You may have heard about the latest skincare trend that’s all over the internet: skin cycling. From anti-aging to acne treatment to lightening scars and hyperpigmentation, skin cycling has emerged as a simple, easy-to-follow, and effective skincare regimen that works towards all of those benefits.
But what is skin cycling, and how does it work?
“Skin cycling is a four-day cycle of nighttime skincare that introduces active ingredients to your skin that will help with cell turnover without causing irritation or inflammation,” according to Jody Thurman, esthetician at PALM Health.
If you’re a habitual user of active skincare ingredients like chemical exfoliants and retinol, and your skin is well-adjusted, you may not need to engage in skin cycling. But if you’re just starting to explore more active skincare products and want to work on wrinkles, fine lines, acne, scarring, or hyperpigmentation, skin cycling is a great place to start.
Here’s how the four-day cycle is laid out:
Night 1: Cleanser → Chemical Exfoliant
On the first night of the cycle, you’ll cleanse your face well, then apply a chemical exfoliant. Chemical exfoliants come in many forms depending on your goals, but they all perform one important function: sloughing off dead skin cells from the surface of your skin. This is the first step because it clarifies your skin and eliminates debris to prime it for the next night’s product.
Most chemical exfoliants are either AHAs (alpha-hydroxy-acids) like glycolic acid, lactic acid, or mandelic acid, or BHAs (beta-hydroxy-acids) like salicylic acid. You can use any of these as your chemical exfoliant, but they each target slightly different skin types.
“If you have very sensitive skin, go for a lactic acid product. If you want to work on anti-aging, try glycolic acid. If you’re acne-prone, salicylic acid is best,” says Jody. These acids typically come in the form of a toner or peeling solution.
If you’re going for an AHA, Jody recommends trying the Vie Collection Glyco 10 Resurfacing Acid Concentrate or the Eminence Organics Firm Skin Acai Peel. In terms of BHAs, try the Revision Exfoliating Facial Rinse or the Eminence Organics Clear Skin Willow Bark Exfoliating Peel for acne-prone skin.
Many chemical exfoliants can technically be used every day, but they can be quite harsh and irritating to the skin, especially if you haven’t used them much before. Using one every four days, as you would with skin cycling, allows you to ease into the use of exfoliants and limit inflammation and other reactions.
Night 2: Cleanser → Retinol
On the second night of the cycle, the active ingredient you’ll use is retinol. Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that increases cell turnover and proliferation by unclogging pores, increasing collagen production, and neutralizing free radicals. Essentially, it helps your skin regenerate quicker by tightening pores, lifting fine lines, wrinkles, and scars, and treating acne.
Cells in your skin replicate, just like cells in any part of your body. The longer your skin cells sit on the surface of your face, the more damaged they become from sun, environmental stressors, breakouts, makeup, and more. And on top of that, those damaged cells continue replicating, bringing about even more damage to your skin. So it’s important to boost your cell turnover to expel the damaged cells and bring healthy, new cells to the surface. That’s what retinol will do.
Retinol gets deeper into your skin than other products, which is why it’s important to prime your skin with an exfoliant the night before: it’ll help the retinol work to its full potential.
Try out Jody’s favorite retinol products from Revision: the DEJ Night Face Cream with 0.25% retinol, or the Revision Retinol Complete 0.5 or 1.0.
Nights 3 and 4: Cleanser → Moisturizer
The third and fourth nights of the cycle are recovery nights for your skin. Since chemical exfoliants and retinol are both more aggressive active-ingredient products, your skin needs time to rest in between. This will help prevent inflammation and irritation from those products.
After cleansing your skin, use a basic but high-quality moisturizer and after two nights, you should be ready to circle back to the chemical exfoliant. If you’re experiencing redness, dryness, peeling, or tightness after nights one and two, you can adjust the cycle and take additional recovery days until your skin calms down.
For your moisturizer, Jody’s favorites include the Eminence Rosehip and Lemongrass Repair Balm, the Eminence Firm Skin Açai Moisturizer, Eminence Clear Skin Probiotic Moisturizer, AnteAge System, or Vie Collection Accelerated Recovery Moisturizing Cream. You can use these as your morning and evening daily moisturizer as well.
On the flip side, once you’ve used a four-night skin cycling routine for a couple of months and your skin reacts well to it, you can go down to one recovery day (so, a three-day cycle).
You may be wondering, if this is just a nighttime routine, what do you use on your skin in the mornings? “Because the nighttime routine is pretty all-encompassing, keep the morning routine simple. Cleanse and use a vitamin C serum to help with even tone and brightening, moisturizer, and SPF,” says Jody. Using an SPF product, like this one, is key because the chemical exfoliant and retinol can leave your skin in a more sensitive state and more susceptible to sun damage.
Brightening cleansers like this one can also assist with some of the goals you may have for skin cycling, like lightening pigmentation and scarring.
It’s important to note that if you are seeing a dermatologist for any reason, consult with them first before getting into skin cycling or using any active ingredients on your face. If you’re on a specific, prescribed regimen already, you should stay on that one.
If you’ve found that skincare products with active ingredients have irritated your skin in the past, skin cycling may be worth exploring. Those more aggressive products can be harsh, but they can also do wonders for your wrinkles, lines, acne, and pigmentation. Sometimes, all it takes is a gradual implementation of those products to curb the irritation — and that’s exactly what skin cycling is designed for.