What is Skin Cycling? The Derm Approved TikTok Trend Explained

01 October 2022


Skin cycling- if you’ve been wanting to incorporate active ingredient powerhouses into your skincare routine but find that your skin is not taking to well to the harshness of these ingredients, skin cycling is the viral beauty trend on TikTok that serves as guide on how to do it right, without damaging your skin.


What is skin cycling?


Skin cycling is a term coined by New York based dermatologist and author Dr Whitney Bowe. Originally, the term “skin cycling” was used to describe a four night routine where active ingredients are scheduled for exfoliation, collagen building and repair.


The concept of skin cycling isn’t new- the scheduling of active ingredients that tend to cause irritation on selected days of the week and resting the skin on the other days for barrier repair- has already been in place in many practices. In my clinic, I call it skincare spacing, and the principle was the same. For example, using retinoids for treating acne in retinoid virgins with sensitive skin conditions- they may not tolerate the effects of daily retinoids so their skin cycle or skincare schedule gets adapted for these challenges.


Related blogposts:

The Beginner’s Guide to Starting Retinoids

Acne: Types, Causes, Treatments & Tips for Treatments

5 Skincare Ingredients for Acne & Oily Skin


Since the Covid-19 pandemic, the appeal “more is better” with active ingredients has led to higher incidences of irritation, inflammation and chemical burns. Using acids and retinoids are extremely powerful for reducing hyperpigmentation, acne and fine wrinkles. However, when used inappropriately- like layering them, mixing them up, slugging, or in concentrations that are very high, these complications can result.


Related blogposts:

The Truth about Chemical Peels

Acids in Skincare & Chemical Exfoliation Explained

Slugging: the Viral TikTok Beauty Trend Explained


Active ingredients such as acids, retinoids or “harsh” cleansers can damage the skin barrier by removing and physically removing key components of the skin’s defenses. Besides irritation, redness and hypersensitivity, inflammation and chemical burns can happen with these active ingredients. For some users, it can be tempting to persist with using these active ingredients because they think that they are seeing results; but the continuous use of these ingredients damages the skin barrier.


The skin barrier is the skin’s fundamental defense against transepidermal water loss, UV rays, toxins from the environment and inappropriate skincare. You can learn more about how the skin barrier works in How to Repair Your Skin Barrier.



What does skin cycling do?


The benefits of skin cycling is that the user gets to enjoy the benefits of using acid exfoliants and Retinoids in the same week, while nourishing the skin for repair. Once the skin has recovered; the next cycle kicks in.


Also, for users that experience pimples or acne purging with Retinoids and acids, skin cycling offers a more tolerable (albeit slower) way out by breaking the cycle of active ingredients.

Skin Cycling Routine Step by Step


How to properly skin cycle? What are the steps for skin cycling?


Dr Whitney Bowe’s original description of a 4 day regime for skin cycling consists of:


What does exfoliation do for the skin?


1st night of skin cycling: Exfoliation

Exfoliation removes the dead skin, trapped dirt and excess oil on the surface of the skin. This process unveils the younger and smoother skin from underneath.


There are 2 main methods to exfoliate the skin: physical and chemical. Physical exfoliation involves using scrubs to scrub off the skin; which often results in uncontrolled microtears and abrasions in the skin. Instead, dermatologists recommend choosing chemical exfoliation instead; where acids are used to remove blackheads, whiteheads and dead skin in a controlled manner.


The process of chemical exfoliation and a deep dive into the different acids in skincare (AHAs, BHAs and PHA) has been described in Acids in Skincare & Chemical Exfoliation Explained. The post will also share with you how to choose an acid suitable for your skin type. For recommendations on affordable exfoliating products for skin cycling, this blogpost Review of Face Exfoliating Acids in Skincare will share my take on ones to try and the ones to pass.


A couple of popular retinoid products that I reviewed in 5 Affordable & Popular Retinoid Serums Reviewed


2nd night of skin cycling: Retinoids

The second active ingredient in skin cycling is retinoids. Retinoids are active ingredients used to treat pimples, dark spots and fine wrinkles. By increasing cell turnover and building collagen in the skin, retinoids help to fade hyperpigmentation, smoothen fine lines, improve skin texture and remove clogged pores.


Retinoids are powerful ingredients for addressing signs of ageing and acne. However, retinoid use is classically associated with side effects of retinol burns and retinoid burns. If you are new to retinoids, I recommend reading The Beginner’s Guide to Retinoids to understand the different types (and potencies) in the retinoid family; and how to pick one for your skin type. I also share my personal experience with retinoid (including photos of my retinoid uglies) in that post.


Similarly, if you want to know my retinoid recommendations and duds; my honest review in 5 Affordable & Popular Retinoid Serums Reviewed will share these details. Just remember that when using retinoids, start slow and low (potency) to minimise risks of side effects. Choose retinols at lower concentrations before you work your way up. Use stronger retinoids or higher concentrations when your skin has been adapted. To also reduce complications, use retinoids on dry skin. If you were to use retinoids on damp skin; the uptake of retinols would be increased.

Active ingredients for improving your skin barrier.


3rd & 4th night of skin cycling: Recovery

After subjecting your skin to powerhouse active ingredients, it’s time to let your skin ease into rest and recovery. In the last 2 nights of skin cycling, active ingredients are avoided. In their place, hydrating serums and moisturisers are used.


The purpose of these two nights is to give your skin a break and for your skin barrier to be restored again for the cycle to repeat itself. To let your moisturisers and serums work harder; I recommend using barrier strengthening active ingredients such as ceramide, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, natural moisturising factors (NMF) and probiotics. These ingredients are components of the skin’s defences. Using them in skincare helps to replenish any component that may have been compromised in the earlier stages of skin cycling.


You can learn about these ingredients in these blogposts:

Ceramides: A Relief for Sensitive Skin

Everything You Need to Know about Hyaluronic Acid

5 Cult Favourite Hyaluronic Acid Serums Reviewed

Niacinamide: A Versatile Antioxidant Your Skin Will Thank You For

Probiotics in Skincare & Supplements: Do They Work?


What about skin cycling in the daytime or for a morning routine?

You may have noticed that the classic description of skin cycling is meant for use of active ingredients in the night. However, you can use a similar concept for personalising your own skincare routine.



What about skin cycling in the daytime or for a morning routine?

You may have noticed that the classic description of skin cycling is meant for use of active ingredients in the night. However, you can use a similar concept for personalising your own skincare routine.


How should I start on skin cycling? Can I modify skin cycling for myself?

This 4 night schedule of skin cycling serves as a guide for exfoliating and including retinoids into one’s skincare routine. There are caveat though- if you already have sensitive skin or inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis; or any active dermatological condition that requires medications, please check in with your doctor about your suitability for skin cycling.


Due to the diversity of skin types, the original description of skin cycling may or may not work for everyone. Depending on the skincare product choices, the results and reactions can differ for each person. So if you find that your skin is feeling more sensitive or dry after consecutive nights of exfoliation and retinoids, feel free to extend the rest days in the cycle; or include rest days in between the nights of exfoliation and retinoid use.


My personal recommendation for skincare cycling or spacing out your skincare: start with exfoliation for the first night, so that your skin gets prepped for the next active ingredients. Rest the skin for the second night; and use retinoids on the third night. On the fourth and fifth night, focus on barrier repair and recovery.


Last words for skin cycling

One last tip for skin cycling: please remember to use sunscreen during the day! Retinoid and acid use increases the skin sensitivity towards sun exposure; and sun protection is absolutely essential. Lastly, if you are undergoing any treatments for your skin, please be sure to check in with your doctor before embarking on skin cycling.



Get in touch with me by completing the form