Why Skin Cycling Might Actually Live Up to the TikTok Hype

Learn more about the latest TikTok skin-care trend taking over the app.

TikTok True or False: Skin Cycling
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If you're on TikTok and have any remote interest in taking care of your skin, you've likely heard of skin cycling. The latest trend is focused on rotating products to give skin a break from active ingredients, and it has the online world abuzz. It's garnering a lot of attention, with the hashtag #skincycling currently racking up more than 100 million views on TikTok.

In case you haven't come across it on your FYP just yet, here's what skin cycling entails: It's a four-day cycle with one night dedicated to exfoliating skin, one night dedicated to applying a retinoid, and two nights dedicated to rest and skipping products with active ingredients. Videos include users showing their skin-cycling journeys, sharing before-and-after photos of healed acne scars along with clips of the products they're using throughout the process.

One user, Riley Bond (@rileybond_), for example, posted on TikTok during her second week of skin cycling, noting she had "completely" switched up her nighttime routine to give the trend a go. The skin-care blogger shared a video of herself on "exfoliation night," walking her audience through the products she uses. It now has more than 500,000 views. Additionally, user @michellezoltan claimed the routine transformed her sensitive, acne-prone skin in a video that currently has one million views and counting on TikTok.

Most reviews of the method on the app are positive, with users reporting back glowing results. Though some TikTokers, including @myestytessa, aren't huge fans, calling out the fact that there's no "one-size-fits-all" approach to skin care.

Curious if the much-talked-about approach to skin care is worth the hype? Ahead, read what a couple of dermatologists think of the trendy technique, and find out if skin cycling might be right for you.

What is skin cycling?

Skin cycling is a skin-care strategy coined by New York-based dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D., who has a wide following on both Instagram and TikTok. Dr. Bowe defined skin cycling as a "thoughtful, strategic method for cycling through your nightly skin-care products" in an August blog post. It's a four-night cycle that goes as follows:

  • Night one is for exfoliating (Dr. Bowe recommends using a chemical exfoliant as opposed to a gritty scrub)
  • Night two is for retinoid application
  • Night three is for recovery and focusing on hydration and moisture
  • Night four is for recovery and focusing on hydration and moisture
  • Repeat

Dr. Bowe calls it a "less is more" approach in her blog post. Instead of adding more and more products on top of each other, skin cycling is all about using products strategically. In the "overly complicated" skin-care world, the routine helps streamline your process in an effective and easy way. Skin cycling also solves one common skin-care mistake: not reserving time for the skin barrier to recover, she added in her post.

As for the nitty gritty, here's what you need to know about skin cycling. First up, exfoliants work to remove the outer layers of the skin, preventing the build up of dead skin cells. This process happens naturally but slows down with age, which is why you might consider adding an exfoliating product into your routine, Shape previously reported. Exfoliating primes the skin for other products to effectively sink in, so you'll want to exfoliate before applying any other products. Exfoliants can be physical, as in a product containing a bead-like formula, or chemical, as in a product containing acids that dissolve the chemical makeup of dead skin cells, allowing them to wash off.

Next is retinoids, a group of chemicals related to vitamin A that help to increase cell turnover, keep pores clear, and stimulate collagen production. The efficacy of retinoid products varies depending on the brand and formula you're using. For example, prescription retinoid products are typically more potent than over-the-counter retinol (a type of retinoid) options. And even among OTC products, some are more intense than others, and the right product for you depends on your specific skin type. (Read more: Everything You Need to Know About Retinol and Its Skin-Care Benefits)

While exfoliants and retinoids are important, both can cause irritation. That's why, for some skin types, it's important to take a break from them and focus on simple moisturizing for one to two nights before using these types of products — and starting the cycle — again.

Does skin cycling work?

"Overall, in theory, this concept of skin cycling, is basically using your actives and then taking your breaks," says board-certified dermatologist Michelle Henry, M.D., F.A.A.D., a Harvard-trained Mohs surgeon, clinical instructor at Weill-Cornell, and the founder of Skin & Aesthetic Surgery of Manhattan. "Your skin recovers similar to how you take a break when you work out," she adds.

This method helps your skin adapt to certain products, explains Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research at the Department of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. "Cycling actives in your skin-care routine, along with calming products, allows the skin to adjust to a routine without overly stressing the skin barrier," he continues. Because of that break, your skin "reaps the benefits of using potent skin-care [products] without compromising on tolerability."

Despite its virality on social media, there's limited scientific evidence as to the actual efficacy of skin cycling, meaning scientific studies haven't been completed on the specific method. But in clinical practice, the benefits are clear, says Dr. Henry.

Limiting exposure and frequency of use of strong active ingredients "can lead to transformative skin-care changes without the potential negative side effects," says Dr. Henry. Dermatologists have been implementing the concept of rotating product use for a long time but haven't called it skin cycling, she notes.

"I think the way she [Dr. Bowe] defined [skin cycling] is great and will work for most people," continues Dr. Henry. She has made the method "snackable," adds Dr. Henry, noting this makes it more accessible to everyone — skin-care aficionados and newbies, alike.

"It's kind of like training wheels," says Dr. Henry. "It's a good way to bring something into your skin-care routine and know, here are some best practices to limit the risk of having irritation, inflammation, or any negative consequences or side effects."

Is skin cycling safe?

For the majority of people, it's safe to try skin cycling, says Dr. Henry. And it's an especially good option for skin-care beginners. "It can sometimes be overwhelming to learn all the nuances and details of product layering, and opting for a good skin-cycle routine can avoid the initial hesitancy."

Dr. Bowe's skin-cycling method provides a framework to start using actives as you determine how to use exfoliants and retinoids without causing irritation. It's important to keep in mind, though, that you don't have to feel wed to the cycle schedule, says Dr. Henry. Like many elements of self care, skin care is individualized. And it's important to keep in mind that it's not one-size-fits-all.

"Your optimal skin-care routine depends on your specific skin type, texture, and needs," says Dr. Henry. "For some, the perfect skin-care routine may consist of only hydrating serums and moisturizers. While for others, including retinoids, exfoliants, peeling masks, and toners are a must." If you want to test the method, she advises keeping the routine up for at least four weeks to see if the "gentle" method can bring improvement to your skin.

While this is a solid option for most to try, if you're dealing with any kind of open cut, wound, or a skin condition such as eczema, it's best to stay away from exfoliants and retinoids, adds Dr. Henry. And if you tend to have more sensitive skin in general, she advises starting with gentler products. For instance, you can try lower-concentration actives, such as vitamin C and peptides, as opposed to starting with acids.

Skin cycling is a good way to incorporate active skin-care ingredients into your routine: True or false?

TikTok True or False: Skin Cycling
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The skin-cycling method seems to live up to the social media hype, according to experts. Generally speaking, it's a good routine to try if you're looking to incorporate active skin-care ingredients into your nightly regimen.

Keep in mind, everyone's skin is different, and some may need a more individualized approach to using exfoliants and retinoids. The good news is, you can adjust the skin-cycling technique to fit your needs.

"The beauty of the concept of cycling is that it can be customized to what you like, depending on how long of a break you need," says Dr. Henry. For instance, some people with more sensitive skin might need longer than a two-day break between active ingredient applications, while others may not need as long. If you're unsure where to start, you can tap your dermatologists to figure out what cycle might work for you.

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