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Skin cycling, a buzzworthy trend in skincare, has taken the social media skincare community by storm. If you’re a regular on platforms like Instagram or TikTok, you’ve probably noticed the term “skin cycling” making waves. It’s not just a passing fad, with hashtags like #skincycling racking up millions of views. But what exactly is this skincare approach, and why has it gained so much popularity in recent times?

Dr Whitney Bowe, a dermatologist certified in New York City, is the one who first coined the term “skin cycling.” While the term is new, the key principle of incorporating “rest” days into your skincare routine is not a new concept. Dermatologists have long been advising intermittent or alternating use of active skincare ingredients.

During the pandemic, many people found themselves paying more attention to their skincare routine—piling on layers of products and experimenting with various ingredients. Many also started experiencing irritation and skin damage as a result of excessive layering or using ingredients that end up impairing the skin barrier. 

Skin cycling seeks to address this problem by encouraging a more thoughtful and strategic approach to skincare. Rather than continuously adding more products to your routine, skin cycling emphasises using products in a way that complements each other. It’s about finding the right balance, not overloading your skin.

The core idea is to create a skincare routine that includes “rest days” for your skin. These rest days allow your skin to repair itself after using specific products. This can help prevent irritation and inflammation, ultimately leading to healthier skin. To start with skin cycling, you’ll need a few essential products: An exfoliator, such as glycolic acid or salicylic acid. A retinoid, which could be retinol or retinaldehyde. A moisturiser, preferably a fragrance-free ointment or cream.

Day 1 – Exfoliator

The core of skin cycling comes down to its timing — it’s typically based on a four-day cycle. The first night is exfoliation night. This is when you cleanse your face, pat it dry, and apply the exfoliator. Exfoliation removes dead skin cells from the surface, allowing other products to penetrate more effectively. Following exfoliation, it’s essential to moisturise your skin.

From left: Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel, $151, Dr Dennis Gross. Hello Results Baby-Smooth Glycolic Peel + Caring Oil, $96, IT Cosmetics. Rescue Peel Pads, $135, EVE LOM.

Day 2 – Retinols

The second night in the cycle is dedicated to retinoids. Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives known for their ability to reduce fine lines and wrinkles. They come in various forms, from prescription medications like tretinoin to gentler over-the-counter products like retinol. However, it’s important to note that retinoids can irritate your skin, especially when you have not used them before. On retinoid night, you cleanse, pat dry, and then apply retinoid. For those with sensitive skin, it’s advisable to moisturise sensitive areas, like under the eyes and the corners of the nose, before applying the retinoid. If skin feels dry after retinoid application, moisturise again, applying the layer of moisturiser on top of the retinoid.

From left: The Retinol Serum, $530, Augustinus Bader. Moon Fruit 1% Bakuchiol + Peptides Retinol Alternative Serum, $112, Herbivore Botanicals. Retinol Ceramide Capsules Line Erasing Serum, $154 for 60 capsules, Elizabeth Arden.

Day 3 + 4: Recovery

Nights three and four in the cycle are recovery nights, that is, to give your skin a break from exfoliating acids and retinoids. Instead, focus on nourishing your skin’s microbiome and repairing your skin barrier. This involves hydration and moisture, so be sure to cleanse your skin thoroughly before applying a moisturiser. On recovery nights, you don’t necessarily need to pat your skin dry — leave it slightly damp. You can even add a hydrating serum before applying your moisturiser.

From top left: SUBLIMAGE La Crème–Texture Universalle, $644, Chanel. Dior Prestige La Cré me Texture Essentielle, $595, Dior. Super Anti-Aging Face Cream, $450, Dr Barbara Sturm. Magic Fresh Water Cream, $157, Charlotte Tilbury.

While the general skin cycling routine is four days, it’s not a plan that is set in stone. The length of your skin cycle can be adjusted based on your skin type and its response to the products. If you experience skin sensitivity or redness, you can increase the number of recovery nights until your skin adapts well to the exfoliator and retinoids. The reverse can also be done — cutting down on the number of recovery days once your skin has built up tolerance to retinoids and if you want to see more intense results. 

So, how can skin cycling benefit your skin? Dermatologists and advocates of this approach suggest that skin cycling offers several advantages. For one, it can help repair your skin barrier. A healthy skin barrier is essential not only for cosmetic reasons but also for overall skin health. Research indicates that a compromised skin barrier can contribute to various skin conditions, including acne and eczema.

Over-exfoliating and using potent retinoids can potentially harm your skin barrier, leading to redness and irritation. However, the recovery nights, which focus on nourishing and strengthening the skin barrier, have been a game-changer for many individuals. 

Skin cycling can be helpful, especially for those with sensitive skin and who would like to benefit from the use of retinol and exfoliants, but are wary of introducing products that are potentially irritating to their skin. That said, if you do have conditions like severe acne or rosacea, it’s still best to consult your dermatologist before embarking on a skin-cycling routine. 

With a myriad of skincare products out there, it’s easy to fall into the idea that applying more layers will help your skin absorb the benefits of active ingredients. Skin cycling serves as a reminder that sometimes, less is more, and a well-planned skincare routine can yield the best results for your skin’s health and appearance. 

Text: Arissa Ha/Harper’s Bazaar