What Is Skin Cycling And How You Do It Like A Pro (From A to Z)

The social media trend involves rotating potent actives and repairing ingredients in a four-night cycle to improve the skin without irritation.
Unsplash / Daria Litvinova

With so much bad advice out there, only a few TikTok beauty trends get credit from dermatologists. And skin cycling is one of them. Skin cycling strategy can shake up the efforts you put into your skincare routine by encouraging you to use actives that complement each other instead of layering one over another. Intrigued? Read on because here we explain all the steps of a successful skin cycling plan, how to get the most out of it, and what products you should use to hike up the results.

What is skin cycling?

Skin cycling is a method that involves using products strategically in your nighttime routine to give your skin time to adapt and recover. Essentially, it implies spacing out potent actives and alternating between restoration and healing in a four-day cycle. In this way, the complexion has a span to renew and heal and is not overwhelmed with harsh skincare cocktails. All you need for skin cycling is an exfoliating product, a retinol, and a moisturizer.

How skin cycling benefits the skin

Many skincare enthusiasts use too many products and potent actives at once in an attempt to speed up the process and improve their skin. But oftentimes, this results in a damaged barrier, inflammation, redness, breakouts, and irritation. Sticking to the skin cycling strategy gives the complexion some rest days, allowing it to repair and recover after you’ve used actives like retinol and chemical acids. Giving your skin some downtime to promote recovery helps prevent over-exfoliation and any mishap that may bother and weaken your skin.

In a nutshell, skin cycling gives your protective barrier the time to recover between potent actives so that it doesn’t react. The even better thing about this practice is that you can tailor it to your skin’s tolerability level and customize the framework to benefit your complexion. For instance, if your skin is sensitive, you can add another recovery night to the cycle before starting it over again. Or, if you have acne-prone skin that doesn’t react easily, you can add two retinol nights in a row to the cycle.

The method of skin cycling also benefits people who need guidelines on where to start a skincare ritual, helping them have a clearer plan on how to use retinol and exfoliants in a way that doesn’t cause damage.

How to create a skin cycling routine

Night one: exfoliate

The first night is about preparing your skin to get the most out of night two when you apply retinol. Because exfoliation sloughs off dead cell buildup, it allows retinol to penetrate more effectively and deliver more benefits. Consider using an exfoliating product according to your skin type and tolerability level, and avoid using harsh scrubs as they are more likely to weaken the protective barrier. Exfoliants we recommended for night one:

Night two: use retinol

The second night in the skin cycling routine is for your retinol product. As a potent multi-tasker, retinol addresses wrinkles, acne, large pores, uneven tone, and everything in between. The secret lies in picking a product with a concentration that’s right for your skin. If you’re a retinol starter, you want to start with a low-strength retinol, ranging between 0.01% to 0.03%. If you’ve already used retinol and you don’t experience stubborn irritation, you can go for up to 1% concentration.

Apply your retinol on cleansed and dry skin — applying it on a damp complexion increases penetration, which may trigger excessive dryness and irritation. Cleanse your face with a gentle face wash and lukewarm water, pat dry, and apply a pea size amount of retinol on the face, avoiding the eye area. You can follow with a fragrance-free moisturizer that packs repairing actives, including peptides, ceramides, squalane, and hyaluronic acid. 

If you are retinol-sensitive, pregnant, or breastfeeding, you can swap retinol for epidermal growth factors or retinol alternatives, like rosehip oil, bakuchiol, or vitamin C.

Products recommended for night two:

Nights three and four: repair

The last nights in skin cycling are about repair and recovery, so your focus should be on products that target hydration, replenishment, and moisture. The purpose is to give your skin enough time to recoup and support the protective barrier that has been slightly affected by the use of retinol and exfoliants in the previous two nights. So steer clear of any products containing exfoliants and retinol — your skin needs a break — and focus on replenishing and restoring ingredients like:

  • Hyaluronic acid
  • Squalane
  • Peptides 
  • Ceramides 
  • Niacinamide 
  • Panthenol
  • Glycerin
  • Centella asiatica

Simply put, the third and fourth nights are all about going back to the basics: cleanse and moisturize. Cleanse with a non-stripping face wash and layer a repairing moisturizer on damp skin to enhance penetration. You can also add a serum in between if it has a gentle and hydrating formula that aids in repairing the skin. Here are some of our favorite products for nights three and four in the skin cycling routine:

How quickly does skin cycling work?

Usually, the results appear after two full cycles — the effects depend on your skin’s condition and what products you use. The skin may appear plumper and more radiant after the first two cycles and brightener and smoother over time. The takeaway? The longer you stick to the habit, the higher chances of skin to improve.

What products do I use for skin cycling?

For the best outcomes from your skin cycling routine, you should stick to products that address your type of complexion. Remember to take it low and slow when it comes to exfoliants and retinol. 

Do dermatologists recommend skin cycling?

The truth is dermatologists have sung the praises of this technique for years, just that it did not have a name. In fact, dermatologists recommend the strategy of skin cycling because it can easily be customized to each one’s needs. For example, an easily reactive complexion can run more nights of repair and recovery, and oily and breakout-prone can have two exfoliating or retinol nights if no irritation occurs.

The takeaway

In the skincare world, it’s a lot of confusion surrounding how to use more potent products. But not anymore. Skin cycling is a four-night cycle technique that involves strategically applying specific actives on certain nights to prevent skin irritation. Rotating skincare products that focus on exfoliants on night one, retinol on night two, and repairing moisturizers on nights three and four, allows the skin to change without bothering it. The secret lies in finding the right frequency for you and using products tailored to your skin type and needs. 

Who wrote this?
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu is the founder and editor-in-chief of Women's Concepts. She has over 5 years of experience working in the beauty editorial industry and dermatological research and was an acne sufferer for over a decade. Ana is now an IAO and CPD-accredited skincare consultant keen to teach others about the importance of a consistent routine. She covers a wide range of topics in skincare—from buzzy ingredients to anti-aging and acne advice. She holds a BA in Sociology and Political Sciences from the National School of Political and Administrative Studies. Find her on LinkedIn or Instagram.
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