What Is Skin Cycling and Should You Be Doing It?

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Skin cycling is a four-day nightly routine that aims to give your skin a break from harsh products.
Image Credit: Voronchuk Daria/iStock/GettyImages

If you've watched TikTok influencers sharing their morning routines or nightly skin-care regimens, you may have come across the term "skin cycling." The viral skin-care routine has the wellness side of social media buzzing. Beauty brands have caught on, too, encouraging consumers and skin-care connoisseurs to try it (using their products, of course).

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You can't trust everything you see on social media. But this trend is actually legitimate, according to dermatologists. And it has proven benefits for your skin.

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Here's what you should know about skin cycling, including how to do it properly.

What Is Skin Cycling?

"Skin cycling is a nighttime skin-care regimen that you repeatedly follow, only using active ingredients on certain days, followed by rest days," says Aanand Geria, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Geria Dermatology in Rutherford, New Jersey. "The point of skin cycling is to help decrease the side effects caused by many active ingredients in products."

Just like how our bodies need rest days from exercise, our skin needs "rest," too. Skin cycling gives your face a break from products, while also helping the skin to naturally replenish, Dr. Geria explains.

"By doing this, more oxygen will reach your face, giving your skin more time to regenerate its natural elastin and collagen," Dr. Geria says. "Overusing products can harm the skin's barrier, which is essential for protecting you from harsh chemicals, infection and allergens."

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Imagine never taking days off from the gym. This could lead to overuse injuries, progress plateaus and result in more harm than good. Our skin needs just as much TLC — and without proper rest, it can create a compromised skin barrier, causing problems like eczema, acne or irritation, Dr. Geria says.

Skin-Cycling Products

Things You'll Need

  • Cleanser

  • Exfoliator (typically a serum with active ingredients like salicylic acid)

  • Retinol

  • Moisturizer

Skin cycling involves a handful of products — a cleanser, an exfoliator, a retinol and a moisturizer.

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"The average skin-cycling regimen is a four-night cycle: the first night is exfoliant night, the second is retinol night and the third and fourth nights serve as recovery days," Dr. Geria says. "Depending on your skin type, your dermatologist may recommend a variation of this cycle."

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Cleanser

Using a quality cleanser is an important step in your skin-care routine (there's a reason it's always the first thing to do!). Cleansing your face at night gets rid of makeup or any excess dirt that has built up throughout the day. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), it can also have an affect on the appearance of your skin. Your cleanser should gently clean your skin without drying it out (avoid any cleanser that contains alcohol).

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Try These Dermatologist-Recommended Cleansers

  • CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser ($19.74 at Amazon; $13.68 at Walmart.com)
  • Eucerin Hydrating Cleansing Gel ($9.40 at Amazon; $21.45 at Walmart.com)
  • La Roche-Posay Toleriane Hydrating Gentle Face Cleanser ($16.99 at Amazon; $18.99 at Ulta.com)

Exfoliator

Exfoliating is a harsher process than cleansing, but its purpose is to help regenerate skin cells. The AAD explains that exfoliator products help your skin look brighter and can improve clogged pores (which leads to fewer breakouts!). Think of it as going a step further than cleansing, stripping your skin of impurities and any dirt hiding in your pores.

Try These Dermatologist-Recommended Exfoliants

Retinol

Retinol has many uses in skin care. It can treat acne, has anti-aging effects and increases collagen production, per the Cleveland Clinic. Using a retinol can reduce wrinkles and fine lines on your face, giving your skin a fresher appearance. This product can be prescribed by a dermatologist (topical retinoid products) or purchased over-the-counter.

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Try These Dermatologist-Recommended Retinols

Moisturizer

Finally, there's moisturizer — the last but certainly not least important part of a skin-care routine. Skin is the largest organ of our body and moisture is a vital factor to its health. Moisturizing your face can reduce skin problems like extreme dryness or oiliness, per the The University of Tennessee Medical Center. From a cosmetic standpoint, moisturizer can also help your skin look brighter and younger by keeping it hydrated, according to the AAD.

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Try These Dermatologist-Recommended Moisturizers

  • Cetaphil Rich Hydrating Cream ($14.22 to $33.94 at Amazon; $18.47 at Walmart.com)
  • CeraVe Moisturizing Cream ($15.48 at Amazon; $14.97 at Walmart.com)
  • La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Moisturizer ($21.99 at Amazon; $22.99 at Ulta.com)

How to Do It

Once you have your skin-cycling products, then the fun can really begin. Here's a step-by-step breakdown to start your four-day skin-cycling routine.

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Night 1: Cleanse and Exfoliate

Night one of skin cycling looks like this:

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  • Cleanse and dry
  • Apply an exfoliating serum (you'll leave this on overnight and wash it off in the morning)
  • Smooth on a moisturizer

Choose an exfoliant with active ingredients like alpha and beta hydroxy acids, according to the AAD. "This will help remove dead skin cells from the surface layer of your skin," Dr. Geria says.

Night 2: Cleanse and Apply Retinol

On night two:

  • Cleanse and dry
  • Moisturize
  • Apply retinol

Note: You can apply moisturizer before or after retinol; it's mostly a matter of personal preference.

Retinoids come naturally from vitamin A and help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, Dr. Geria explains.

It's common for sensitive skin to be irritated by retinol when you first start using it. Dermatologists suggest moisturizing under your eyes and in the crease of your nose before applying retinoid. If your skin still feels dry after using the retinoid, moisturize again.

Night 3: Recovery Day

On night three, only cleanse and moisturize. Do not apply any exfoliating acids or retinoids.

"This will give your skin the time it needs to recover. Instead, cleanse and hydrate your skin, avoiding any harsh ingredients," Dr. Geria says.

Night 4: Recovery Day

On night four, you'll only cleanse and moisturize again, steering clear of any harsh ingredients.

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The next night, you'll go back to night one (cleanse and exfoliate) and repeat the order.

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Skin Cycling Benefits

While there is limited peer-reviewed research, dermatologists say a skin-cycling routine can lead to improved skin health and appearance.

1. Healthier Skin

The skin is the largest organ in the body, making it even more important to prioritize. According to the AAD, skin can be a big indicator about your overall health. Skin irritation, dryness and discoloration are all signs of a potentially compromised skin barrier. Skin cycling is just one way to keep it healthy.

"Skin cycling will produce healthier skin, adding a natural glow and radiance to your appearance," Dr. Geria says. "It will also make your skin more hydrated and feel softer."

2. Less Sensitivity Over Time

Adding new products on your face can cause irritation, especially if you have naturally sensitive skin. Dr. Geria explains this is common with potent products like retinol. But sensitivity doesn't necessarily mean a certain product isn't right for you. It could just mean your skin needs time to adjust.

"After two or three cycles, blotchiness and sensitivity should begin to improve," Dr. Geria says.

What to Know Before You Get Started

1. You Might Experience Short-Term Skin Sensitivity

As mentioned, sensitive skin types can have different reactions to certain products. That's why it's important to find products that aren't too harsh. But remember, it's normal to have an adjustment phase when trying something new.

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"It's possible to experience dryness, redness or flaking when first starting skin cycling, although this should only last around two weeks," Dr. Geria says. "The built-in rest days included in skin cycling are designed to help minimize irritation."

2. Consistency Is Key

The term "skin cycling" suggests an ongoing routine, which is exactly what it is over a period of four days. In order for the products to work and maximize effectiveness, you should be consistent in your skin-care routine. Skipping days or irregularly applying products likely won't produce the same glowing results.

The Bottom Line

The viral TikTok trend may seem like a new concept, but it's actually a tried-and-true process dermatologists approve and encourage. Skin cycling is a systematic way to protect your skin from harsh chemicals by allowing it to rest and recover. The four-day schedule builds in nights to get rid of dead skin cells (exfoliating) and target fine lines and wrinkles (retinol), but it's the rest days that are crucial to protecting the skin's barrier.

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Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.

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