What is Skin Cycling? How to Start a Skin Cycling Routine 

We tend to think of our skin care routines as a daily repetition with a different variation for morning and night. But what if we’ve been thinking about it all wrong? If applying the same products every day hasn’t been effective for you or is causing irritation from active ingredients, consider switching to “skin cycling.”

What is Skin Cycling?

If you’ve spent time on the skincare side of social media, you may have come across the concept of “skin cycling,” a skincare strategy that’s currently gaining a lot of attention. Unlike typical skin care routines that use the same products every day, a skin cycling routine focuses on different active ingredients on different days, as well as incorporating rest days.

Think of skin cycling as a structured routine for your skin, akin to a balanced exercise regimen that rotates heavy lifting days with recovery days.

Skin cycling involves alternating the use of different products over a set cycle, typically spanning four nights. This method is designed to maximize the benefits of each active ingredient while minimizing potential irritation and over-exfoliation. Dr. Whitney Bowe, a New York dermatologist originally coined the term “skin cycling” on TikTok:


Skin cycling for beginners: how to get started. And how to layer with Bowe Glowe #skincycling #thatboweglow #dermatologist #skintok

♬ original sound – Dr. Whitney Bowe

Skin cycling is particularly beneficial for those with sensitive skin or individuals who are new to potent skincare actives. It offers a balanced approach, reducing the risk of irritation and damage to the skin barrier by active ingredients applied every night. Regular skin cycling can lead to improved skin texture, clarity, and overall health, while reducing the likelihood of adverse reactions.

Skin Cycling Products

When engaging in skin cycling, choosing the right products for each phase of the cycle is crucial for achieving the best results while minimizing irritation. Keep the rest of the products in your routine gentle and free from pore-clogging ingredients. Here’s a breakdown of the types of products best suited for each stage of skin cycling:


Look for leave-on products containing alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic acid or lactic acid, which are effective for surface exfoliation, or beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) such as salicylic acid, which are great for deep pore cleansing. Some products even include both BHAs and AHAs. Opt for formulations that are gentle to avoid over-exfoliating the skin. 


Choose a topical retinoid product based on your skin’s tolerance. Options include over-the-counter retinol or adapalene for beginners or more potent prescription retinoids like tretinoin for those with more retinoid experience or specific skin concerns. For sensitive skin, consider applying a moisturizer before the retinoid to buffer its intensity.

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For your rest nights, incorporate hydrating serums, soothing moisturizers, and maybe a calming face mask with ingredients like hyaluronic acid, glycerin, or panthenol to boost skin moisture. You can also look for products containing ceramides, centella asiatica, allantoin, or fatty acids to soothe irritation and promote healing. 

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    Typical Skin Cycling Routine

    A skin cycling schedule involves rotating the use of different skincare products at night while using your standard gentle products and sunscreen in the morning. It typically involves a four-night cycle that includes:

    Day One: Exfoliation

    The cycle begins with exfoliation. On this night, you should use a product containing alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic acid or lactic acid or beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) such as salicylic acid. These chemical exfoliants work by dissolving dead skin cells, promoting cellular turnover, and unclogging pores. This process helps to smooth your skin’s texture and enhance the penetration of the product used the next night.

    Day Two: Retinoids 

    The second night is dedicated to retinoids. Retinoids are derivatives of Vitamin A and are renowned for their ability to stimulate collagen production, accelerate cell renewal, and improve skin concerns such as acne, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation. By doing a night of retinoid application a day after exfoliation, your skin is more receptive, allowing for deeper penetration and effectiveness.

    Days Three and Four: Repair

    The following two nights are focused on recovery. These nights are crucial as they give your skin a break to recuperate and repair itself from the active treatments. Products used during this phase are typically gentle and nourishing, emphasizing hydration and soothing ingredients. This rest period helps to restore the skin barrier, maintain hydration levels, and reduce the risk of irritation. 


    ‘Skin Cycling’ Is the Buzzy TikTok Trend That We Actually Like ✨💦 Skin cycling can be really effective because it gives your face a chance to heal in between treatments. Exfoliating serums and retinoids are powerful, highly effective products that I use in my skin care routine and recommend to my patients. ✨ However, they can be very irritating for many people if used too frequently. Essentially, applying too much too often can lead to sensitive, tight, or dry skin; people with darker skin tones, in particular, have a higher risk of hyperpigmentation when overusing these products. So, skin cycling may help you reap the benefits of these (often pricey) products with a lower risk of annoying side effects. 🫶🏻👇 Also worth noting: You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to start skin cycling, and it’s generally safe—even for those of us who have trust issues because one too many serums did major damage.

    ♬ original sound – Dr. Munir Somji

    Skin Cycling for Acne Prone Skin

    Skin cycling can be particularly beneficial when you have acne-prone skin because it offers a way to incorporate potent products gradually, reducing the risk of irritation. 

    The first night of a skin cycling routine uses chemical exfoliants like AHAs and BHAs to help unclog pores and remove dead skin cells, which are root causes in the formation of acne. Using retinoids the next night further unclogs pores and reduces inflammation, while also promoting cell turnover, which can help heal existing acne and prevent new breakouts. Retinoids are well-known for their efficacy in treating acne.

    Recovery nights are also crucial, especially for those of us whose skin is sensitive as well as acne-prone. Allowing the skin to rest and heal for a couple nights reduces the potential for irritation, which can exacerbate acne. By providing a balance between active treatment and recovery, skin cycling helps in managing acne effectively, while also ensuring the overall health and resilience of the skin. 

    Does Skin Cycling Cause Purging?

    Purging is a reaction where acne appears to worsen before it improves. This happens because active skincare ingredients accelerate the skin’s natural exfoliation process, bringing underlying issues like clogged pores to the surface as pimples. 

    If you don’t already use exfoliants and retinoids into your skin care routine, introducing them through skin cycling could lead to purging while these active ingredients bring any future breakouts to the surface faster. The benefit of skin cycling is that it spaces out the use of potent ingredients, which can potentially reduce the severity and likelihood of purging compared to beginning with daily use of exfoliants or retinoids.

    Purging typically occurs in areas where you usually experience breakouts and should start to improve within 4-6 weeks. If breakouts appear in new areas or your skin condition doesn’t improve within this timeframe, it might not be purging but rather a reaction or sensitivity to a product. If irritation or breakouts are severe or concerning, it’s important to consult with a dermatologist.

    Patience is key during purging. As the skin adjusts to the new routine, it’s important to maintain consistency to see the full benefits. During recovery nights, focus on gentle, hydrating products to soothe and repair the skin. This helps mitigate the intensity of purging and supports skin health.

    Skin cycling is all about balance, making it a promising approach for all of us struggling with acne. When you embrace the cycle exfoliants, retinoids, and soothing agents each take their nightly turn and your skin can benefit from each without getting overwhelmed. 

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