Creating a skin care routine can feel like an overwhelming task. With so many products on the market and buzzy techniques circulating on social media, it’s difficult to know where to start — especially if you deal with skin concerns such as acne or hyperpigmentation. Dr. Whitney Bowe, MD heard the cry for more simplified skin care and created skin cycling — a method which has now gone viral on TikTok. “Skin cycling is a way to transform your skin and has done so for my patients who have acne, rosacea, eczema, brown spots, or are just looking to get the most out of their skin care products,” Dr. Bowe explained in a TikTok video. The method consists of a four-night cycle; night one for exfoliation, night two for retinol, and nights three and four for recovery.
By alternating your most potent products in this way, Dr. Bowe tells Bustle that skin cycling helps you become more thoughtful about your skin care as well as avoid irritation so often caused by retinol and over-exfoliating. “Rather than adding more products on top of one another, skin cycling encourages you to use products in a strategic way to compliment one another,” she explains.
Ahead, learn more about each individual step of skin cycling as well as Dr. Bowe’s product recommendations.
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Cleansers & Moisturizers
No matter what day of your skin cycle you’re on, you’ll always need to cleanse and moisturize. If you’re wearing makeup, start with a cleansing balm or micellar water, followed by a foaming or hydrating cleanser. Below are some of Dr. Bowe’s favorites.
To keep skin hydrated and happy, daily moisturizing is essential. Here are a few that Dr. Bowe recommends for your skin cycling routine.
Night 1: Exfoliation
Night one is all about exfoliation, which according to Dr. Bowe, should be chemical over physical to avoid unnecessary irritation. “A blend of acids is the most effective, but a personal favorite of mine is glycolic acid,” she says on TikTok.
After cleansing and drying your skin, apply your exfoliant with a cotton pad — take your pick from Dr. Bowe’s favorites below.
Night 2: Retinoid
Retinoids can be scary, but skin cycling is a great way to ease into them. Dr. Bowe gave her tips for a retinoid night on TikTok, the most important being: less is more. “You want to use a pea-sized amount of retinoid,” she says. “One pea should cover your entire face; just dab it and rub it in. Another pea for the neck, then take two peas for the chest. You’re gonna feel like you’re not using enough — that’s the point.”
If you have sensitive skin, Dr. Bowe recommends moisturizing *before* applying your retinol. “You want to moisturize first in those areas that are really delicate like around the eyes, sides of the nose, chin area, and your neck, and then you put the retinoid on top,” she says. “As you get more advanced with skin cycling and with your retinoid night, you can actually reverse that order where first you use the retinoid, and then you put the moisturizer on top.”
Her final tip? Don’t mix retinol and slugging. “You don’t want to ever slug or use a really heavy, occlusive product on top of your retinoid,” she explains. “It can lead to something called occlusion, and it can actually increase the level of irritation in your skin without adding any benefits.”
After applying your retinol, finish with a rich moisturizer over top (even if you also applied moisturizer before the retinol). Ahead, check out Dr. Bowe’s best retinol recommendations.
Nights 3 & 4: Recovery
Just like with your workout routine, recovery is crucial when it comes to skin cycling. These two recovery nights give your skin a chance to recover while focusing on hydration so that you don’t damage your skin barrier with too many harsh products. After cleansing, Dr. Bowe says that an optional step is applying a hyaluronic acid serum on damp skin. Next, apply your moisturizer.
After moisturizing, Dr. Bowe says another optional step is a face oil, which will give you an extra boost of hydration. She recommends patting it onto the skin on top of your moisturizer or mixing a few drops into your moisturizer.
While skin cycling can be a beneficial routine for anyone, it’s especially helpful for those who are newer to retinol or are struggling with maintaining their skin barrier. “This is a recipe for healthier skin than the kitchen-sink approach so many people were experimenting with,” Bowe tells Bustle.
Of course, you should always consult with your dermatologist before starting any kind of retinol, but if your skin can handle it, skin cycling just might be the way to go.