What is Skin Cycling? Why You Should Rotate Your Skincare Products

woman uses skincare products in skin cycling routine

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Is there anything more satisfying than a good skincare routine? After a long day, taking off your makeup and putting on your favorite potions and serums is so satisfying.

However, with so many products on the market, skincare can be incredibly confusing and it can be hard to know what works for your skin. Then once you get your hands on skincare products, it’s hard to know what to use and when. Skincare can feel complicated, but it doesn’t need to be.

Enter: the skin cycling method.

What is Skin Cycling?

Skin cycling is the latest skincare trend taking TikTok by storm, but this trend has potential staying power. Coined by dermatologist Dr. Whitney Bowe, skin cycling is a method of rotating your skincare products throughout the week so you don’t over-exfoliate your skin.

Exfoliants and retinol can have some powerful benefits. From preventing fine lines and wrinkles to unclogging pores, these products can be helpful in your routine. However, more is not always better – you can have too much of a good thing when it comes to skincare.

Using too many harsh products such as chemical exfoliants and retinol can weaken the skin over time, making the skin more prone to irritation. Those with sensitive skin will need to be especially careful using products with strong active ingredients. However, even if you have sensitive skin, it doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the benefits of exfoliation and retinol, which is where skin cycling comes in.

Skin cycling consists of a four-night regimen consisting of exfoliation, retinol, and recovery. It’s designed to provide maximum benefits of exfoliation and retinol while also giving the skin time to recover and repair. Looking through the skin cycling hashtags on social media, you’ll find rave reviews from people of all skin types praising the routine.

I found skin cycling when one of Dr. Bowe’s videos popped up on my for you page, and immediately knew I had to try it. Though I was already incorporating exfoliation and retinol in my routine, I was experiencing some texture issues and had a feeling I was overdoing it with the harsh products.

Within a week of following the skin cycling method, the texture I was experiencing on my cheeks and forehead disappeared, my oil was way under control, and my skin felt smoother and more glowy.

Is skin cycling right for you? Let’s break down each step of Dr. Bowe’s skin cycling routine.

Skin Cycling Routine

Night 1: Exfoliate

The first night of skin cycling focuses on exfoliation. Essentially, after cleansing Dr. Bowe recommends using a product that acts as a chemical exfoliant. Don’t let the word “chemical” scare you – chemical exfoliants can be a safe, effective addition to your skincare routine.

Chemical exfoliants typically contain acids that dissolve pore-clogging debris and dead skin cells leaving you with more even skin and improved texture. The most common chemical exfoliants are:

AHAs (alpha-hydroxy acids)

Plant-derived acids exfoliate excess skin cells and support collagen production to reduce lines and wrinkles. Glycolic acid is a common AHA in many skincare products.

BHAs (beta-hydroxy acids)

Acne-fighting acids that are oil soluble, helping them reduce excess oil in the skin to unclog pores. The most common BHA is salicylic acid which is typically found in acne products.

Put simply, if you’re looking for anti-aging and texture support you may be best served by an AHA-focused product. If you’re concerned about acne or acne scarring, BHA-focused exfoliants may be a better fit for your routine.

Exfoliants should be used on clean skin and followed with a moisturizer. Chemical exfoliants should not be used alongside retinol.

Night 2: Retinol

The second night of the skin cycling routine focuses on the use of a retinoid.

Retinoids are topicals derived from Vitamin A and have been long-studied in the skincare field. Research shows retinoids are effective at increasing cell turnover in the skin, increasing collagen production, fading age spots, and treating acne.

There are various forms of retinoids available on the market. Some of the most common are:

Retinol

The most commonly used term for over-the-counter retinoids that can be found in conventional skincare products. Available in lower potency than other retinoids and typically a better option for sensitive skin or those adjusting to retinoids.

Retinal

A form of retinoid that is more potent and bioavailable to the skin than retinol and works up to 11 times faster when treating lines and wrinkles.

Tretinoin

Prescription-strength retinoid with a higher potency than over-the-counter offerings. Tretinoin must be prescribed by a doctor.

Adapalene

Commonly used to treat acne thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties. Can now be found in over-the-counter products such as Differin.

For those who are new to using retinoids, there can be an initial adjustment period. These products should only be used on clean, dry skin, and should be not used during the day as they can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Retinoids can be layered over moisturizers for those with dry or sensitive skin to reduce the risk of irritation, and should not be used at the same time as a chemical exfoliant.

Retinoids should not be used by those who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Some people with sensitive skin may experience adverse reactions when using retinoid-based products. For those who can’t use a retinoid, Bakuchiol is a plant-derived alternative that has shown promising results in studies.

When using a retinoid of any kind, make sure you use sun protection during the day.

Related Content: Episode 48, Self-Care Through Skin Care

Nights 3 and 4: Recovery

After exfoliating on night one and using retinol on night two, the third and fourth nights of skin cycling involve giving the skin a break so it can repair and recover.

On recovery nights, you can focus on using skincare ingredients that will hydrate and nourish the skin such as:

Hyaluronic Acid

A slippery, hydrating substance that is naturally occurring in the body. When applied topically, it can help the skin retain moisture and bounce.

Peptides

Products that contain amino acids help repair the skin, leading to increased collagen production and improved skin texture.

Glycerin

Another naturally occurring substance that acts as a humectant and attracts moisture to the skin.

Squalane

A moisturizer with similar properties to the skin’s natural oils. Helps boost hydration in the skin and reduce damage from free radicals.

After cleansing on recovery night, you can use the hydrating serum of your choice (recommendations below) and top it with a moisturizer. If you like slugging, or using an occlusive such as Vaseline or Aquaphor, this is the night to do it (note: occlusive products should not be used with retinoids).

Once you go through two nights of recovery, start back at the beginning with exfoliation, and continue rotating throughout your week. According to Dr. Bowe, people with very oily skin may benefit from a three-day regimen (just one night for recovery before going back to exfoliation).

Skin Cycling Product List

skin cycling products

Curious about skin cycling? Here are some of my favorite products to use in a skin cycling routine.

Skin Cycling Exfoliating Products

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% Bha Liquid Exfoliant

My current personal favorite exfoliator. This liquid exfoliant has helped clear my blackheads and get rid of small texture bumps I was experiencing on my forehead.

Biossance Squalane + 10% Lactic Acid Resurfacing Night Serum

This serum is a great option for those who have dry skin. This serum has lactic acid for exfoliation, and plant-based squalane to provide moisture.

The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution

This affordable toner is one of the more potent exfoliants available and is better for those with oily skin that isn’t sensitive.

Pixi Glow Tonic

Pixi Glow Tonic is a glycolic-acid-based tonic that exfoliates and brightens the skin.

Skin Cycling Retinol

Versed Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum

This was the first retinoid I ever used and is a great option for beginners. This introductory serum has encapsulated retinol that is designed to be easier on the skin.

Versed Smooth Landing Advanced Retinoid Eye Balm

The eye area can often be too delicate for harsh retinoids, so this eye balm is a great solution. It’s moisturizing and safe for the eye area. I’ve been using it for a few months and have noticed a real improvement in the fine lines around my eyes.

Kiehl’s Retinol Fast Release Wrinkle-Reducing Night Serum

Kiehl’s newest retinol serum is what I’m currently using, and I’ve had a great experience with it. This one isn’t recommended for those who have never used a retinoid, as it is more potent than other options on the market. When you get this serum, you add the fresh retinol powder to the serum yourself to ensure effectiveness.

Youth to the People Retinal + Niacinamide Youth Serum

As we discussed above, retinal is a form of retinoid that works even faster than retinol and can be a good option for those looking for more potency. I really like this serum from Youth to the People. It pairs retinal with niacinamide to improve skin texture and provides a nice glow.

Follain Firming Serum: Collagen Boost

If you can’t use retinol, this serum is a good alternative. It contains Bakuchiol and peptides to fight fine lines and nourish the skin.

Skin Cycling Recovery

Osea Hyaluronic Sea Serum

OSEA offers one of the best hyaluronic acid serums on the market. This one is a personal favorite, as it leaves my skin feeling hydrated every time I use it.

Youth to the People Triple Peptide + Cactus Hydrating + Firming Oasis Serum

For anyone looking for hydration and plumping, this is the serum for you. Whenever I use this I notice a drastic improvement in my skin’s texture and tone. It’s a great option for recovery night.

Biossance Squalane + Copper Peptide Rapid Plumping Serum

If you want to use squalane, Biossance is a great brand to check out. Their products are packed with plant-based squalane and other natural ingredients to give skin the TLC it needs.

The Inkey List Hyaluronic Acid Serum

Looking for an affordable hydrating serum? This option from the Inkey List is a good one to check out. It’s a straightforward hyaluronic acid serum that sits nicely on the skin and layers well with other products.

Are you planning to try skin cycling? How has the skin cycling method worked for you?

This post is an overview of the skin cycling method.

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