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What is skin cycling & how do I do it?

women applying skincare

If there’s one thing we all know, it’s that skincare loves a TikTok trend. But it can be harder to decipher what’s actually worth your time. 

After all, we’ve seen raw potato skincare, “radiator curls”, and snail facials straight from the garden. (In case it needs saying, do not try any of these at home). Should we ever trust the Internet again? 

Thankfully, it seems like there’s one that won’t have dermatologists cringing.

“Skin cycling” is designed to help protect the skin barrier and maintain clear, hydrated skin - but what is it?

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What is skin cycling?

“Skin cycling” describes a routine where you alternate skincare products, focusing on one active ingredient at a time. Unlike most, it also includes “rest days” designed to give your skin a break. 

It’s been around in various forms for years, but the phrase and official method was coined by New York dermatologist Dr Whitney Bowe.

Skin cycling helps to balance a varied skincare routine (which is important for an all-round healthy complexion) without oversaturating or irritating the skin. 

The most common cycle is the one outlined by Dr Bowe, which describes a four-night repeating cycle that uses active ingredients for two nights, followed by two nights of rest. 

Why do it?

The main benefit of skin cycling is that it allows your skin time to relax and recover from the products you’re using. Think of it like a workout: a routine keeps you going, but rest days are equally important. 

It’s best to stick to a regular pattern once you work out what’s best for you, but a skin cycle can be adapted to suit your skin type, budget, age, or lifestyle. 

And then there’s the simplicity of it! No more 12-step routine; just focus on one aspect each night. 

If you follow Dr Bowe’s regime, your evenings might look something like this…

Night 1: Exfoliation

The purpose: Remove dull, dead skin and create a fresh base 

What to do: Cleanse as normal and gently pat your skin dry. Then, apply your exfoliating product. 

Try to go for acid exfoliators (like salicylic, glycolic, and lactic acid) over a scrub, since they’re generally more effective and more gentle. 

Scrubs with rough particles could create micro-tears in your skin, weakening the epidermis (outer skin layer) and causing dry, red, and irritated patches. 

Then, moisturise to help hydrate the skin. 

 

Night 2: Retinoids

If you don’t know about retinoids, they’re a catch-all term for compounds derived from vitamin A. 

Retinol is generally found in products over the counter, whereas stronger retinoids (i.e. tretinoin) are usually stronger and prescribed by a doctor. 

Put simply, retinol is used on the skin to support healthy ageing. It can:

  • Help minimise the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
  • Help stimulate collagen production and help plump the skin 
  • Aid cell regeneration process to help maintain a fresh, youthful appearance
  • Help to reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation and blemishes 

The purpose: Stimulate collagen production and increase cell turnover to help maintain smooth, youthful-looking skin 

What to do: Again, cleanse as normal and gently pat your skin dry - only this time be sure that your skin is 100% dry! Even slightly damp skin can absorb retinoids more deeply and potentially irritate the skin. 

Dr Bowe recommends “sandwiching” your retinoids, especially if you have sensitive skin. That means applying a moisturiser or humectant before and after, to help minimise the dryness and irritation sometimes associated with them. 

To begin your sandwich, apply a little moisturiser to create a light barrier between your skin and your retinoid. 

Then, apply your retinoid in the following quantities. Less is more!

  • A pea-sized amount evenly to your face
  • A pea-sized amount evenly on your neck
  • Two pea-sized amounts over your décolletage 

For the final piece of the sandwich, use a humectant (a substance that draws moisture to the epidermis) for ultimate hydration. You might choose glycerin, hyaluronic acid, or an AHA for this. 

 

Nights 3 & 4: Recovery

You likely wouldn’t do an intense workout at the gym every day. The same principle applies to your skin: recovery days allow time to look after the epidermis and make sure it’s well hydrated. 

The purpose: To give your skin a break! 

What to do: Cleanse as you usually would and leave your skin slightly damp. You can also apply your usual moisturiser and/or any serums without active ingredients. 

Gentle hydration and protection is the key here; hyaluronic acid, glycerin, ceramides, and niacinamide are good ingredients to look for. 

Then, use an emollient to nourish the skin and lock in moisturise in the epidermis. 

“If the skin is really dry,” adds Dr Bowes, “apply rosehip or squalane oil onto cheeks.”1

 

Can I do skin cycling in the mornings?

It’s a no, unfortunately. Retinoids make the skin more susceptible to UV damage, so you should only apply them at night.²

It’s best to keep things regular and do all your skin cycling in the evening. 

Remember, always wear an SPF of at least 30 the following day when using retinol products.

Is skin cycling safe?

Skin cycling is safe - but that’s not to say it will definitely work for you. Everyone has different skin types with different tolerances to certain products. 

The benefit of skin cycling is that it can be adjusted to suit your individual skin needs. However, the classic four-night cycle might not work best for you if: 

  1. You’ve built up a tolerance to retinoids

If you’re using a retinoid more often and seeing good results, cutting down might not benefit you. 

According to Harvard Health Publishing, doctors often recommend using retinoids every other day at first and then gradually working up to nightly applications.³ Some people’s skin suits less frequent application, but using retinoids only once every four days may not be enough for those who can handle more. 

That said, skin cycling is generally for those starting out with skincare or experiencing irritation with their current routine. 

Even if you’re not seeing results, it’s always best to stick with your new routine for a few weeks at least (unless you’re experiencing irritation, skin tightness, or burning, in which case stop immediately). 

  1. You’ve got very sensitive skin… 

On the other hand, exfoliating once every four days may be too intense for some people. Some dermatologists recommend only exfoliating once per week if you have very sensitive skin. 

  1. …or a skin condition 

Consult a GP or dermatologist if you have a condition like eczema, rosacea, or psoriasis, or if you’re on any medication for your skin. 

How long do I skin cycle for?

As long as you like!

The good thing about skin cycling is that it helps you to “read” your skin, and then you can adjust your products or routine accordingly.

We recommend you stick with your cycle for a few months, but if you feel like your skin needs more hydration or exfoliation, you can adjust to see what you need. 

It’s okay to slow down! However, if you experience any burning, tingling, or breaking out, stop immediately. 

The final say

So, could skin cycling work for you? Whether you choose Dr Bowe’s four-day cycle or another regime, a couple of rest days could work for you. 

Remember, always wear an SPF the day after using retinol products, as they can increase exposure to the sun.

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle. 

Last updated: 11 January 2023

Sources

  1. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/overactive-thyroid-hyperthyroidism/symptoms/
  2. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/underactive-thyroid-hypothyroidism/
 
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