Skin cycling 101: Is the skincare trend healthy for your complexion?

Reasons you might want to give this uncomplicated skincare routine a go.

Written by
Teneal Zuvela
Medically reviewed by
min read
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If you have found yourself on the skincare side of TikTok, you have probably come across skin cycling. This understated skincare routine has become increasingly popular for its promise to transform your complexion with a less-is-more approach to skincare.

But with fewer products, a simplified routine and more results, skin cycling might sound too good to be true.

Let's take you through the basics of what skin cycling actually is, the benefits of cycling for skin and the reasons you might want to give this uncomplicated skincare routine a go.

What is skin cycling?

Skin cycling is a skincare technique that involves giving your skin days off from active ingredients.

It was developed to give your skin the chance to recover from stronger ingredients such as retinol. Many people can't tolerate the daily application of products like prescription retinoids and it's not uncommon for overuse to lead to irritation and some unpleasant side effects.

The term skin cycling was first coined by New York City-based dermatologist, Dr Whitney Bowe, who also developed the technique's signature 4-night routine, which involves 2 days of active ingredient use and 2 days off.

According to Dr Bowe, a typical skin cycling routine will involve an exfoliation on night one, a retinol application on night 2 and a break from active ingredients on nights 3 and 4.

While the term might be new, the approach has actually been around for quite a while. In fact, dermatologists have been recommending a more intermittent use of stronger products, such as retinol, to their patients for a long time.

Why? Let's explain.

What are the benefits of skin cycling?

With so many skincare products available, it's easy to get carried away with applying a concoction of different ingredients to our skin.

While each product may offer a different benefit, applying too many different products and not having a break from skincare products, might actually be doing more harm than good.

In the same way that our bodies need to recover after a hard workout, our skin also needs to recover after being exposed to a strong product. This is because ingredients like retinoids are incredibly potent and can leave the skin feeling sensitive.

And, if you add more active ingredients to your already sensitive skin, you have a recipe for irritation.

Skin cycling, however, can break this pattern and give your skin a valuable chance to repair itself between each active ingredient use. This means that your skin should be able to tolerate those powerful ingredients better and be even less prone to their pesky side effects.

Repair the skin barrier

Your skin's moisture barrier, also known as the strata corneum, plays an important role in the health of your skin.

It doesn't only keep your skin moisturised by preventing transepidermal water loss but also protects your skin from physical toxins, such as environmental pollutants, allergens and UV rays [1].

Unfortunately, over-exfoliating and using too many active products can strip your skin of its natural oils and damage its very important moisture barrier. This can lead to redness, irritation, flaking and sensitivity, as well as leaving your skin more vulnerable to infections [2].

A skin cycling regimen can prevent this from occurring and help repair the damage that has already been done.

Reduce side effects of products

Many powerful active ingredients, such as retinol, vitamin C and exfoliating acids like AHAs and BHAs, come with a few unpleasant side effects. While generally harmless, it's very normal to experience redness, dryness and a little stinging after applying these ingredients.

For most people, the side effects will clear up shortly after their skin adjusts to the new active ingredient, which can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months — but others may struggle with side effects for longer or in a more severe way.

In these cases, a skin cycling routine may help alleviate product side effects, as your skin has more time to recover from each application.

How do I start a skin cycling routine?

As skin cycling takes a less-is-more approach to skincare, you only need 4 products to get started — and you probably already have them in your bathroom cupboard.

Alternatively, you can find a curated selection of skin cycling products in our Advanced Ageing Set, which comes with the Salicylic Acid Foaming Wash, our lightweight Retinol Complex Oil, Vitamin C + Ferulic Serum, Ceramide Repair Balm and protective Solar Fluid SPF50.

Once you have selected your products, you can create your schedule. Just remember, whether you start your cycle on the weekend or during the week, it's important to stick to the following order of application:

Night 1: Exfoliation

Using an exfoliator on the first night of your skin cycling regime will make it much easier for your skin to absorb the product that you apply on the second night. We recommend opting for a chemical exfoliator, like salicylic acid, as it is gentler on your skin than physical scrubs.

Start by cleansing your face with your choice of cleanser then apply your exfoliator. After gently massaging the exfoliator into your face, neck and chest, you can rinse it off, pat your face dry and finish with a hydrating moisturiser to prevent dry skin.

Night 2: Retinol or retinoids

If your Software formula contains prescription retinoids, this is the night to use it. After cleansing, simply apply a few pumps of your Software formula or Retinol Complex Oil to your face and gently massage it into your skin.

Don't forget to follow it up with your moisturiser.

Night 3 and 4: Recovery

Nights 3 and 4 are all about repair and recovery so on these nights, we're focusing on hydration.

After cleansing, simply apply your moisturiser — ideally one with deeply hydrating ingredients, such as hyaluronic acid and ceramides, as this will help strengthen and nourish your skin barrier.

Modify your routine

Remember that you can modify your skin cycling routine to suit your own skin's needs. This may mean reducing the number of recovery nights you take if your skin is tolerating the stronger products, or adding an extra recovery night to the cycle if it's not.

Is skin cycling suitable for all skin types?

While skin cycling is suitable for all skin types, those with dry or sensitive skin are probably going to see the best results. This is because skin cycling helps your skin adjust to strong ingredients.

If your skin is already coping well with your daily retinoid application, it's unlikely that it's going to provide any benefits.

In fact, starting a skin cycling regime when your skin is already tolerating your vitamin A products may cause your results to plateau. Likewise, those with oily or acne-prone skin may benefit from daily retinol or retinoid use.

What are the possible side effects of skin cycling?

Skin cycling is unlikely to produce any side effects and will actually help reduce any side effects you may experience after using a strong active ingredient.

However, if you aren't already using a retinoid product when you begin skin cycling, you can expect to experience some side effects at the beginning, such as dryness, redness and irritation. These side effects should begin to ease as your skin adjusts to the product.

Can you dermaplane with skin cycling?

Yes, it's safe to dermaplane while skin cycling. The hair removal technique is actually another type of exfoliation, which means that you can bring dermaplaning into your exfoliation night routine.

How long does skin cycling take to see results?

It shouldn't take long to see results from skin cycling. In fact, if your skin has been a little irritated from retinoid use, it may only take one skin cycle for your skin to calm down.

However, this is different for everyone and depending on how your skin responds to the routine, you may need to modify the routine to suit your own skin.

Image credit: Getty Images

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