What is skin cycling? Derms break down the TikTok trend

There are some simple rules of beauty that are practically a given at this point — we all know how important it is to cleanse regularly, moisturize and always apply SPF. But when you start adding more products, like anti-aging serums or exfoliants, it gets a little more complicated. You may be asking: What time should I apply each one? And what’s the best order to apply them in? With all these variables, we sometimes wish that there was just a simple beauty formula to follow.

Recently, we’ve seen a trend going around on TikTok that seems like it could be just that. Skin cycling is essentially a four-night skin care regimen that you repeatedly cycle through to simplify your routine and potentially reduce inflammation from active ingredients. Videos featuring the #skincycling tag have 90 million collective views on the app. One person said that it “transformed” their “sensitive acne prone skin” and another claimed that it made their skin “look the best it ever has.”

So what exactly is it? We asked two dermatologists to break down the process and its potential benefits.

What is skin cycling?

Dr. Whitney Bowe, a New York-based dermatologist has been credited with coining the term “skin cycling.” According to Bowe, the classic skin cycling routine consists of a four-night schedule. Night one is exfoliation, night two is for retinoids and nights three and four are recovery nights, where you focus on hydration and barrier repair. Once you finish the cycle, you repeat the process.

While the idea of “skin cycling” is currently trendy, it’s not necessarily new. “Skin cycling is a well-known treatment protocol in dermatology,” said Dr. Shari Lipner, associate professor of clinical dermatology at the Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York, to Shop TODAY.

Retinoids, in particular, have often been cycled as many people cannot tolerate them nightly, said Dr. Mary L. Stevenson, associate professor at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Plus, she said, people don’t always have time to correctly apply products, so they have to cycle through them instead. For example, TODAY previously reported that you should wait an hour after applying exfoliating acids like AHAs and BHAs before putting retinol. But if you’re doing your routine before bed (it’s recommended that you apply both products at night), you don’t always have the time to wait. So, by applying one product one night and the other the next, you’re essentially cycling.

What are the benefits of skin cycling?

In another video, Bowe explained that this specific skin cycling routine not only helps you get more out of your ingredients (she said the exfoliation helps prep your skin for the retinoid) but it also helps you avoid irritation.

Exfoliating and retinol-based products can be irritating to the skin, Lipner said. And that’s why the recovery nights are important. “The recovery nights let the skin recover and rejuvenate,” she said.

Lipner said that this cycling regimen could be beneficial for those who want to even out their skin tone or have acne.

Is skin cycling safe?

That being said, Lipner added that the four-day cycling routine is not ideal for all skin types. Exfoliation twice per week can be too irritating for some (she recommends a max of once per week), so she said that you should talk to your dermatologist, who can look at your skin and determine the right routine for you. And if you do find that the exfoliation is too irritating, you should skip that step.

Stevenson also said that while some skin types can only tolerate two nights of retinol per week (making this routine somewhat of a sweet spot for them), others can handle more.

How to try skin cycling

To start, during your nightly routine, Lipner recommends washing with a simple cleanser that’s free of any potential irritants, like salicylic acid. Then, follow it with retinol, exfoliant or a hydrating product — depending on the night. After applying the active ingredients, you want to make sure you’re using a hydrating product.

“I recommend moisture after both,” Stevenson said. For retinol, you can go the “sandwich” route, which involves first applying a moisturizer, then the retinol product followed by a humectant (like hyaluronic acid and glycerin), which she says “draws and retains moisture in the skin,” like a sponge.

When it comes to exfoliating products, Lipner suggests looking for ones with ingredients like salicylic acid, glycolic acid and lactic acid. “Salicylic acid is derived from plant products, and is good for people with acne-prone skin,” she said. “It is also anti-inflammatory. Glycolic acid is derived from sugar cane, can treat acne, but can irritate the skin around the eyes. Lactic acid is derived from milk and is one of the gentler exfoliants.”

For retinol, if you’re going with an over-the-counter product, Lipner suggests looking for ones that also contain vitamin C and ceramides, as they “can brighten skin and also give some hydration.” If you want something stronger, she suggests opting for over-the-counter adapalene or asking your dermatologist about prescription-strength adapalene, tretinoin or tazarotene.

Finally, for moisturizers, Lipner recommends looking for ingredients such as glycerin, hyaluronic acid, ceramides, dimethicone, coconut oil and shea butter.

For anyone who wants to give the viral skin care trend a try, we rounded up some top-rated and expert-approved products that you can use for each night of the cycle.

Skin cycling products to try

Paulas Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Salicylic Acid Exfoliant

This bestselling exfoliator is both a shopper-favorite and dermatologist-approved treatment. In fact, it’s so popular that the brand says one bottle is sold every seven seconds. The formula, which features salicylic acid, is said to help unclog pores, smooth wrinkles and brighten and even out skin tone.

The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA

If you’re looking for affordable skin care products, The Ordinary has you covered. And the brand’s lactic acid formula has an average 4.5-star rating from more than 1,200 reviews on the Sephora site. Along with lactic acid, the formula features Tasmanian pepperberry, which the brand says can help reduce signs of inflammation and sensitivity.

Differin Gel

While this retinoid treatment is said to be “prescription-strength,” you won’t have to go to the doctor’s office before adding this to your beauty cabinet! While many acne treatments on the market feature retinols, one dermatologist previously told us that this one uses a retinoid (adapalene), so it’s more potent.

CeraVe Retinol Serum

Multiple dermatologists recently recommended this option to Shop TODAY as a top retinol serum. Along with retinol, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Debra Jaliman told us that, “it contains hyaluronic acid, glycerin and ceramides, which hydrate the skin, and niacinamide and licorice root extract, which help with uneven dark discoloration.”

La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Face Moisturizer

Featuring ingredients like ceramide-3, glycerin and niacinamide, this moisturizer is said to help hydrate and restore skin. Reviewers have called it “magic in a bottle,” saying that it restores moisture and plumpness to the skin without causing breakouts.

Neutrogena Hydro Boost Face Moisturizer with Hyaluronic Acid

Give your skin the moisture boost it needs on recovery days (and post-retinol or exfoliation) with this popular moisturizer. According to the brand, it provides up to 48 hours of hydration and features ingredients like hyaluronic acid and glycerin.

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