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More than a trend? What you should know about “skin cycling”

Exfoliate, treat, rest, rest, repeat. This regimen is buzzy—but does it work?

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 6, 2023 • 6 min read
Medically reviewed by Donna McIntyre, NP-BC
soap face woman clean skin
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 6, 2023 • 6 min read
Medically reviewed by Donna McIntyre, NP-BC
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

“Skin cycling” is the latest beauty trend, popularized by social media influencers who say it’s the “next big thing” in skincare. Not yet familiar? Simply put, it’s a four-night routine that has built-in rest days between potentially harsh active ingredients. The goal is to minimize potential irritation and maximize the benefits of each ingredient, especially when using more potent ingredients, such as exfoliating acids and retinoids.

Here we’ll explain “skin cycling,” how it works, and the benefits and potential side effects.

What is “skin cycling”?

Coined by Dr. Whitney Bowe, a board-certified dermatologist in New York, “skin cycling” is a night skincare routine that cycles through using various ingredients over a specified period of time, in order to prevent layering harsh products and potentially irritating the skin. 

The classic “skin cycling” routine is a four-night cycle, but it’s meant to be flexible—meaning it can be adapted for your skin, whether you’re treating breakouts, fine lines, or rosacea. The process includes built-in rest days, which gives your skin time to repair after you use active ingredients. 

How does “skin cycling” work?

The classic “skin cycling” routine involves applying an exfoliant on night one, a retinoid on night two, having recovery on nights three and four, and then repeating the cycle. The aim is to maximize the benefits of active ingredients while minimizing skin irritation—rest days give the skin time to rest. Each night, the routine begins with a cleanser and ends with a moisturizer that’s suited to your skin.

Here’s an in-depth breakdown of how to go about this basic skincare routine: 

Night 1: Exfoliation

Start off by exfoliating to help unclog pores and remove dead skin cells. The exfoliation night generally involves a chemical exfoliant such as alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) or beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs). Examples include lactic acid, glycolic acid, or salicylic acid. The exfoliant you choose will depend on your specific skin goals.  

Night 2: Retinoid

The second night of the four-day cycle focuses on retinoids, which are vitamin A derivatives. The product you use will depend on whether you’re most interested in anti-aging or anti-acne benefits. Some people may choose tretinoin, which is prescription strength and treats acne and signs of aging. If you have sensitive or dry skin, consider applying moisturizer before a retinoid product—at least until your skin adjusts. 

Nights 3 and 4: Recovery 

Recovery nights should focus on nourishing your skin. Apply a hydrating serum or rich moisturizer. Humectants, such as hyaluronic acid, help draw water to the surface of your skin, and emollients that contain ceramides can lock in moisture. These nights are all about hydration and repair. The focus is on restoring the skin barrier and allowing the skin to heal, therefore potentially improving the effectiveness of the active ingredients. 

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Our #dermatology providers are here to give you the full run down on skin cycling (and an alternative #skincareroutine that may work better 😉) Have you tried #skincycling & has it worked for you? What new skin trends are you trying out?? 👀

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Potential benefits of “skin cycling”

The primary benefit of “skin cycling” is that it can give your skin a chance to heal between treatments (exfoliating and treating). It’s all about prioritizing recovery! Here are all the potential positives:

  • Minimizes irritation. It isn’t guaranteed to work, but the premise behind “skin cycling” is that it can reduce irritation. Both exfoliants and retinoids are powerful ingredients, so it may take time for your skin to adjust. 

  • Gives the skin time to repair itself. Recovery days give the skin a break. Exfoliating acids and retinoids both promote skin cell turnover, and tretinoin can dry the skin and cause irritation.¹ Over-exfoliation can occur when using two powerful ingredients. That’s why it’s critical to use skincare products that hydrate and nourish the skin during rest days.

  • Uses effective ingredients. Standard “skin cycling” protocol uses exfoliants and retinoids, which are excellent ingredients that can work wonders for anti-acne and anti-aging. Although retinol (a topical retinoid or vitamin A derivative) is available in stores without a prescription, some retinoids (like tretinoin) are available by prescription only. It was observed in a study that retinol is 20 times less potent than tretinoin.² 

Is it suitable for everyone?

Remember, everyone’s skin is unique, and each skin type reacts differently to certain treatments. That means “skin cycling” may cause irritation for some people, despite the built-in rest days. Other factors may also affect irritation levels, including the specific products used. Note that retinoids are not recommended if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to become pregnant, so you’ll want to skip them on night two and ask your dermatology provider for a substitute.

Keep your skin goals in mind—are you primarily battling acne or trying to reduce the signs of aging? Choose products that work for the conditions you want to treat. Over-the-counter retinol generally treats anti-aging, but you may want to try adapalene or a prescription-strength retinoid, such as tretinoin, if you’re going to take down acne. It’s also important to note that not all skin conditions will respond to “skin cycling.” Your dermatology provider can help determine if this routine might work for you. 

Regardless of whether you decide to hop on the “skin cycling” train, our experts recommend following two basic skincare routine steps—cleansing and moisturizing—daily. Choose a cleanser and a moisturizer that work with your skin, whether it’s dry, oily, combination, or normal. And never forget your sunscreen!

Curology’s stance on “skin cycling” 

“Skin cycling” may work for some, but here at Curology, we’re all about keeping it simple and consistent with a daily three-step routine. Cleanse, moisturize, and protect with an SPF 30 sunscreen in the morning. Cleanse, treat, and moisturize in the evening.

Skin cycling” may leave too many nights unnecessarily off a retinoid (if you’re using one). Not everyone needs to skip this many nights of treatment! We find it’s simpler to stick to the same daily routine, and if you want to exfoliate, we recommend doing so one or two mornings or nights a week and skipping your retinoid that night.

Ask our licensed dermatology providers

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Curology’s licensed dermatology providers are ready to help you customize the proper treatment and routine your skin needs. We help take the guesswork out of skincare by providing expert care after examining your skin and assessing your skincare goals. 

Of course, you’re the expert on your own skin. What your skincare routine looks like is ultimately up to you—but the best way to get professional advice is to consult your dermatology provider. But if you’re looking for more in-depth skincare info, check out more of our articles about skincare trends.

FAQs

What is “skin cycling”?

Coined by Dr. Whitney Bowe, a board-certified dermatologist in New York, “skin cycling” is a night skincare routine that cycles through using various ingredients over a specified period of time, in order to prevent layering harsh products and potentially irritating the skin. 

How does “skin cycling” work?

The classic “skin cycling” routine involves applying an exfoliant on night one, a retinoid on night two, having recovery on nights three and four, and then repeating the cycle. The aim is to maximize the benefits of active ingredients while minimizing skin irritation—rest days give the skin time to rest. Each night, the routine begins with a cleanser and ends with a moisturizer that’s suited to your skin.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Baldwin, H.E., et al. 40 Years of topical tretinoin use in review. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. (Ibid).

  2. Mukherjee S, et al. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Ibid.

Donna McIntyre is a board-certified nurse practitioner at Curology. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing at MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA.

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary. 

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

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