It may sound like a workout for your face, but skin cycling is actually a routine that prioritizes rest and recovery for your skin. The method was coined by Dr. Whitney Bowe and has taken off on TikTok with other skin care experts and novices alike touting its skin benefits. “Skin cycling is a trend that became popular on TikTok, but the concept has been practiced by skincare professionals for many years,” says Amy Peterson, medical aesthetician and founder of Miami medspa Skincare by Amy Peterson.
“I have always called it ‘cream rotation’ for my patients because it reminds me of grade school when they explained ‘crop rotation,’ and also because I find that seasonal variations can exist for people’s skin care regimens, especially in changing climates like NYC,” explains Dr. Sherwin Parikh, co-founder of Tribeca Skin Center and A.P. Chem.
Like skinimalism, skin cycling is about not overwhelming your skin with too many products. By creating a schedule for your skin care, you can optimize the benefits of your products and avoid side effects from powerful ingredients like dryness and irritation.
Skin cycling is a method of using skin care products in which you designate specific products for certain days, rather than using all products everyday, thus creating a cycle for your products. “It consists of a skin care routine that incorporates products with strong active ingredients on certain days and other days that involve skin repair and rest,” says Peterson. “This method is supposed to help the skin build tolerance to active ingredients.”
Chemical exfoliators and retinols are common skin care products, but can cause skin sensitivity, dryness and inflammation. By cycling them throughout the week, instead of using them daily, you can avoid over-exfoliation and dehydration. “When people use actives such as retinoids or exfoliants, it may be valuable to take nights off for the skin to recover,” says Parikh. “I often recommend rotating your products from night to night, because some products like the recently repopularized Biologique Recherge P50 Lotion, for example, can be effective but harsh for many people.”
Skin cycling is beneficial for those with sensitive skin, but anyone can try it. Parikh notes that skin cycling is universal and can address all skin concerns “as products chosen in the routine can be tailored to specific concerns.”
“Anyone can implement the skin cycling routine regardless of their skin type if they use a skincare product with a strong active ingredient,” Peterson adds. “This is especially ideal for someone with sensitive or reactive skin, because it reduces the risk of irritation.” While any skin type can try skin cycling, people who are using products to treat conditions like acne, hyperpigmentation or aging are great candidates since the strong active ingredients in the products may cause sensitivity or irritation if used daily.
A four-night cycle is the most popular schedule, consisting of two days of using active ingredients and two days for skin recovery. Then, the cycle begins again at night one. This cycle has gone viral on Tiktok, with dermatologists on the app confirming its benefits and users sharing their own skin transformations.
- Night one: Add a chemical exfoliant to a basic routine that includes cleanser, serum, moisturizer and face oil.
- Night two: Skip the exfoliator and instead use a retinol for anti-aging, along with the other basic steps outlined in night one.
- Night three and four: These are the “recovery” nights, so you can take a break from the active ingredients in exfoliators and retinols. This helps maintain a strong skin barrier and avoid irritation.
While this is a simple formula to follow as you start out with skin cycling, you may also want to consult a dermatologist for the best skin care schedule for your skin. For example, Parikh says. “Younger individuals with oily or acne-prone skin may need and benefit from every night retinoid use, and once-a-week exfoliation.”
Using a chemical exfoliator helps keep pores clear and smooth the skin. Using it too frequently, however, can cause sensitivity. Cycling a chemical exfoliator every four days will minimize the risk of irritating the skin. And you’ll always want to use an SPF during the daytime when using an exfoliant.
An award-winning exfoliator and viral favorite, this BHA liquid gently exfoliates with salicylic acid. While it is safe for daily use, those new to chemical exfoliants may want to begin use with skin cycling the product every four days to ease skin into its skin-smoothing powers.
“[Retinol] is typically used for patients with acne or for its anti-aging properties,” says Peterson. “Retinol can be used to unclog pores and exfoliate. It is also widely used for its ability to increase collagen production, which helps reduce fine lines and wrinkles.” Along with its benefits, it can be harsh when used daily, so Peterson recommends using it a few times per week or every other day, as your skin can tolerate it.
This top-rated, affordable retinoid offers an accessible entry point into retinol usage. Skin cycling Differin may help curb the common side effects like dryness, flaking and skin purging (where your skin will breakout before it clears up) that comes with adding it to a skin care regimen.
Containing both a retinoid and an alpha hydroxy acid, Parikh recommends this actives-packed formula for those with mild to moderate signs of aging in a skin cycling routine.
For those treating pigmentation issues, hydroquinone is an effective ingredient that your dermatologist may prescribe. “This ingredient is used to treat pigmentation issues such as hyperpigmentation, age spots and melasma,” Peterson says. “Hydroquinone works by blocking the process in the skin that leads to discoloration.” Like retinol, Peterson recommends skin cycling with the ingredient, using it just a few times per week.
On days when you’re taking a break from actives, it’s important to hydrate and nourish the skin. Parikh says, “using a simple deep moisturizer such as A.P. Chem Microdose Magical Moisturizer with calming ingredients can provide maximal skin renewal.”
Another derm (and TikTok) approved product, Cetaphil’s daily moisturizer is one of our favorites, too. It’s lightweight yet hydrating with a mix of humectants and emollients that keep skin moisturized without clogging the pores.
Voted the best overall face moisturizer according to our testing, this gentle and hydrating face cream is dermatologist-approved. It contains niacinamide, so you’ll want to be cautious about layering it with vitamin C, as the ingredients are best when skin cycled.
Parikh says a vitamin C serum “rounds out a great age-decelerating skin regimen.” Peterson agrees, noting that it is best for use during the daytime and should be cycled with niacinamide. “Vitamin C and niacinamide can cancel each other out or make each other less effective,” Peterson says. “Many experts recommend not using one ingredient after the other, or spacing the application of each ingredient at least 10 minutes apart. However, it is much more convenient to either use these ingredients at different times of the day or cycling them over different days.”
This wallet-friendly vitamin C serum has a brightening effect on the skin, while also delivering a dose of antioxidants and hydrating glycerin. Other skin care ingredients like alpha and beta hydroxy acids can also reduce the effectiveness of vitamin C, so it’s best to cycle those elements on other days of your regimen, too.
Made with the most potent form of vitamin C, L-ascorbic acid, this serum helps reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and dark spots. Formulated with lactic acid, a type of AHA, the ingredient’s inclusion with vitamin C here is made stable with ferulic acid, and can help streamline your skin cycling routine by pairing the benefits of both within one product.