In news that would surprise no one younger than age 13 — but certainly everyone else — TikTok has become a key resource for discovering new skincare routines. Licensed dermatologists and specialists offer free advice on the popular app, helping viewers take charge of their regimens and find the right products. The latest trend to take the skincare world by storm is also one of the most effective: skin cycling.
What is skin cycling, exactly? The term was coined by dermatologist and TikToker Whitney Bowe, owner of Whitney Bowe Beauty. In its basic form, it’s a four-day regimen designed to help your skin maximize the benefits of face products with the least amount of irritation. Say hello to glow and goodbye to fine lines.
How To Follow a Skin Cycling Routine
“Skin cycling does two main things,” Dr. Bowe explains in a video. “It prevents irritation, and secondly, it really helps you get the most out of each one of your powerful active products.” By active products, Dr. Bowe means items that contain active ingredients designed to treat a specific problem. Here are the three main “active products” she recommends you use: a chemical exfoliant and a retinol or retinoid serum for the evenings, and a vitamin C serum for the mornings.
Here’s how she recommends you cycle through those products:
- Each morning: vitamin C serum
- Night one: exfoliate
- Night two: apply retinol
- Night three: recover (just moisturizer)
- Night four: recover
For a better understanding of skin cycling (and the products we recommend), check out the explanations below.
Night one: Exfoliate.
“Not only does [exfoliation] give you an immediate glow, but it actually helps prep your skin to get the most out of night two,” Dr. Bowe says. To do: Wash your face using a gentle cleanser and pat dry. Apply a chemical exfoliant and a moisturizer on top and wear to bed. “I recommend a leave-on [exfoliating] product over a wash-off product because it’s going to be more effective. And also I prefer a product that’s made with exfoliating acids as opposed to a gritty scrub, because the acids are more effective and more gentle for the skin barrier.”
Bonus tip: If the product burns, wash it off immediately and try a different product. A tingling sensation, however, is okay. Wait for the tingling to subside completely before applying your moisturizer.
Products we recommend for night one (note that these cleansers and moisturizers are recommended for all four nights):
- Cleansers: For oily to normal skin, try Innisfree Blueberry Rebalancing Cleanser (Buy from Walmart, $9.95). For normal to dry skin, try Honest Beauty Calm On Foaming Cream Cleanser (Buy from the Honest Company, $17.99).
- Exfoliators: For normal skin and seasoned pros, try The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7 Percent Exfoliating Toning Solution (Buy from Ulta, $10). For sensitive skin or beginners, try the Ordinary Lactic Acid 10 Percent (Buy from Ulta, $8).
- Moisturizers: For normal to dry skin, we like Honest Beauty Hydrogel Cream (Buy from the Honest Company, $19.99). For normal to oily skin, try April Skin Artemisia and Squalane Hydra Gel Cream (Buy from Amazon, $28).
Night two: Apply retinol.
“On night two, you want to use a retinol or retinoid,” says Dr. Bowe. “It’s one of the most powerful ingredients in your skincare routine.” This night is particularly important if you want to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Retinoids (vitamin A derivatives) and retinol (a specific kind of retinoid, one of the weakest forms) work by increasing collagen production.
Keep in mind that it takes three to six months to see results, so consistence is key. To do: Wash your face as normal, pat dry, apply a retinol or retinoid product, and apply your moisturizer.
Products we recommend for night two:
- For normal to dry skin and beginners: Fleur & Bee’s Retinol Serum A Game (Buy from Fleur & Bee, $39)
- For normal to oily skin: Selfless by Hyram Retinol & Rainbow Algae Repair Serum (Buy from Amazon, $28.35)
Nights three and four: Recover.
You might be tempted to try other active products during these two nights, but if you’re a beginner, don’t! “On these nights, you want to avoid any exfoliating acids, any retinoids — you want to avoid any potentially irritating ingredients,” Dr. Bowe says. “Just focus on nourishing your skin barrier and your skin microbiome. So just think, hydration, hydration, hydration.”
So, just wash and pat dry your skin as you normally would, apply your moisturizer or cream, and you’re good to go.
On night five, begin the cycle again.
Skin Cycling in the Morning
The most important thing about morning skin cycling? Consistency. “Keep things consistent every single morning,” Dr. Bowe recommends. “The bare minimum requires cleansing, vitamin C serum, moisturize, and sunscreen.” To do: Wash and pat dry your face. Then apply a vitamin C serum, a moisturizer, and a sunscreen.
Products we recommend for the morning:
- Vitamin C serums: For seasoned pros with a high tolerance, try The Inkey List Vitamin C Serum (Buy from the Inkey List, $10.99). For beginners, try the CeraVe Vitamin C Serum with Hyaluronic Acid (Buy from Amazon, $21.92). Note: Some users suggest keeping this serum in the fridge to extend its life, since vitamin C in its pure form (ascorbic acid) doesn’t keep for long.
- Sunscreens: For dry, normal, or oily skin (all skin tones), try Supergoop Mineral Sheerscreen SPF 30 (Buy from Supergoop, $38). For normal to dry skin, we like Versed Guards Up Daily Mineral Sunscreen (Buy from Amazon, $24.99). For normal to oily skin, try Bliss Block Star Tinted Mineral Sunscreen (Buy from Amazon, $21.99). Note that Versed and Bliss products may leave a white cast on darker skin tones. (Find out why we’re recommending only mineral sunscreens.)
My Experience With Skin Cycling
I’ve been using a skin cycling regimen for nearly three weeks, and I’m impressed. I was nervous about chemically exfoliating my skin and immediately using a retinol the next night. So, I used a wash-off exfoliant for the first few cycles: the Facial Lounge Papaya Enzyme Face Mask. (I received this as a gift and absolutely love it, but didn’t recommend it above because of the steep price — $76.) By the third cycle, I felt comfortable trying a leave-on exfoliant (the Ordinary Lactic Acid serum) and didn’t have an adverse reaction.
Also, this routine allowed me to finally use retinol on a regular basis. My skin is very sensitive and often gets dry, red, and flaky with retinol. By skin cycling, however, I haven’t had any issues. (I’ve used the Fleur & Bee serum and the Hyram serum, and both products seem gentle and effective.)
No matter your skin care goals, I would strongly recommend this routine — it has left my face glowing.
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This article was updated on September 19, 2022.