TikTok and Instagram are a hub for beauty tips and tricks — for better or worse.
From ingredients to processes to new techniques, there’s no shortage of ideas, dubious claims, and—sometimes—buyer’s remorse.
There’s a new buzzword is in the beauty news cycle: no pun intended, it’s called “skin cycling.” The hashtag #skincycling has more than 142.5 million views on TikTok.
New York-based dermatologist Whitney Bowe boasts many of the top views. This makes sense, because she’ coined the term for rotating skin care ingredients and products.
And users are singing the praises.
Bowe also re-shared a video of before and after photos of another TikToker, who claims she achieved smooth, acne-free skin in one week.
It sounds promising, but does it stand up?
Adeline Kikam, DO, MSc, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Brown Skin Derm™ and Skinclusive Dermatology™, shared her take on skin cycling. She also shared do’s, don’ts, and a sample rotation.
The process and concept aren’t new. They’re merely TikTok-trending.
“Skin Cycling is the concept and practice of alternating active ingredients like retinoids and chemical exfoliants with recovery ingredients like your moisturizers to minimize irritation,” Kikam says.
The idea is that your skin needs a reset in the same way your legs do if you’re training for a big race. During recovery days, the focus is on restoring the skin’s barrier.
“Many dermatologists have been advising their patients to do this as a way to minimize irritation while building tolerance and consistency, just without a trendy name,” Kikam says.
There’s currently no peer-reviewed research on the benefits of skin cycling, but Kikam shares that she has seen several, including:
- reducing irritation symptoms, like redness and peeling from retinol, particularly in people with sensitive skin
- smoother skin
- skin brightening
- skin hydration
Though there’s no peer-reviewed research on skin cycling itself, studies suggest retinoids have earned their keep in the skin care world.
A 2017 review suggested that research supported topical retinoids’ use in acne treatment.
However, like Kikam, the authors noted irritation like burning and scaling can occur.
“Skin cycling is a good approach to take when introducing retinoids into your skin care routine to minimize irritation…especially when using in combination with exfoliants in the same routine, as an example,” Kikam says.
“If you’re looking for more superficial skin resurfacing benefits like brightening dull skin or smoothing skin, then applying the active ingredients every third or fourth day is a way to go,” Kikam says.
Kikam says it’s essential to note that the best way to skin cycle varies by person.
However, she says the four-night skin cycling routine making its rounds on TikTok involves:
- Night 1: Dedicated exfoliation, usually chemical exfoliation, plus moisturizer
- Night 2: Retinoids, plus moisturizer
- Night 3 and 4: Recovery
There are two types of exfoliants, according to the American Academy of Dermatology: mechanical and chemical. Both purport to stimulate skin turnover for smoother skin.
Mechanical exfoliation involves using a tool like a sponge to eliminate dead skin cells.
Chemical exfoliation is the type you typically find in the skin care aisle. It includes products that contain acids like glycolic, lactic, malic, and salicylic acids.
The secret sauce
What’s the secret behind applying an exfoliant first?
“Exfoliation helps resurface skin and allows for better penetration of subsequent steps in a routine,” Kikam says.
In addition to supporting healthy skin aging, addressing discoloration, and acne-busting benefits, Kikam notes that retinoids help refine skin texture.
The final two nights of recovery serve to go easy on the skin.
“The…routine is usually kept simple or less aggressive with a gentle cleanser, vitamin C serum, moisturizer, and sunscreen,” Kikam says. “Recovery skin care like moisturizers and balms help repair the skin barrier and restore hydration.”
The idea is to repair the skin by giving it a break from active ingredients after using retinoids and exfoliants back to back.
If you miss a day
Kikam says there’s flexibility if you miss a day, but the key is to be as consistent as possible.
“Everybody can tailor this concept to their skin care needs,” she says. “However, keep in mind that the less frequently an active ingredient like retinoids is used, the longer it takes to yield results or the less aggressive treatment is.”
If you’re wondering if skin cycling is right for you, consider these four do’s and don’ts before diving in.
Do try skin cycling if…
- you have sensitive skin or are new to using retinoids.
- you’re looking for more superficial results like brightening dull skin.
Don’t try skin cycling if…
- if you’re treating acne.
- your goals are to improve fine lines and wrinkles.
There are also important considerations to keep in mind, including safety tips.
Don’t skip moisturizer
Many of the routines floating around the Internet imply that a person should not use moisturizers with retinoids and exfoliants.
Kikam stresses it’s important to moisturize daily—don’t just save it for the final two nights.
Exfoliants and retinoids are notorious for irritating the skin and stripping it of its moisture, so applying a moisturizer after every single use is essential for preventing irritation.
Monitor for irritation
The more someone sticks to a schedule, the faster they’ll typically see results, Kikam says.
However, there’s a caveat: If the skin is irritated, scale back.
Just like you’d take a rest day if you pulled a hamstring during strength training, don’t overdo it with your skin care routine.
“It’s still important not to apply retinoids on irritated or inflamed skin,” Kikam says. “If you used a highly moisture-stripping exfoliant and had inflamed skin, as a result, take a break and don’t apply other active ingredients like retinoids until your skin is healed.”
If you’re applying a product for the first time, patch testing it for a couple of days on a small area of the skin can help you figure out if it’s right for you.
Always do a patch test before trying a new product to avoid irritation or allergic reaction.
If you use retinoids for other reasons
Retinoids are often recommended for mild or moderate acne, so people taking them for that purpose should beware of the trending skin cycling routine. Ditto for those who use retinoids for maturing skin.
“If you have mild or moderate acne, I caution against a four-day skin cycling routine,” Kikam says. “Retinoids are a drug class at the end of the day, which means they need to be used in a dosing manner that allows for the most therapeutic benefits seen in clinical studies when it comes to addressing conditions like acne, fine lines, and wrinkles.”
Even people using over-the-counter retinoids should exercise some caution.
“Some OTC retinoid products are so low or may not be at therapeutic concentrations in the first place that using them even more infrequently, such as every third or fourth night, puts you at an even greater disadvantage for achieving results,” Kikam says.
Research on retinoids for acne is mostly based on a once-daily application. Using them less could reduce their effectiveness. Speak with a dermatologist before you try skin cycling.
What are the benefits of skin cycling?
There’s no peer-review research to support the benefits of skin cycling. Anecdotally, dermatologists say it can provide brighter and smoother skin.
Additionally, it can reduce irritation associated with retinol use, particularly for people with sensitive skin.
What are the steps in skin cycling?
The steps to skin cycling vary. Generally, the first day will involve exfoliating and using a moisturizer. On day two, a person will stick to retinol plus moisturizer.
Days three and four are for recovery, so a simple routine involving a gentle cleanser, moisturizer, and serum will do.
What’s the best skin cycling morning routine?
Cleanse your face. Then, apply the exfoliant or retinol if applicable. Finish with a moisturizer, whether it’s a designated recovery day or not.
Not using a moisturizer daily can cause skin irritation and have the opposite effect you’re hoping for when you skin cycle.
What are the best products for skin cycling? (avoid specific brands here)
During the four-day rotation, you’ll want to use:
- an exfoliator (preferably a chemical one with an AHA or BHA)
- a gentle cleanser
Many use other gentle products, like vitamin C serums, too.
Skin cycling is the latest TikTok skin care trend, but the process has been around for a while.
It involves exfoliating, using retinoids, and then resting the skin for two days with gentle products.
While this process may help improve the look and feel of the skin, it’s important to talk to a dermatologist to determine whether it’s right for you.
Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based freelance writer and content strategist who specializes in health and parenting writing. Her work has been published in Parents, Shape, and Inside Lacrosse. She is a co-founder of digital content agency Lemonseed Creative and is a graduate of Syracuse University. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.