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The Only Guide To Skin Cycling You'll Every Need: Customizable Tips & More

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Image by Ohlamour Studio / Stocksy
October 22, 2022
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The fear that there could be a right and a wrong way to use skin care keeps plenty of people from picking up a serum or moisturizer in the first place. Curating a full routine from scratch is no easy task either, from scrubs to face masks and even at-home peels—the market is dense, to say the least.

Perhaps this is why skin cycling has taken the beauty space by storm over the past year. This technique has helped countless people start, redo, and optimize their skin care routine because it's literally a step-by-step process.

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While we've talked about skin cycling a few times over the past year or so, let this be your ultimate guide to skin cycling from how to start to what to use and what not to do.

What is skin cycling?

The term skin cycling was coined by board-certified dermatologist and mindbodygreen Collective member Whitney Bowe, M.D., FAAD. Bowe created skin cycling routines for her patients for over a year before she even shared them on social media for the first time—but what is it?

Skin cycling is the process of rolling through the actives in your routine in a three- to four-day cycle in order to prevent irritation. This is especially helpful for those new to ingredients like chemical exfoliants or retinol—or those who tend to overdo it on one product (we've all been there). 

While basic skin care can be intuitive (i.e., moisturize when you feel dry, exfoliate when you feel buildup, etc.), using the complex products on the market takes a bit more nuance. Skin cycling keeps it simple, and the best part is it's highly customizable.

The following guide will show you how to rotate the "treatment" step in your routine. On each night, cleansing and moisturizing are a must—regardless. This just changes one step in your nightly skin care routine.

How do you start skin cycling?

Night 1: Exfoliation. 

"Order matters and the reason that you're exfoliating first is because a single night of gentle exfoliation is going to dissolve away the uppermost layer of dead skin cells in what's called the stratum corneum," Bowe tells mbg. This will help your next step penetrate even deeper, she explains.

What's more, some exfoliating actives can even help boost collagen production1 when used topically—so this step is contributing to a youthful complexion simultaneously.

While you can use a gentle physical exfoliant (i.e., a scrub with jojoba beads or a gentle cloth), Bowe recommends a blend of chemical exfoliant acids—including AHAs, BHA, and the often forgotten PHAs.

As a quick refresher, popular AHAs include glycolic, lactic, and mandelic acid. Salicylic acid is the most notable BHA because it's A+ for acne-prone skin. Gluconolactone, galactose, and lactobionic acid are gentle but lesser-known PHAs.

Should you mix them all? Not exactly. "Don't DIY your acid combination," Bowe warns. "The acids need to be formulated in a way that makes them stable together." Read: Don't layer an AHA over a BHA or a PHA—look for a product that has them all (like Bowe's new Exfoliation Night serum). 

Skin cycling exfoliating products:

Night 2: Retinoid. 

Next up is retinoid night—yes, that includes over-the-counter retinol products. Retinoids and exfoliants speed up cell turnover, but they do it in very different ways. "Retinoids are working on the receptors," Bowe explains. This is why clearing away dead skin on exfoliation night is so important.

You can opt for an OTC retinol or a prescription-grade retinoid like tretinoin or Tazorac. So which one should you choose? "I usually start people off with over-the-counter products," Bowe notes. These forms are gentler on the skin and will cause significantly less irritation than their prescription-grade cousins.

Bowe recommends looking for a 0.3% retinol product if you're just starting out. You can bump it up as your skin tolerates, but she warns: "The 1% formulas are not for the faint of heart." 

"For those with sensitive skin, I love to look for products that contain encapsulated retinol, which utilizes a technology that 'time releases' the retinol more slowly, so it's not hitting your skin all at once," board-certified dermatologist Courtney Rubin, M.D., FAAD, once told mbg.

While many people will get glowing results from OTC retinol, those with acne-prone skin may not only tolerate prescription-grade products with ease but actually need them to keep stubborn acne at bay.

All of this to say: If you have skin conditions like acne, rosacea, or eczema, it's best to check with your derm before choosing a retinol product. Otherwise, start with a gentle retinol and work your way up.

Nights 3 + 4: Recovery. 

On recovery nights, you'll skip the exfoliants and retinol—instead, replace the treatment step with a barrier-repair serum. The goal here is to, "Repair the stratum corneum that may have been compromised on previous skin cycling nights," board-certified dermatologist Nava Greenfield, M.D., tells mbg.

This is how you'll prevent the chance of over-exfoliating or getting a "retinol reaction" like dermatitis or increased sensitivity. If you want to lock in your recovery serum and moisturizer, you can even go for the "slugging," method—applying an occlusive layer as your final step.

This could be a night mask or a face oil. Just be sure to skip this step on other nights as occlusion makes the ingredients layered below even more effective (which you certainly don't need on nights 1 and 2). 

Skin cycling recovery night products:

What are the benefits of skin cycling?

"When you do exfoliation night before retinol night and then you follow up with the recovery nights, that seemed to drive the most dramatic results with the least amount of irritation," Bowe explains. This, in essence, is the goal of skin cycling.

Using actives like exfoliating acids and retinol once in a blue moon likely won't deliver noticeable results. On the flip side, overusing those same products can damage the skin barrier and cause more problems than it's worth. This is the delicate teeter-totter that skin cycling can bring balance to.

TikTok has become a hub for skin cycling before and after videos over the past few months with varied and generally positive reviews. From dull to radiant, congested to clear, and sensitized to healed—the results are literally glowing.

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Is skin cycling right for everyone? 

The classic four-night cycle "gives you a blueprint," Bowe explains. "I would say that most people respond beautifully to the four-night cycle," she continues. However, Bowe notes that customization is, in fact, "The future of skin cycling." Here's what you should know.

If you have acne-prone skin or want to focus more on firming, you can level up. "You can actually drop a recovery night and move to a three-night cycle," Bowe explains. "Some people tolerate multiple retinoid nights," she continues.

It's important to note that many clinical studies proving retinoids' efficacy for acne treatment2 encourage patients to use them nightly, as do many dermatologists. This can be irritating to the skin for some, but on occasion, it may be well tolerated and beneficial for breakouts.  

For those with extra-sensitive skin, you can build in an extra recovery night if need be. "It's important to have a framework, but you can tweak it based on your skin's needs and your skin goals," Bowe reiterates.

At the end of the day, skin cycling serves as a handy blueprint for incorporating actives into your skin care routine in a safe and effective way. The key is to customize your cycle to your skin concerns and your goals. Above all else—listen to your skin.

FAQ

Can you use exfoliating cleansers while skin cycling?

For those who have oily or acne-prone skin, a daily exfoliating cleanser can be beneficial. Bowe doesn't count these "wash-off products" as a part of your cycling routine. If you start using an exfoliating cleanser in your routine and experience irritation, the first thing you should cut from your cycling routine is that cleanser—swap it out for a gentle one instead.

Can you use face masks when skin cycling?

If your face mask has any kind of exfoliant in it, use it on your exfoliant night in place of your leave-on product, Bowe recommends. If your mask is a calming or soothing formula without any exfoliants, then it's most fit for recovery nights.

Can you dermaplane with skin cycling?

Dermaplaning (using a blade to shave off peach fuzz on the face) counts as physcia: exfoliation. "If you dermaplane, then don't put on an exfoliating acid. Then you're double exfoliating, and that can pose problems," Bowe warns.

What kind of results can you expect with skin cycling?

This differs from person to person given what your routine was pre-skin cycling. However, a consistent skin care routine with exfoliating acids and retinol generally results in healthier, more radiant skin.

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The takeaway. 

Over the past few months, Bowe's skin cycling method has taken over the skin care space—and for good reason. The method of cycling through actives and building in time for your skin to recover is a safe way to incorporate stronger, more effective products into your routine, sans irritation. If you have skin conditions like acne or eczema, consult your dermatologist before starting skin cycling. And remember: This process is designed to be customized, so listen to your skin. If you're ready to put together your nightly routine from cleanser to toner to moisturizer—check out this guide.

Hannah Frye
Hannah Frye
mbg Assistant Beauty Editor

Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, and more. She previously interned for Almost 30, a top-rated health and wellness podcast. In her current role, Hannah reports on the latest beauty trends, holistic skincare approaches, must-have makeup products, and inclusivity in the beauty industry. She currently lives in New York City.