What Is Skin Cycling And Should You Be Doing It?

By Lucy Slight
Photo / Dermalogica

As anyone who has spent any time on social media will know, there’s plenty of questionable advice out there when it comes to health and beauty.

But one trend that has recently gone viral on TikTok, and offers genuinely rather sound advice, is skin cycling.

If you’re into the idea of an active skincare regimen but are prone to irritation or sensitivity, this much-hyped trend could be just what the dermatologist ordered.

Skin cycling is a method of applying skincare that was popularised by New York-based board-certified dermatologist Dr Whitney Bowe, MD.

She noticed during the pandemic that people naturally shifted their focus away from makeup and towards skincare, but many of those sharing their routines via social media were overloading their skin with products.

To offer a more skin-friendly solution, Dr Bowe began sharing her method for spreading product use out over a four-night period in order to simplify at-home routines and give skin a break between active products.

Dr Bowe’s skin cycling routine looks like this: on night one, you exfoliate with a chemical exfoliant containing alpha- or beta-hydroxy acids as a way to clear pores and remove dead skin cells.

Night two is retinol night, which helps to speed up skin cell turnover and target concerns such as hyperpigmentation and scarring, fine lines, wrinkles and mild acne.

Nights three and four are the recovery nights, where after cleansing you apply hydrating serums or moisturisers containing hyaluronic acid and ceramides for skin repair, but no active ingredients such as vitamin A or C. On the fifth night, you begin again with exfoliation.

Her rationale is that exfoliating serums and retinols are highly effective, but incredibly powerful, and they can be irritating if used too frequently. Skin cycling allows you to reap the benefits of these active ingredients with a lower risk of side effects.

Caroline Parker, head of education for Dermalogica, agrees that this method may be supportive for some people, particularly those who are new to professional grade skincare and need to build their skin’s tolerance, but she stresses that not everything that goes viral on social media is in the best interest of your skin health.

“With viral skin trends it often sends a message that one size fits all. But at Dermalogica we know this is not the case. You and your skin are unique and should be treated as such,” she explains.

“Thinking about the myriad skin concerns and challenges our consumers face, [skin cycling] may be supportive for someone who has an impaired barrier causing their skin to be less tolerant of some cosmeceutical ingredients. This approach could reduce the risk of over-processing the skin.”

Natalie Reynolds, holistic beauty therapist and reiki specialist at Tonic Room in Auckland, agrees that everyone’s skin is different in terms of sensitivity and barrier function, and when it comes to active products, a personalised approach is always best. But as a way to develop a routine, the idea of skin cycling does make sense, she says.

“I would not ever recommend using a chemical exfoliant and retinol or retinoid on the same day; this is far too sensitising for your skin,” she explains.

“I like the idea of taking ‘rest days’ from stronger, more active products, as I always take a gentle, nurturing approach when it comes to skincare. I would personally have a more customised prescription for my client and their routine. Something I’ve learnt in my career is that one routine does not suit everyone.”

Different skin concerns, such as acne, hyperpigmentation, hydration and fine lines and wrinkles, should all be treated in different ways, which Caroline says needs to be taken into account when adopting a skincare routine.

“When treating hyperpigmentation in the skin, Dermalogica recommends a 24-hour system of brightening products as this is needed to control and moderate the triggers for the excess pigment production,” says Caroline. This differs from the skin cycling approach, as those rest days don’t involve the use of any active ingredients.

“Acne and inflammation would also be skin conditions that need a consistent approach of active ingredients to manage and correct the contributing factors in the skin,” she adds.

Dr Bowe notes that tailoring the routine to your needs over time is important and if your skin begins to experience sensitivity and irritation, you may need to go back to basics with a gentle cleanser, moisturiser and SPF until your skin calms down.

And if you do live with conditions such as severe acne, rosacea, eczema or psoriasis, or you take prescription medication for your skin, you should always check with a dermatologist or skin therapist before adopting a skincare regimen of any kind.

Skin cycling staples

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