Everything you need to know about skin cycling

model smiling with three dots of cream on her pink cheeks

Like most good things (dance routines… cat content), the latest craze sweeping our {skin care} regimes has emerged via TikTok (and doesn’t involve any vaseline). And unlike some other, more spurious guidance, ‘skin cycling’ comes with an industry seal-of-approval. Popularised by New York dermatologist Dr. Whitney Bowe, the trend helps to mitigate ‘active anxiety’ (you know, the fear of mis-mixing your actives and winding up red in the face?), while treating your cells to a nourishing ‘diet’ that helps skin to radiate health. We’ve all overdone it at some point or other: been a bit over-zealous with acids or skipped a few steps on our {retinol} journey… which is why a carefully thought out skin cycling routine helps to minimise risk of reaction and safeguard your barrier function.

Approach it like you would the gym (if that’s your thing) – with ‘rest days’ to help you recover before your next spin class or HIIT session: putting your face through its paces while giving it time to repair and replenish. So, what is skin cycling? In plain terms, it’s a consistent, efficacious night-time ritual that involves using {actives} on alternate evenings to stimulate skin without compromise (or confusion). The most popular cycles are four days – but you can tweak this to address the changing needs of your complexion (you might need more nourishment in winter, for example). A typical template would be: exfoliation, retinoid, repair and recovery – two ‘night shifts’ followed by two ‘nights off’ – to put your skin to work and help to boost its luminosity. This also works to speed things up at bedtime. Rather than ploughing through an elaborate 10-step routine, you can stick to just two or three stages while still maxing out on the benefits.

Dr. Bowe’s skin cycling ‘prescription’:

First night: exfoliation

This is your ‘acid night’ and it couldn’t be simpler. Choose your usual {cleanser} (a balm is great for melting make up and sunscreen) and gently pat your face dry before following up with your {acid} (or enzyme!) {exfoliant}. Dr. Bowe suggests a leave-on treatment rather than a wash-off exfoliator, to maximise the brightening, regenerative effects. Look for AHAs, BHAs or PHAs (you can read our guide to acids here) and sweep over skin to refine and retexturise.

BHA exfoloator by paula's choice

Second night: retinoid

This is when you give your cells a jump-start – but take care to choose the right {retinoid}, depending on your tolerance and sensitivity (here are some tips). Make sure your skin is completely dry after you’ve cleansed – damp skin promotes penetration and this can increase reactivity – and if you’re prone to sensitivity or dryness, Dr. Bowe recommends buffering sensitive areas with a lightweight {moisturiser}. Prep your under-eyes, corners of the nose and your marionette lines, then apply your chosen retinoid all over your face, neck and décolleté.

a hand puling the pipette of a sunday riley retinol pot

Nights three and four: repair and recovery

Now’s the time to replenish cells’ reservoirs and rebuild your barrier: look for {serums} with humectants and anti-inflammatories such as {hyaluronic acid}, glycerin and {niacinamide} to hydrate and prevent moisture loss, then layer with a plumping, restorative cream or an overnight pack to seal everything in (ceramides are excellent for this). And if you’re feeling especially overexposed and in need of extreme TLC, you can finish with an {oil}; choose soothing and elasticising ingredients such as squalane or rosehip to supplement defences and repair the adverse impact of the elements.

glow recipe's plum plump niacinamide serum

Verity Douglas

Verity Douglas

Content Editor

Verity is our Content Editor and a Cult Beauty veteran. Currently on maternity leave, raising Cult Beauty’s honorary ‘word nerd’, Tabitha, she speaks fluent ‘beauty’ and loves nothing more than the marriage of language and lip balm (and cleanser and candles… ad infinitum). Nothing can stop her from quoting Nancy Mitford, treating herself to yet another Bella Freud candle for her desk or buying that pilgrim-esque collared or heavily fringed outfit she’s been eyeing. You can trust her to debunk widespread beauty myths and dispense invaluable advice with ease…