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Skin Cycling: The Ultimate Guide

May/14/2023 / by Pratika Yashaswi

This method suggests that alternating treatment with recovery time over four days may be great for your integumentary system

Some dematoogists swear by the benefits of Skin Cycling
Some dematoogists swear by the benefits of Skin Cycling. Shutterstock

There’s no science behind it; only a dermatologist who “invented” it, a TikTok video with a cool 3.5 billion views, and likely millions of skincare enthusiasts who swear by it.

It’s called Skin Cycling (some call it “skin-care nirvana”). Especially for those with sensitive skin, it works! It aims to “minimize irritation, and maximize results” through a four-night cycle (this can vary) with stages of exfoliation, retinol/retinoid, and built-in “recovery” nights where you go to bed with nothing on your face but moisturizer.

It’s a response to the “more is more” attitude that many people take to their skin care. They (yours truly included) incorporate a panoply of products: exfoliants, acids, retinoids, and serums, which are often very harsh. “I find that one of the top mistakes people make when it comes to their skin care is that they don’t build in nights for their skin barrier to recover,” she writes on her blog, which is attached to an online shop for products she’s formulated specifically for skin cycling.

The Process

This is the four-night cycle recommended by Dr. Whitney Bowe, or the “standard” Skin Cycling routine. Note that this can be customized based on your skin type and specific concerns, and plenty of resources online, including Bowe’s website, show you how to do this. You can even go with your gut. After all, you know your skin best!

Night 1: Exfoliation Night

Exfoliation night is when you prepare your skin to gain the full benefits of the retinoid you’ll be using the next day. Bowe recommends going for chemical exfoliating products like glycolic acid, instead of harsh physical scrubs (the ones with the grits you can feel between your fingers). If your skin is really sensitive, you can use multani mitti (Fuller’s earth), a staple in traditional South Asian skin care, or clay masks, which are gentler.

Night 2: Retinoid Night

Retinoids are a powerful ingredient to include in your Skin Cycling routine. Derivatives of Vitamin A, retinoids effectively combat acne and aging. You can use an over-the-counter retinoid like adapalene (sold under the brand Differin), or go for prescription-strength tretinoin. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, Dr Bowe advises bakuchiol or peptides. If you don’t want something as strong as a retinoid, go for a retinol product with a low concentration. Or use the “sandwich method” where you layer your retinoid between two moisturizer applications. Avoid using any other products on this night.

Night 3 + Night 4: Recovery Nights

Recovery nights are the linchpin of the Skin Cycling method. This is where you ditch the harsh products and give your skin a chance to recover. Double-cleanse gently and lather on a good moisturizer. Snail mucin is touted to be a great ingredient for skin barrier repair and Cosrx produces skin cycling combos.
“On recovery nights, you want to focus on nourishing your skin microbiome and repairing your skin barrier. Think hydration and moisture,” writes Bowe.

The Caveat

As we mentioned, there is no quality research backing Skin Cycling’s effectiveness, although many dermatologists recommend it. Moreover, the use of retinoids, exfoliants, and moisturizers is well-studied, though the overall cycling approach is not.

Anecdotal reports variously mention the following benefits:

  • Relief from redness and peeling from retinol
  • Smoother skin
  • Brighter skin
  • Increased hydration
  • Barrier repair
  • Reduced breakouts
  • Fading fine lines and wrinkles


Therefore, if you’re embarking on it, you’re essentially doing a months-long experiment. If you have a damaged skin barrier and sensitive skin, this can be a game changer. However, if you have serious skin issues, such as cystic acne, being treated with prescription products, this method might not be effective enough since it only includes one retinoid night. In such a case, consult with your dermatologist first.

Happy cycling!

Seema

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