.
- Retinal: Also known as retinaldehyde, this is a step above the Vitamin A derivatives found in retinol products. Those who haven’t seen desired results after consistently using retinol for a substantial period of time might consider switching to Retinal.
- Adapalene: The first prescription-strength retinoid available without a prescription. Due to its prescription strength, Miller recommends consulting with an esthetician or dermatologist first to make sure it’s a good fit.
If you’re new to using retinoids, you may want to consider applying a layer of moisturizer before applying your retinoid, then following with an additional layer of moisturizer. Doing so can help with preventing side effects like irritation and dry, flaky skin. Before applying your retinoid, cleanse your face and then pat it dry with a fresh towel. Follow up with a moisturizer suited towards your skin type.
Nights 3-4: Repair and Recover
It’s essential that the final two nights of your skin cycling routine are dedicated solely to nourishing the skin and keeping your skin barrier healthy, focusing on hydration instead of using active treatments. Make sure you look for products that contain the following ingredients:
- Centella Asiatica
- Colloidal Oatmeal
For extra barrier support, Miller recommends incorporating the products from this step into your morning routine throughout the week. If you are experiencing irritation after starting your skin cycle, Miller suggests trying this alternative rotation:
- Night 1: Exfoliate
- Night 2: Recovery
- Night 3: Retinoid
- Night 4: Recovery
If you have particularly sensitive skin and/or are still noticing irritation, try the following:
- Night 1: Exfoliate
- Nights 2 & 3: Recovery
- Night 4: Retinoid
- Nights 5 & 6: Recovery
Last, but certainly not least, Miller urges everyone engaging in skin cycling to always remember to wear sunscreen during the day. “It’s especially important when using chemical exfoliants and retinoids, as they increase the skin’s susceptibility to UV damage,” he says.
The Best Skin Cycling Products
Below are our recommendations for products to use when building your skin cycling routine.
1. Neutrogena Skin Perfecting Daily Liquid Facial Exfoliant
Miller highlights this product as one of his favorite AHA/PHA exfoliants, due to its “ability to deliver overnight results.” “My favorite thing about this product is that it’s not one-size-fits-all like most exfoliants,” he says. “Neutrogena also created separate versions of this formula for oily skin and dry skin. Every time I use this in my PM routine before bed, I wake up the next morning with glowing glass skin.”
2. Caudalie Vinopure Skin Perfecting Serum
This serum expertly targets acne without causing dryness or irritation; its super hydrating formula is made with gentle salicylic acid (BHA), and other superstar ingredients such as niacinamide and hyaluronic acid. “Having oily, acne-prone skin while living in a city like Miami with year-round humidity can be tricky,” Miller says, adding that this serum has been something of a lifesaver with keeping potential breakouts under control. For best results, he recommends pairing this with their Vinopure Oil-Control Mattifying Moisturizer.
3. Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol Treatment
Paula’s Choice formulated its retinol treatment with a triple peptide blend, as well as oat and licorice extracts to soothe and support the skin’s barrier, all while the retinol works to do what it needs to. “I frequently recommend this to clients who are starting their retinol journey because I can trust that they’re less likely to experience irritation thanks to its gentle, soothing formula,” Miller says, adding that it’s one of the best retinol products he’s ever tried.
4. Youth to the People Retinal & Niacinamide Youth Serum
If you haven’t seen results with a traditional retinol, Miller suggests giving this one a try; Youth to the People has formulated its Retinal Youth Serum with a blend of niacinamide, essential ceramides, and adaptogens for optimal results while also minimizing undesired side effects. “I’ve been using this retinal serum since it launched earlier this year with no irritation or dryness,” Miller says. “I’m definitely impressed with the results I’ve seen.”
5. La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel
This fragrance free formula is dermatologist, and allergy tested; it helps clear blackheads, whiteheads, and clogged pores. “When I first tried this adapalene gel, it was the strongest retinoid I had ever used, so I was nervous it might irritate my skin,” Miller says, but was pleasantly surprised to discover softer and clearer skin after using it. “I definitely prefer it over the other adapalene products I’ve tried,” he says.
6. Glow Recipe’s Redness Relief Serum
Glow Recipe’s Redness Relief Serum is made with five different ceramides, which all work in tandem to repair your skin barrier and prevent future damage. Other ingredients help to soothe visible redness, with avocado butter and hyaluronic acid delivering nourishment and hydration. “The skin cycling method is likely to increase redness, making Glow Recipe’s Avocado Serum the perfect addition to your recovery routine,” Miller says. “This is one of my go-to recommendations whenever my clients need help with sensitivity and redness. As someone who is easily prone to redness, I can personally attest to this serum’s calming capabilities. I recommend applying this after cleansing, before applying moisturizer.”
7. Naturium Marshmallow Root Barrier Balm
Miller likens Naturium Marshmallow Root Barrier Balm’s to a warm hug from someone you love, spotlighting its soothing benefits as well as the blend of “marshmallow root extract, centella asiatica, and colloidal oatmeal that give your skin the TLC it’s craving.”
“In addition to the instant soothing benefits, this formula will also help strengthen the skin barrier over time,” he says. “The intensely nourishing occlusive barrier it provides makes it feel like this balm was intentionally created to be the last step in a skin cycling recovery routine. In my opinion, I think this should be on everyone’s shelf, regardless of if they use the skin cycling method.”