It’s safe to say that TikTok isn’t always the most trustworthy source for skin care tips. On a platform where just about anyone can call themselves an expert, it can be difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. So when we come across a board-certified dermatologist or aesthetician, it’s a breath of fresh air—especially when they share actionable skin care advice just about anyone can use.
One of those moments came courtesy of Whitney Bowe, New York City-based dermatologist and founder of Dr. Whitney Bowe Beauty. Bowe introduced a concept called skin cycling—and it took off like a rocket. The idea was born after she watched her patients mix, match, and layer every ingredient imaginable onto their skin night after night, and she couldn’t help but wonder why a key step had not yet been embraced in our approach to skin care: recovery.
“There was this focus on individual ingredients and this thought that the higher the percentage, the better, so certain ingredients were being layered in a way that was actually just causing irritation rather than driving results,” Bowe tells Bazaar. When she asked her patients to bring in their products and share their skin care routines, she realized that no one really knew what to use, or when.
“Their routines were getting very long, very cumbersome, and they ended up with either severe irritation or they just hit a plateau and weren’t seeing any real changes or benefits in their skin,” she notes. “So as I was thinking about their skin care and changing variables, I knew we needed to find a more strategic and deliberate way to approach skin care.” Bowe understood that the full range of benefits would come from using ingredients like retinol and exfoliants in isolation, rather than all together, so she devised a new plan for her patients, which she called skin cycling.
Bowe saw her patients have success with the regimen, and took it to social media, where the wonders of skin cycling were finally shared with the rest of the world. In 2022, the concept gained serious traction (perhaps you’ve seen the viral TikToks), earning rave reviews and convincing testimonials from patients and fellow dermatologists alike. Haven’t tried it yet—or just want a refresher on what skin cycling entails? Read on for everything to know about skin cycling from Dr. Bowe herself.
What is skin cycling?
In simplest terms, skin cycling is a four-night rotational skin care regimen that alternates between using active ingredients and letting the skin rest and recover. The approach, New York City dermatologist Dendy Engelman explains, “is designed to improve the efficacy of active ingredients and minimize irritation by cycling through active and inactive products over the course of four nights.”
Typically, a skin cycle will start with an exfoliation night, followed by a retinoid night, and, finally, two nights for recovery, before returning to night one to do the whole thing over again. “The concept there is that during exfoliation night, you use an exfoliating product—ideally a blend of different acids—that’s going to slough away the uppermost layer of dead skin cells on the surface of skin, so you’ll not only get sort of a glow overnight, but your skin will also get the most out of night two, your retinoid night,” Bowe says. “Because when you remove the layer of dead skin cells, the next product you use will penetrate better.”
Bowe continues, “When it comes to exfoliation night, I find that a blend of acids is more effective than a single acid, and an AHA like glycolic acid that’s formulated in 8 to 10 percent strength has been shown to stimulate collagen production, which matters long-term.” She adds, “It’s one thing to unclog your pores and brighten your skin overnight, but it’s another thing to actually create this scaffold and structure in the deep layers of your skin that will make your pores literally smaller over time and help with fine lines and wrinkles.”
The next night, retinoids are the star of the show. As one of the most beloved and versatile ingredients in skincare, retinol has a place in nearly every skincare routine. But since most people can’t tolerate it every night, cycling can be crucial. “A lot of patients try a retinoid and give up within the first couple of weeks because of the dryness, irritation, and purging, but they need to push through that,” Bowe notes. “So you can introduce retinoids much more successfully with skin cycling.”
When choosing your retinoid for night two, it’s smart to keep your tolerance in mind. “Although the aim of skin cycling is to minimize side effects of retinol usage, it is not foolproof,” Engelman points out. So if you know you have sensitive or reactive skin, you should stick with a lower-percentage, over-the-counter retinol rather than a stronger prescription retinoid.
Nights Three and Four
After the two “push” nights, when exfoliants and retinoids are used to deliberately push skin out of its comfort zone, it’s all about recovery. “Nights three and four focus primarily on hydration, nourishing the skin microbiome, and repairing the skin barrier,” the skin cycling creator says. “So you want to avoid any potentially irritating ingredients and just focus on repair.”
What are the benefits of skin cycling?
At the very core of skin cycling is the idea of improving ingredients’ efficacy and minimizing irritation, but that’s not the only benefit the approach offers. “It makes the usage of active ingredients, like chemical exfoliants and retinols, more manageable for the skin, while allowing for better consistency with applying these active-containing products,” Engelman explains. “So this type of routine allows for better tolerance and compliance with the use of formulations that are known to powerfully improve the appearance and function of the skin.” Plus, the recovery days allow the skin to repair itself from some of these actives’ harsher, less desired effects, like redness, peeling, and burning.
Skin cycling is also a relatively simple and easy-to-follow method, which comes as a welcome change in a time when skin care routines can often feel too time consuming and overwhelming. Instead of adding more and more products to your nightly regimen, this gets back to basics, focusing only on ingredients that will benefit all skin needs.
Does skin cycling work for everyone?
Since skin cycling has exploded on TikTok, Bowe has received messages from people with all kinds of skin types and skin goals, all wondering whether the routine will work for them. And while she says the four-night cycle is always a good place to start, the dermatologist thinks the beauty of this method is that you can really modify it to your specific needs.
“My rosacea patients, for instance, have very sensitive skin and a very thin skin barrier, so I have them on a five-night cycle—an exfoliation night, a retinoid night with a much gentler over-the-counter retinol or retinal, and then three recovery nights—and I do the same for my eczema patients,” she says. “And on the other side of the spectrum, patients who have more oily, acne-prone skin can actually drop a recovery night and go up in the occurrence of their retinoid, so they’ll do a three-day cycle with an exfoliation night, a retinoid night, and one recovery night.”
There are also products you can add on once you master the core four-night cycle. “If you have oily, acne-prone skin and skin cycling is working for you, you may want to add a salicylic acid cleanser to your morning routine,” Bowe says. “It won’t derail your skin cycling, but I wouldn’t start there.”
At the same time, if you’ve never used an exfoliant or a retinoid, it’s best to start your skin cycle with just one of these ingredients for the first few weeks to ensure your skin can tolerate it, and then you can add in the other active. “It’s important to monitor your skin closely at the beginning of skin cycling to see how it reacts to this regimen,” Engelman adds. “If your skin isn’t used to the effects of retinol and becomes irritated, you may need to start slower or use gentler products.”
What should you keep in mind when starting skin cycling?
Although simplicity is central to skin cycling, there are a few things to be aware of when first introducing the approach to your skin care routine. Above all else, Los Angeles aesthetician Chanel Jenae says, “this is a matter of knowing your skin type and using the appropriate products for it.” So look for products that will not only play their role in the skin cycle but also go above and beyond it.
What you put on top of these active ingredients also matters, as you don’t want to diminish their efficacy or cause separate issues. “Slugging is a really big trend right now, but you never want to slug on exfoliation night or retinoid night, because using a product with petrolatums, petroleum jelly, or mineral oil on top of exfoliating acids or retinol can potentially enhance their penetration in an unpredictable way and create more irritation,” Bowe warns.
At the end of the day, skin cycling is meant to serve as a basic framework, and to see results, you should be patient and pay attention to how your skin responds. “Consistency is key to achieving your skin care goals,” Jenae notes, so it’s best to stick with your skin cycling routine for at least a few weeks before making any adjustments or giving up on the approach entirely.
And it’s important to remember that this approach to skin care is not for everyone. “There’s always going to be someone out there who uses their retinoid every single night and their exfoliating serum every single morning and has amazing skin, and to that person, I would say don’t skin cycle; if daily use works for you and you love the way your skin is responding, don’t mess with it,” Bowe says. “Skin cycling is really a solution for people who aren’t getting those results and aren’t having that experience.”
Also, skin cycling has not yet been researched in clinical studies. “While my DWB Beauty products are specifically designed to optimize your skin cycling program, I think a true study on skin cycling would have to separate the cycling schedule from the products used as both might have dramatic impacts on the results.” However, she notes that the anecdotal evidence has been overwhelmingly positive. “I have worked with thousands of patients – and seen the viral impact of skin cycling through social media—all of which serves as real time evidence of the efficacy of this approach to optimizing skin health,” says Bowe.
Should you change your skin cycling routine depending on the season?
“Skin cycling is designed to be a flexible framework, and one of the key variables that will likely prompt you to tweak your skin cycling program is the change of season,” explains Bowe. “While there’s no need to overhaul your skin cycling routine based on the season, a few thoughtful adjustments will help to optimize your skin’s health based on what your skin needs as the weather changes.”
For most people, skin naturally gets drier during winter. “As the air gets cooler in fall and winter, your skin will start to lose moisture. This can lead to dehydrated skin which can feel more tight and be more prone to redness and irritation.”
For Bowe’s part, she makes two adjustments to her skin cycling routine: “First, I build in more recovery nights. I’ll shift from an advanced skin cycling program, where I’m using multiple retinoid nights back to back, to a more classic or even a gentle skin cycling program, where I drop down on my retinoid nights and increase my recovery nights,” she explains. Second, I add layers on each night with the intention of pulling and trapping extra moisture in my skin. For example, on retinoid night, I’ll make sure I’m applying my Asta C Vitamin C serum first, before I use my Retinal Night Treatment. It’s very hydrating and nourishing, so it doubles as a vitamin C and an extra layer of hydration under my retinoid.”
Can you skin cycle without retinol?
Yes! The best thing about skin cycling is that it is 100 percent personalized to you and your skin, so if you can’t tolerate retinoids, or can’t use them for certain reasons, don’t worry.
“I do this all the time for my patients who are pregnant or nursing. Skin cycling is customizable to meet your skin’s needs and your personal goals for your skin health,” explains Bowe. “If you don’t use a retinoid, other options to use on that might be a peptide or growth factor serum that also stimulates collagen synthesis, or another active that your derm might have prescribed like hydroquinone.” Or, simply skip that step: “Some of my patients just cycle between exfoliation nights and recovery nights and they feel like that’s the best skin cycling program for their skin’s needs and goals.”
What does a sample routine look like?
If you’re ready to incorporate skin cycling into your nightly skin care routine but don’t know where to start, here’s a basic, four-night routine to get you on the right track.